Team could benefit greatly from a Kevin Durant trade

Rafael Stone gambled. He knew to win big, he would have to accept greater risk. But he chose to take his chances, rather than play it safe, and worked to improve his odds.

The Rockets’ general manager reached the point he would deal James Harden, the best player of Stone’s 15 years with the team, and opted to chase draft picks, as many as he could get, with little, or better still, no protection.

Thursday showed why it was all about the picks when the Rockets traded Harden to Brooklyn, why they happily got back three first-round choices and the right to swap positions in two additional drafts, all with the Nets holding no protection in case those picks jumped to the start of the draft.

Kevin Durant became the real MVP of that deal when on Thursday he informed the Nets that he wanted to be traded.

If Brooklyn acquiesces, it will almost certainly have to bring back players considered good enough to have earned rich contracts themselves, given how few teams have or can create that kind of cap space. They still have Ben Simmons and another year, at least, of Kyrie Irving and some solid role players. But without Durant, the championship window that was thought to be wide open when they acquired Harden closey, and it could be time for another rebuild.

That was how things went the last time the Nets traded multiple first-round selections for superstar talent, giving up picks that would become Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

After one solid season, the Nets were in the lottery. Two seasons after the trade, they went 21-61, going 20-62 (the Rockets’ record this season) the following season when the Celtics drafted Brown. A year later, the Celtics made the draft night move for Tatum.

The Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen and Jerome Solomon discuss Jabari Smith Jr. going to the Rockets in the NBA draft and how the draft picks fit in. Video: Houston Chronicle

This was why Stone wanted all those picks — because you never know. It was why he also grabbed a first-rounder from the Bucks and a pick swap from the Heat — because you never know. Durant’s toe was on the line against the Bucks, and Milwaukee went on to win the 2021 championship. Giannis Antetokounmpo stuck around, and it did not pan out for the Rockets to have the Bucks’ pick. The Nets this season turned out to be worse than Miami, so the Rockets did not swap draft positions with the Heat. But you never know.

Durant putting himself on the trade market guarantees little about what will come of the Nets’ picks heading to the Rockets. He is such a superior talent, signed for four more seasons, that Brooklyn could bring back a pile of picks and star players, something along the lines of the Pelicans’ haul from the Lakers for Anthony Davis or the Thunder’s return when they sent Paul George to the Clippers.

The picks the Rockets receive might not become much better than the first of those picks was last week, when they used the 17th slot to select Tari Eason.

The Nets might have signaled they are not looking to start over when they agreed to send a first-round pick to the Jazz for Royce O’Neale, the epitome of a role player. Adding a player who plays well around stars would not seem to be the move a team makes if it does not plan to have stars.

But as with the Rockets’ strategy in the Harden trade, you never know. The chances the Rockets will hit the draft pick jackpot dramatically improved.

For now, Durant wanting out is the best news the Rockets could hope to see at this stage of their own rebuild.

The Rockets have a long, long way to go before they can give in to any inclination to gloat. They are still the team with the worst record in the NBA in each of the past two seasons. But that was the hand they were dealt when Harden decided the situation was crazy and could not be fixed.

Durant could have put things the same way, having gone through a most unhappy season with the Harden/Irving drama.

The Rockets can sympathize but might not be sympathetic. So far, they have stuck with the plan, acquiring young talent through the draft and making sure they provide plenty of time for those players to develop.

Those draft picks, however, might be burning a hole in Stone’s pocket. The Rockets have one more season of control of their own first-round pick before they have to begin paying the debt to the Thunder from the trade to acquire Russell Westbrook. They also will have all kinds of cap room next summer to go free-agent shopping as they could not this summer.

The Rockets have stayed patient, but if they want to make a move sometime in the next year, they have trade chips that just got much better.

Or the Rockets could offer to give the Nets back all of their remaining picks in exchange for Durant.

That won’t be nearly enough. And it might be a bit of an awkward conversation. For now, Stone can look at his hand and feel as if he played it right.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.