In a series of offseason transactions, the Houston Rockets effectively turned Robert Covington and Russell Westbrook into Christian Wood, John Wall, and three protected future first-round draft picks.
The protection details are complicated, but the bottom line is that Houston should be receiving a first-round selection at some point in the coming years from Portland, Detroit, and Washington.
If the Rockets were to eventually trade James Harden and consider a rebuild, those picks could help bolster a potential youth movement. But that’s not the goal today, with the team clearly focused on re-convincing the perennial MVP finalist to stay in Houston over the long haul.
That’s where those newly acquired draft picks in future years could prove very important to GM Rafael Stone. Per Kelly Iko of The Athletic:
After acquiring up to three first-round picks since the offseason began, the Rockets now believe they have replenished the stock enough and have the necessary flexibility to become major players at the trade deadline. Houston wants to continue to surround the roster with more talented players.
New for @TheAthleticNBA: A detailed look at the blockbuster Westbrook-Wall trade, the factors that led to a swap, and what this means going forward.
— Kelly Iko (@KellyIkoNBA) December 4, 2020
As a result, the start to the upcoming 2020-21 season will be critical for Harden, Wood, Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and the rest of the new-look Rockets. If things go poorly, it’s possible that Harden trade considerations could come back into play by the trade deadline in late March.
On the other hand, if things go well, the Rockets now have enough of a stockpile of future picks to be able to make compelling offers on the trade market for further upgrades. Besides bolstering their chances of making a title push in 2020-21, that might also be the important as it pertains to giving Harden a reason to stick around (under his current contract, he can become a free agent after the 2021-22 season).
In addition to the three first-round draft picks that Houston traded for this offseason, they also have their own first-round choices in 2021, 2022, and 2023 — though Oklahoma City has a “pick swap” right for 2021.
That puts the Rockets in a much more favorable spot than they were in at this time a year ago, when they had no future first-round picks from other teams and many of their own upcoming selections had already been surrendered to the Thunder as part of the Westbrook-Chris Paul trade. The Stepien rule, which prevents NBA teams from being without a first-round pick in consecutive future drafts, was also a major hindrance to potential Houston trade offers, since it was very difficult to package multiple future picks in a proposal without running afoul of that rule.
But after the 2020 offseason, that dynamic has changed significantly. It doesn’t guarantee that they’ll eventually trade those picks, because if the Rockets are looking likely to rebuild, it would probably make sense for them to keep many of those draft assets for themselves. But if things go well and the window to extend Harden’s era starts to re-open, those picks might help Houston secure a key upgrade at the 2020-21 trade deadline.