Rockets unlikely to pursue tanking strategy at trade deadline

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If the Rockets sell off veterans on expiring contracts by the NBA’s March 25 trade deadline, the objective won’t be to boost their odds in the 2021 draft lottery, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

On paper, the Rockets would appear to be classic sellers, since they enter the All-Star break with the second-worst record (11-23) in the Western Conference and on a 13-game losing streak. Since the odds of a playoff run are becoming increasingly remote, teams in this spot often shift their focus to development for future seasons — especially with veterans on expiring deals, who could leave for no compensation in the offseason.

Yet, general manager Rafael Stone has no interest in “trading off veterans to collect assets and losses that could help lottery chances,” Feigen writes. At least in part, that strategy is a result of the July 2019 trade between the Rockets and Thunder, which sent Chris Paul and future draft considerations to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook.

Feigen explains:

The Thunder has the right to switch draft positions with the Rockets unless the Rockets’ pick lands in the top four. With the weighted lottery, the Rockets can have at best a 52 percent chance of keeping the pick if they finish with one of the three worst records as they currently stand.

Losing could only work to benefit the Thunder. Unless selecting in the top four picks of the draft, the Rockets would get the worst from among Oklahoma City’s, Miami’s, and their own pick.

Feigen’s report jives with a similar scoop from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who reported recently that Houston was looking for a player — and not draft picks — as part of any trade involving PJ Tucker.

Another factor to consider is salary cap flexibility. Even if Tucker and Victor Oladipo, who are both on expiring deals, signed with other teams in 2021 free agency, the Rockets could have close to $20 million in cap space. Thus, any deadline proposals would have to be weighed against offseason options such as re-signing those players with Bird rights; signing-and-trading them (while using those Bird rights) to another team; and/or signing a replacement player with the resulting cap space.

On paper, a “best of both worlds” scenario would seem to be trading Tucker and Oladipo for less-desirable players on expiring contracts, along with additional draft assets. This way, they could recoup value now while retaining cap flexibility for later. However, the Rockets aren’t desperate for draft assets, since they already have the second-most picks (13) of any NBA team over the next seven years — tracing back to recent trades involving Westbrook, James Harden, and Robert Covington.

Another factor, Feigen explains, could be Houston’s desire to be an attractive destination in free agency — which probably would not the case, if they’re viewed as one of the NBA’s worst teams.

If they do have cap room and chase next summer’s Christian Wood, being viewed as a team on the rise, rather than playing on a tanking level, could be important if they have free agent money to spend.

As a result, while the Rockets are certainly open to trading Oladipo and Tucker, it doesn’t appear to be a lock that Stone will simply accept the best available offer by March 25. Instead, they will drive a hard bargain, in hopes of getting a player who can contribute to this year’s team.

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