As the Houston Rockets' losing streak stretched to 13 games before the All-Star break, rival front offices increasingly wondered whether new general manager Rafael Stone will launch an earnest rebuild and turn his team into a seller before the March 25 trade deadline.
"They're starting to call teams," said one assistant general manager.
In addition to Houston's most-whispered names, Victor Oladipo and P.J. Tucker, team executives polled by B/R are also curious whether the Rockets will look to move supporting players deeper in their rotation. They're specifically eyeing Houston's cadre of athletic, two-way wings like Danuel House Jr., Ben McLemore, Sterling Brown and Jae'Sean Tate.
"I keep hearing they're going to fire-sale," said a rival scout.
"Houston's gonna burn the house down," said another assistant general manager.
A few games after trading James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in mid-January, the Rockets briefly surged back into the playoff picture, winning six straight games to get to 10-9. They won the first three of those games without Christian Wood, their marquee free-agency acquisition.
Then Wood sprained his right ankle for the second time this season. And with Oladipo and John Wall also in and out of the lineup, Houston has since stumbled to the third-worst record in the league.
The Rockets now have all the incentive to sell.
If their first-round pick falls outside of the top four, they'll send it to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of the Russell Westbrook trade from 2019. While the Rockets have their own first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, this year's draft class may be their best opportunity to land a blue-chip prospect with the potential to eventually fill Harden's void.
The Rockets currently have less than a 0.1 percent chance of making it to the postseason, according to ESPN's BPI Playoff Odds. Losing the chance to turn this disappointing season into gold could be detrimental to Houston's rebuild moving forward.
"Guys in this year's class are way more exciting and impactful," the scout said. "Usually when you're a year away from a draft, you overvalue the high school seniors who will be freshmen. This is the first year in some time—pandemic-related or not—where that's not the case."
Scouts have been unable to see many high schoolers due to health and safety protocols, which will make the always inexact science of evaluating prospects in both the 2022 and 2023 draft classes far more difficult.
Questions persist about whether Rockets governor Tilman Ferittta will even be willing to endure a multi-season effort to juice his team's roster with high lottery picks. The franchise has grown accustomed to winning. Its last season below .500 came way back in 2005, when Harden was still in high school.
"They need two, three years of draft," said a Western Conference official. "They just need to acquire young pieces and see where they go."
But competing for the postseason was a factor in Houston's negotiations to move Harden, league sources said. The Rockets front office is considered to be lower on Caris LeVert than others, and Houston brass also did not feel Jarrett Allen would be a clean frontcourt match with Wood, sources said. A part of the Rockets' calculus for landing Oladipo instead of LeVert and Allen was his purported greater impact on contending for the playoffs.
Choosing Oladipo over LeVert and Allen also steered Houston down the path of a potentially pricey contract extension.
The two-time All-Star recently declined a two-year, $45.2 million extension with the Rockets, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, and league executives polled by B/R have suggested that Oladipo is looking for a maximum salary over a long-term deal. That may ultimately cloud Oladipo's market if the Rockets were to look to move him. He has long been linked to South Beach, and he spent much of his rehab from his quadriceps tendon injury in Miami.
"Miami's the one you always hear," said another rival scout.
But the Heat, just like other contenders such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, are limited by what future draft capital they're allowed to move. And the New York Knicks are the only other potential Oladipo suitor that has truly been rumored thus far, sources said. It remains to be seen how seriously New York will pursue him.
If the Rockets don't move Oladipo before the deadline, a sign-and-trade over the offseason appears to be the most likely outcome. Few executives expect the Rockets to commit long-term money for the centerpiece of their return for Harden, but they doubt Houston will lose him for nothing in free agency.
"They're too smart to just whiff and get nothing off of him," said the Western Conference official.
The landscape for dealing P.J. Tucker appears much greener. The Bucks, Nets, Heat, Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets have all expressed interest, sources said. Tucker would relish joining Philadelphia and former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, and the Sixers are one of the few contenders with real picks at their disposal.
Around the draft, Houston's new front office could have gotten a late 2020 first-round pick for Tucker from Minnesota, league sources said. But Rockets ownership rebuffed moving Tucker at that time, sources said, as they still believed they could keep Harden and build another playoff contender around him.
The Rockets have since been categorized as inconsistent with their asking price on Tucker. There has been a long-whispered rumor of Brooklyn possibly sending Spencer Dinwiddie to Houston for Tucker, and the Rockets are even said to have posed Miami trading either Tyler Herro or Duncan Robinson for him.
For weeks, the Rockets were messaging that they would accept either a first-rounder or three second-round picks, sources told B/R. But Tucker's output has dropped significantly this season. He's shooting only 31.4 percent from three, his worst mark since 2012-13, and he's averaging only 4.6 rebounds one year after hauling in a career-high 6.6 per game.
"If they had a first for him now, he'd already be gone," one general manager told B/R.
"They're off their asking price," added the Western Conference official.
Tucker will also turn 36 in early May, yet some around the league maintain he'll net something of return for the Rockets. Aside from no longer feasting off Harden's creation abilities, he's played a different role as head coach Stephen Silas' staff places a greater emphasis on motion in their offense.
"He's still a physical motherf--ker who can guard 2-5," said the Western Conference official. "I don't think he can guard Dame Lillard for 48 minutes like he did three years ago, but on a game's last possession, he can. Therein lies his value."
Any team acquiring Tucker will have to consider his impending free agency, just like with Oladipo. He declined a two-year extension that Houston offered him earlier this season, sources said, which was less than $10 million in average annual value. And as salaries have ballooned across the league, this summer may be Tucker's last chance at a significant multiyear deal.
"No matter where he goes, he wants to get paid," said the Wesern Conference official.
Like Tucker, the bulk of Houston's roster consists of two-way, athletic wings almost tailor-made to support a superstar. All of House, Brown, Tate, McLemore, David Nwaba and Eric Gordon fit that build on paper, although there's little expectation the Rockets will move Gordon, sources said, and Nwaba will now miss six weeks due to hip surgery. Yet many teams could benefit from sending a second-round pick, maybe even two, if they're convinced any of the other swingmen are plug-and-play rotation pieces. House may be particularly appealing, as he's already under contract for roughly $3.9 million next season.
But how far will Houston be willing to go into a rebuild? The Rockets front office has already made one long-term gamble.
"I think the Kevin Porter [Jr.] trade was very telling," said one scout. "If we can rehab this guy, maybe he can turn into a player."
Houston has since recalled Porter from the G League bubble, and he's expected to play significant minutes after the All-Star break, sources said.
Off-court tension ended Porter's tenure in Cleveland, but he won't turn 21 until May, and he averaged 24.1 points, 7.3 assists, and 6.4 rebounds in 15 games with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Houston acquired him for only a top-55-protected 2024 second-rounder.
"Rafael's a pretty shrewd operator," added the Western Conference official.
Heading into the trade deadline, rival front offices are curious to learn how Houston's new lead executive will continue to operate.
"I'm waiting for it all to explode," said an assistant general manager.
Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.