HOUSTON — Christian Wood continues to swing three-pointers and smile, the seasoned big man showing off his shooting range and seemingly responding whenever the other team comes within shooting range.
It’s June 13th, and Game 5 of the NBA Finals starts in eight hours, but figuratively speaking, this game is taking place as far away from the two championship cities as possible.
Venue: Practice Gym at Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets, which have won the worst 37 games in the NBA over the past two seasons.
Eric Gordon — the only player left on the Rockets’ roster since they started the rebuild — is feeding Wood some of those trios. The duo was a staple of weekday morning voluntary practices, which typically featured more than half of the Rockets’ roster and some players from their G-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
These sessions begin with shooting and skill training under the supervision of Rockets coaches, as permitted by league rules, and culminating in games that are only allowed to be watched by employees. Like this morning, these races usually involve veterans pitted against children.
The team that Wood set fire to has several players just out of rookie seasons – Daishan Knicks, an undrafted quarterback who starred in the G-League champion Vipers and signed a four-year contract with the Rockets at the end of the season, as well as in the first round. choose Josh Christopher and Usman Garuba.
None of last season’s Rockets rookies – a group led by No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green and 16th overall pick Alperen Sengan – are old enough to buy a beer. But they all figure prominently in the Rockets’ plans for the near future and for years to come.
The same can’t be said for 26-year-old Wood, the Rockets’ top scorer and rebounder over the past two seasons.
The day after his pickup game, the Rockets agreed to trade Wood to the Dallas Mavericks for the 26th overall pick and a set of expiring salaries, four players who may not be in the regular season and certainly won’t be. in rotation.
Wood would actually be an obstacle to Houston’s plan if he played the final season of his three-year, $41 million contract with the Rockets, which would significantly increase Sengun’s playing time in his second season.
Houston also expects to be selected “one of three stars” with the third overall pick in the draft Thursday (8000 ET, Sportzshala and Sportzshala app), as owner Tilman Fertitta put it, referring to Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero of Duke, listed on Sportzshala’s latest project layout.
The youth are getting younger as the Rockets now have three first-round picks (Nos. 3, 17 and 26) as part of a recovery plan that requires extreme patience after years of hard-fought title contention.
“The priority now is development, and with development comes the habits of winning and doing things right,” Rockets coach Steven Silas says after watching a voluntary workout. “Hopefully this will lead to some wins, but development is the priority.”
Houston paid so much attention to development that he mothballed former All-Star defenseman John Wall for $44 million. No play last season, clearing the way for then-21-year-old Kevin Porter Jr. to start next to Green. Wall owes $47 million next season and is expected to receive a buyout if Rockets general manager Raphael Stone can’t somehow find a trading partner for the 31-year-old quarterback.
It’s a fraction of the price the Rockets, with Fertitta’s approval, are willing to pay to instantly go from a Finals run to a total teardown almost two years ago. It’s not the kind of change the franchise wanted to make after battling for the championship during James Harden’s eight-year tenure in Houston and giving up significant assets in an effort to find his superstar partner.
The Rockets were desperate to prolong that era, but once Harden decided it was over, the franchise decided that a long and painful rebuild was the most viable path for a possible return to relevance.
“We’re trying to build a core of people who can be the backbone of a really good team,” says Stone, sitting in an office overlooking the training ground the day after returning from Memphis, where he watched Banchero practice and met with the prospect and his reps. before they all met again in Houston.
“We want to see improvement, see improvement, see improvement. As we see it, we are very happy with the renovation and I am definitely happy with last year.
“You don’t want to stop them from growing by trying to steal a win here or there. From a philosophical point of view, we are very aware of this. If your goal is to put together a team that really grows, it’s different from a team that will try to maximize every win.”
THIS SITUATION IS NOT which Fertitta thought he signed up for when he paid an NBA-record $2.2 billion to buy a hometown franchise in September 2017, when the Rockets were at their peak.
Chris Paul just moved to Houston in a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. The hope was that Paul’s arrival would finally provide Harden with the partner he needed to lead the Rockets to the title.
They were close — “by hamstring distance,” as many people in Houston will always believe, referring to the injury that sidelined Paul in the last two games of the 2018 Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors — until all this. crumbled.
After Harden and Paul fought throughout the next season, the Rockets sent Harden and a package of first-round picks to Oklahoma City in exchange for Russell Westbrook. This stellar partnership fell apart after one season and a massive exodus followed, including the departures of coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Maury before Westbrook and Harden demanded a trade.
At this point, the front office made a collective, sober decision to dedicate themselves fully to rebuilding rather than trying to continue fielding a competitive team. The Rockets decided it was better to be bad than boring.
“It’s very painful, but I know we’re doing the right thing,” Fertitta says over the phone while looking out over Tower Bridge in London from her yacht during a family vacation. “The future is exciting.”
“The NBA punishes the middle,” says Stone, a longtime front office employee who moved to GM after Mori left. “That’s the way the system works.”
Houston received one rotation player in a 2021 deal that brought Harden to the Brooklyn Nets – Victor Oladipo – who swung at the former All-Star guard returning from a torn quadriceps in the final season of his contract. (The Rockets roster now has nothing to show Oladipo, who was sent to the Miami Heat before the 2022 trade deadline.)
The Rockets could have taken center Jarrett Allen in a deal, but they decided to add another first-round pick by redirecting him to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where Allen was an All-Star last season. Houston could also have forward Carice LeVert, but she preferred Oladipo’s higher potential and shorter contract.
Another option: Houston could have sent Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers — where he ended up 13 months after the forced trade — for a package that was low on draft picks and headlined by former NBA defenseman Ben Simmons. After months of due diligence, the Rockets concluded that Simmons was not suited to be at the center of a rival team, despite his talent and pedigree.
Patrick Fertitta, Tilman’s son, who is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Rockets, credits Stone and assistant general manager Eli Vitus for “making the difficult and at the time very unpopular decision” to prioritize capital raising in Harden. trade. And they all praise Silas for handling the rebuild transition so professionally, given how much his job has changed in the months since Houston hired him to replace D’Antoni.
It may have been unpopular, but Stone insists the decision was not difficult.
“At that time there was no such attractive alternative. Even close from our point of view,” says Stone. “I strongly believe in going for broke. Whether it’s all-in to recover or all-in to win a championship.”
Houston received numerous first round players in the deal: a 2022, 2024, and 2026 Nets pick, a 2022 pick from the Milwaukee Bucks via Cleveland (which was later pushed back to 2023 in a separate PJ Tucker deal), and four years. exchanging rights with the Nets. (Trade rights were not transferred in 2021.)
The Rockets expected the superteam that the Nets formed with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Harden to not last long, adding value to Brooklyn’s future picks. It was a bonus that this season was so bumpy in Brooklyn, giving the Rockets the 17th pick in this draft instead of the expected late first round.
Rockets executives also bet on the benefits of hitting the bottom.
“If you look back at what we would have received compared to the project capital we received, I am very pleased with this decision,” says Tilman Fertitta.
The Rockets needed top-notch talent to get back up to date. This meant a lot of loss. They got Green #2 overall in last year’s draft by winning the lottery, essentially coin toss odds, because the Thunder held the right to trade that pick to Miami if Houston didn’t make the top four. (Still indebted to OKC, a franchise that has gone through a similar rebuild with an even bigger supply of first-round players since the disastrous Westbrook deal: the top four protected picks in 2024 and 2026.) And Houston is looking to add another cornerstone to the young franchise with pick no. 3.
Stone chose Green over the safer choice of Evan Mobley due to the belief that Green had a higher ceiling. That’s the Rockets’ general rebuilding philosophy: hit big and hope for home runs.
“We have made a decision on ownership…