2020-21 Rockets roster review, offseason outlook: Sterling Brown

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Player: Sterling Brown, 6-foot-5 guard, 26 years old

Statistics: 8.2 points (44.8% FG, 42.3% on 3-pointers), 4.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists in 24.1 minutes per game

Experience: Four NBA seasons; No. 46 overall pick in second round of 2017 draft

Contract: Played on one-year contract at league’s minimum salary in 2020-21, will enter 2021 free agency in August

Analysis: Brown has solid size and bulk for the shooting guard position, and he provided much of the defensive toughness that Houston envisioned upon signing him to a minimum contract in November 2020. Among regular rotation players with the 2020-21 Rockets, only David Nwaba and Eric Gordon had better defensive ratings than Brown.

What the Rockets likely didn’t expect is that he would also become one of their best shooters. After shooting just 32.4% on 3-pointers with Milwaukee in 2019-20, Brown surged to 42.3% in Houston, tops on the roster. That combination of floor spacing on offense and hard-nosed, physical play on defense made him a favorite of head coach Stephen Silas.

Unfortunately, Brown’s 2020-21 season came to a premature end after a brutal attack outside a Miami strip club on April 19. He did not play again after the incident, which left him with heavy lacerations.

Outlook: Brown is expected to be fully recovered from his injuries before next season. However, it remains to be seen if not playing over the season’s final month might dampen his potential market.

On paper, Brown is young enough to be of interest to the rebuilding Rockets, and he fits the league’s growing “3&D” profile among wings. Unfortunately, since he signed a one-year contract at the veteran’s minimum salary, Houston does not have any sort of additional means (i.e. Bird or Early Bird rights) to retain Brown entering 2021 free agency.

Moreover, while Brown is a solid player, he’s not the type of transcendent talent that Houston general manager Rafael Stone would consider taking away future flexibility with the NBA salary cap to retain. The price has to be right, since the Rockets need to keep financial paths open to pursue more talented players in future free agency periods.

The Rockets would almost certainly offer Brown another minimum deal, and perhaps something slightly larger — such as a bi-annual exception (BAE). But if there are any larger bids, Houston is likely to let him walk.

As for whether there will be higher bids, it’s complicated. There were absolutely periods in which Brown’s play far exceeded that type of salary. However, his 3-point shooting was a clear outlier relative to his career norms, which could make Brown a “regression to the mean” candidate in 2021-22. It also remains to be seen if Brown’s absence over the season’s final five weeks might cause him to slide off the radar of some teams.

But even in the best-case scenario for the Rockets, Brown will likely have similarly low bids from other franchises. The question is, what are his priorities? If he wants to contend for an NBA title, he’d likely take a comparable offer from somewhere else. On the other hand, Brown is young enough that he could table that pursuit for a few years, and he might see Houston as an opportunity for more playing time — which could help him develop his market for future years. He did appear to have a strong relationship with Silas, and perhaps that comfort level with the coach and system could lead to a second go-round in Houston.

Based on his defense and shooting numbers, Stone almost assuredly had opportunities to move Brown at this season’s March 25 trade deadline (weeks prior to the assault), but Houston chose not to do so. That might be a signal that the Rockets hope to retain him beyond this season.

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List

Houston Rockets player grades for 2020-21 season through April