We are a week out from the NBA’s trade deadline and the Rockets have been rumored in deals, most notably involving Eric Gordon, though that should come as no surprise. With the deadline on the horizon, let’s dive in to part one of our trade deadline mailbag.
Questions have been lightly edited for style, length and clarity.
Does the front office view Tari Eason as a starter in the future? With the trade deadline looming, the reported (John) Collins news, and with the myriad of other forwards/wings on the roster, more direction with the 3/4 spot seems like a critical part of the rebuild — Ethan J.
I’m going to answer this, but before I do, I’d like to start this mailbag with a play. It’s not often we do this, but you’ll understand why shortly. There’s no elaborate play calls, no freelance set. This is simply a man on a mission.
If someone who had never watched Tari Eason play wanted to know who he was or what he was about, this would be the exact sequence to show.
There’s nothing perfect about it. Eason missed four layups from point-blank range, a coach’s nightmare. But everything else surrounding it is infectious. The hustle. The determination. The willingness to fight and claw for every rebound. Eason might be an imperfect player, but he’s absolutely what the Rockets need at this stage in their rebuild.
“When you bring energy, especially off the bench, I think it’s infectious and it bleeds into the team in all facets,” Eason said following Houston’s 112-106 win over the Thunder.
The rookie finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds Wednesday night. Twelve of those boards came on the offensive glass, a feat that has only been achieved four times in the last 40 years. Eason also added three blocks, two steals and an assist in less than 20 minutes of game time. That is an unreal statline, no matter how you slice it. Especially for a rookie.
Ethan J. asked if the Rockets front office views Eason as a starter in the future, and that’s a difficult question to answer — essentially because it’s unfair to Eason. Let’s not forget this is his first NBA season. There’s a reason Houston drafted him in the first round. He impressed them on film and during the combine with his interviews of him. It’s safe to say Rockets brass fell in love with him during the predraft process.
For all the talk about changing the culture in Houston, most — if not all — of the work comes from within. Eason’s arrival (like that of No. 3 pick Jabari Smith Jr.) signaled a shift in the effort department, something that was lacking during the 2021-22 season. As long as Eason sticks around in a Rockets uniform, he will be a very important player for them for a long time. Of course, he’ll need to improve his offensive skill — ball handling, decision-making, court awareness and his outside shot — but as far as the intangibles go, Eason is second to none. He has a knack for finding the ball. Head coach Stephen Silas has shown he can work with that.
Tari Eason is everywhere, all the time. How.
— Kelly Iko (@KellyIko) February 2, 2023
Whatever direction the team is going in, Eason is going to be a part of it. I know Houston desires to add two-way veterans to its young core, as it should. But that does n’t have to come at an expense of Eason and his development. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Which veteran point guards that are available this offseason would be good fits for this squad? — Seth H.
One of the underrated beauties of the NBA calendar for rebuilding teams is the draft coming before free agency. It makes offseason planning so much easier, allowing them to identify holes that can be filled with incoming rookies while also narrowing down free-agent targets.
Nothing is certain in this league, but after 50 or so games, we can safely assume the league’s four worst teams — and thus the franchises with the best odds at landing the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft — will be the Rockets, Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons.
With math (sort of) on Houston’s side, there are two ways to look at this. There is the hope they win the draft lottery and select a generational talent in Victor Wembanyama. That belief is shared by every team that has even the slightest mathematical chance. Adding Wembanyama would signal a need for a point guard — or reiterate it, in the Rockets’ case — and free agency would be the obvious hunting ground.
Then there is the other lens, where Houston doesn’t get the No. 1 pick, but still has a chance at drafting Scoot Henderson out of the G League or Overtime Elite’s Amen Thompson. In either situation, a veteran point guard would still be on the cards.
But who, as our regular reader Seth H. asks, would be a good fit? The 2023 free agent class isn’t as robust as we’ve seen in years past, but there’s still quality within the weeds.
We can probably rule out names like Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving The next two options in order of 2022-23 salary, D’Angelo Russell and Fred VanVleet, are each interesting thought exercises despite being on opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum. I’d rank VanVleet ahead of Russell for his defensive versatility and hard-nosed effort, but you could do a lot worse in terms of consolation prizes than Russell. Whatever the case may be, the Rockets will have a ton of cap space to flash around and will be aggressive.
Outside of those two, Houston’s young players would gravitate to veterans like Derrick Rose or Patrick Beverley. It’s clear they need an on-court vocal mentor of some sort and those guys are still capable of playing NBA minutes. You could convince me of the appeal of the Clippers’ Reggie Jackson (his defense of him this season has been better than common conception), but as I said earlier, the list of options is n’t that long.
It almost makes you wonder if they would be better served trying to bring a point guard in now, at the trade deadline.
What about trading for OG Anunoby (multi-team deal w/ Eric Gordon, KJ Martin, Kevin Porter Jr., plus picks) for now and the future? Enter the offseason with a core starting group of Green-OG-Smith-Sengun with Tate, Eason, Garuba and TyTy as your developing bench — Joshua D.
If recent trade history is an adequate barometer, I imagine the Toronto Raptors have a pretty steep asking price for Anunoby’s services. Thank the Wolves and Rudy Gobert.
If the Raptors make Anunoby available, his list of suitors will be out the door. At the end of the day, it’s about what Toronto deems to be equal value. Moving on from a win-now piece in Anunoby (and someone like the aforementioned VanVleet) would signal a rebuild.
Rebuilds require financial flexibility at some point, so you should rule out trades that would keep the Raptors’ cap sheet tied down longterm. Logic assumes they ask for good young players who wouldn’t break their cap structure, plus future first-round picks. Would the Rockets be comfortable with the Raptors asking for both Martin and Eason, along with multiple firsts? Would you, whoever’s reading this, be comfortable with moving on from those two players if it meant bringing in a potential All-Defense player?
That’s the tricky thing about these rebuilding phases. There’s a fine line balancing the need to develop young talent and the desire to strike when the iron is hot to bring in veterans who can push the team closer toward contention. Houston fans might not want to hear this, but there are probably better packages out there for Anunoby.
Now, if two firsts become four, we might be having a different conversation.
I know it’s early, but when does the front office start betting on which young players will be a good fit for the team’s future and start moving the guys they think won’t be a good fit? It’s risky, but some of these young guys would return a nice haul if the team doesn’t think a young guy is a good fit. Then they can sign some vets to round out the roster and start competing — Isaiah V.
Isaiah asks a great question, which piggybacks off of our Anunoby discussion. The Rockets have a ton of young players under contract right now. At their best stage, whenever this team is competing for playoff berths again, their roster won’t look like this. There will be a number of veterans to balance and complement the remaining young talent. But how early does that evaluation process start?
I imagine it’s a year-to-year process. As the season goes on, organizations are able to collect more data points on members of the team. Sample sizes like 25 or 40 games aren’t particularly fair in longterm evaluations, but 82 games? You bet. Last season showed us that Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun are talented players. The season before showed us that Jae’Sean Tate and Martin are as well. After this season, the Rockets will know that Eason and Smith have value.
But to get to where this team wants to go, they’ll need to figure out the right mixture of youth and experience. The best teams have shown the ability to find that blend over the years. Consolidation is the name of the game.
(Photo by Fred VanVleet: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)