While Victor Wembanyama couldn’t contain his happiness when it was revealed the Houston Rockets will be picking 4th in the 2023 NBA draft, Rockets fans didn’t feel as grateful. They hoped that after their 3rd 60+ loss season, they’ll finally be rewarded with the first overall pick, but fate had other plans. It is far from the end of the world, however. The 2023 draft has been considered a special one for years, and the French Phenom is far from the only reason. Let’s take a look at the Houston Rockets’ draft options and how they could make the best of their situation.
You can read Part 1 of my Houston Rockets Draft preview here.
Houston Rockets Draft Option 2 – Trade up
While I will not entertain any ideas of trading up for public enemy #1 Victor Wembanyama, as the Spurs would probably sacrifice their first-born before trading him to a rival team, let alone a division rival, I believe the 2nd and 3rd picks could be had for the right price.
I don’t remember ever seeing a team jump 1 spot in the draft via trade, but there have been two instances in recent years of teams climbing by 2 spots to take their preferred prospect- the Luka Doncic and Markelle Fultz trades.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can say the Mavericks traded Trae Young and pick #10 in the following draft (Cam Reddish) for Luka, and the 76ers traded pick Jayson Tatum and pick #14 in the 2019 draft (Romeo Langford) for Markelle. But context is necessary for these discussions.
While the price those 2 teams paid to move up only wound up being a late lottery first-round pick, one of which the Rockets will likely have next year by virtue of the James Harden trade, it was expected to be more than that.
I’m sure the Hawks didn’t expect Luka Doncic to average over 20 points per game as a rookie, and help his team gain a 9-win increase from the previous season. If they did, they would’ve selected him instead of trading the future top 5 player.
For the right to draft Markelle Fultz back in 2017, the 76ers traded way the 2018 Lakers pick if it ended up between picks 2-5, and the Kings pick in 2019. The Lakers were coming off a 26-win season, and all of you should be familiar with the reputation of the Kings before their playoffs appearance this year- it was a dumpster fire.
Meaning, in return for trading down to the 3rd overall pick, the Celtics got 2 pretty good chances at a top 5 selection. That’s a hefty price which the Rockets will likely not be willing/able to pay, given that they have little control of their first-round picks in 2024-2026 thanks to the wonderful Russell Westbrook trade.
Moving on to plausible current-day scenarios, the Rockets would likely have to move the 2024 Brooklyn Nets pick, the 20th pick, and KJ Martin to jump to the 2nd pick. The Hornets may ask for one of Houston’s premiere prospects in addition to pick #4 – like Tari Eason, Jabari Smith, or Alperen Sengun – at which point I would hang up the phone.
The Houston Rockets would only be willing to relinquish such assets to move up 2 spots if they believed there’s a significant gap between the 2nd best prospect in the draft and whoever would be available at 4th, and to date, they have given no indication that they believe the sentiment above.
Personally, after going through the tape of each prospect to complete my write-up on Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller, and Amen Thompson in part 1 of this series, I would be happy to see the Rockets trade the Nets pick and lower-end members of the young core so they can draft Scoot Henderson. It is hard to find better and more complete PG prospects than Scoot in all of basketball history, with such a clear path to stardom, and the Hornets’ apparent epiphany with Brandon Miller might just give the Rockets a golden opportunity to land Henderson.
Of course, there’s a reasonably large chance the Hornets wouldn’t accept such a package, and I don’t even know if the Rockets are as enamored with Scoot Henderson as I am, which would torpedo the chances of any potential trade for him.
Houston Rockets Draft Option 3 – Trade down/Take a Surprise Pick
If the Rockets listened to consensus every time they had to make an important decision, Evan Mobley would be starting at power forward and Ben Simmons would be running point. The top 4 of the 2023 NBA draft may be projected by nearly all to look a certain way, but that’s no guarantee.
let’s say the Rockets figure the best prospect available at #4 isn’t much better than the best prospect available at #6. In that case, it would be wise to explore trading-down and maximizing the Houston Rockets’ draft options and value.
While this class is known for its strength at the top, the mid-to-late lottery will feature a bunch of interesting prospects, all of which could potentially be favored by the top-picking teams over one of the consensus top 4.
Perhaps Cam Whitmore, another athletic and bursty 6’7 player who seemingly traded Amen’s handle and vision for physical strength, is the guy the Rockets are angling for. Maybe Ausar Thompson’s, Amen’s identical twin brother who’s a better shooter but a worse creator, moves the needle for them. A true point forward in Anthony Black, a Marcus Smart-esque PG in Cason Wallace who fits well next to Jalen Green, a safe 3&D 6’9 forward in Taylor Hendricks, or a brilliant, gigantic 6’8 big in Jarace Walker.
When exploring possible trade-down scenarios, 2 teams jump out off the page- the Orlando Magic and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Starting with the Magic, it feels like they’re in a prime position to make a move and add one more blue-chip prospect before rising to post-season contention next season. They hold picks 6 and 11, the latter being a result of the heist they pulled in Chicago known as the Nikola Vucevic trade, and could realistically package both to move up.
A trade of the 4th, and possibly the 20th pick for picks #6 and #11 would require Orlando to have the best prospect available at 4th ranked a tier ahead of the best prospect they suspect to be available at 6th, and for the Rockets to feel the opposite.
For example, it’s a possibility that the Magic, given the lack of 3-point shooting on their roster, are high on Brandon Miller, and the Rockets would rather bet on the upside of Cam Whitmore. I could see both teams agreeing to swap picks in that scenario, even though the late lottery in this draft is considered a position of prime value due to its depth.
With the Oklahoma City Thunder, there’s the dynamic of them owning the Rockets’ future from 2024 to 2026. Harden or not, the odds of the Rockets making the playoffs next season are fairly slim, and I’m sure Houston would appreciate the comfort of owning their pick.
OKC could offer the 12th pick and the Rockets’ 2024 first for the 4th pick. Similarly to the Orlando Magic, this could potentially be the last time in a while the Thunder are actually in the lottery – at least with their own pick- and could use this opportunity to snag some more valued young talent.
Whether the Rockets take that offer or not, assuming the Thunder are even interested, will depend on their evaluation of the expected targets at each draft range. For example, I wouldn’t take that offer if Amen Thompson were available with the 4th pick, since I love his upside.
However, if the Rockets believed it was a 3-player draft, and that everyone outside of said top 3 has too many risks or lacks the upside to stand out, they might accept that hypothetical trade offer, select someone they’re higher than consensus on using the 12th selection, and receive control of their own pick in 2024.
To be more specific, I don’t believe Brandon Miller shares the same star upside as Amen Thompson and Scoot Henderson due to his ineffectiveness as a creator off the dribble. In the event Scoot and Amen are taken in the top 3 alongside Wembanyama, I’d look to trade down and grab one of Ausar Thompson, Cam Whitmore, and Taylor Hendricks instead of Miller.
I think Ausar and Taylor could reach similar effectiveness to that of Miller offensively, in due time, and be actual game-changers on the defensive end unlike him. Cam Whitmore is someone I have above Miller on my overall draft board, and believe in his athletic gifts + shooting promise (shot 40% on catch-and-shoot 3s) which provide him a higher upside in my view.
My personal opinion on the overall idea of a trade-down is that since it is, as the Rockets have called it, “the end of phase 1”, Houston should go all in, and I’d lean in the direction of a trade-up. Nevertheless, it is all dependent on the Rockets’ big board, which I obviously have no access to.
Houston Rockets Draft Option 4 -Trade Out
It’s the most controversial of the Houston Rockets’ draft options, but the Rockets could simply decide to trade the 4th overall pick for the best player offered to them, and be done with it.
Seeing how they won’t have full control of their picks for the next 3 years, it’s an option that makes sense, at least on some level. And heck, if James Harden is coming back? We might be able to watch Houston Rockets playoffs games in Toyota Center again as soon as 2024.
To those nervous about the Rockets making a short-sighted move using their top draft selection, locking themselves into mediocrity, I present Rafael Stone’s quote from his interview with Kelly Iko, back in February:”
“We’re gonna be very aggressive… and what we won’t do is chase things that we don’t think are in our long-term interests”
To be fair, that doesn’t mean the Rockets won’t trade the pick for a star. It just means, if we take it as gospel, that they won’t trade it for someone old. So while you can cross someone like LeBron James off the list, they might still trade it for Jaylen Brown if they believed that in the long run, Brown would prove to be more helpful than whoever is available to draft at #4.
Who would they trade the 4th pick for, really? It is hard to say, but instead of wrapping the article up here, let me give my take on whether I’d trade the pick for some of the hottest names on Rockets Twitter:
Ja Morant – Unsure. To say his off-court drama is off-putting would be a massive understatement, and I’m sure he’s set to serve a significant suspension in the 2023-2024 NBA season. Nevertheless, this could be a unique opportunity to snag someone as good and young as Morant is, a 2-time all-star at 22. With that being said, I wouldn’t feel confident pulling the trigger before knowing that he’s in a good place mentally, and is ready to put all gun drama aside.
Jaylen Brown – Pass. The Rockets need someone who can create for himself and others, and while Jaylen Brown is effective against a tilted defense, he isn’t great at tilting a defense. He will also be on an expiring contract in a year, and the Rockets aren’t looking to win a championship in this upcoming season. If there’s mutual interest there, the Rocket should preserve their cap space until the 2024 off-season.
Zion Williamson – Pass, I think? Like in Morant’s case, it’s a unique opportunity to acquire a young star. I’d even go as far as to say that Zion Williamson is already a superstar, a 22-year-old top-10 player. But as they say, availability is the best ability, and Williamson’s injuries don’t appear to be the case of some poor luck that will expire soon. I’m unsure he’ll ever be able to pull through a full NBA season. Either way, this will be fun to look back at.
Brandon Ingram – Pass. Brandon Ingram is extremely good at hoops, but he’ll also be a free agent in 2025 and isn’t a superstar. The Rockets are not at a stage where they should be moving significant assets to acquire ceiling raisers such as Ingram, as excellent as he may be in the postseason.
LaMelo Ball – Take. The only reason LaMelo is even part of the list is that there’s a world out there where the Hornets prefer Scoot Henderson and don’t think the 2 point guards fit together. In that case, the Rockets should pounce, and let the 21-year-old lead the way for years to become. It is becoming progressively more difficult for me to believe he’ll actually be available, though.
Trae Young – Pass. If any non-Wembanyama players from this draft were to match Trae’s extreme statistical volume, I’d be floored. Truly. But given Trae’s defense, contract, and how he seems to only be effective in the playoffs against drop coverage, I’ll have to turn that hypothetical offer down. And yes, I do acknowledge the 4th pick will very likely turn out to be a worse regular-season player.
Zach Lavine – Pass. The Rockets already have his role and position filled, and Lavine has never seemed to leave the “borderline all-star” range, even failing to make the all-star game over the past season. Given his injury history, I’d be hesitant to acquire him even if I were managing a championship contender, and the 22-win Rockets should stay away.
Karl Anthony Towns – Hard Pass. Arguably the worst contract in the NBA. No thanks.
Mikal Bridges – Take. The key here is that in this scenario, the Nets let you keep their 2024 pick, and decide to trade their best player for a rookie. It won’t happen. But if such an offer is somehow on the table, I’d pull the trigger because it would ensure an excellent pick in the 2024 draft in addition to Mikal.
The bottom line is this- barring an unforeseen sequence of events, the Rockets should be making a top selection in the 2023 NBA draft. A team that just won 22 games shouldn’t trade their top 4 selection for a proven player who doesn’t fit the timeline of their young core.
Besides, if such player does exist and is miraculously available for a trade, it’s likely for reason that makes him a much less desirable trade target.