Should the Rockets trade down?

Can an article about a sports team function as a living organism? In other words, can I set out to write this before I know how I feel?

The answer is yes. I’m writing, and I don’t know where I stand on the subject. Should the Rockets trade down in the 2022 NBA Draft?

Truly, I don’t know. If gray areas make you uncomfortable, I’m going to recommend another piece now.

I set out to write a piece arguing that the Rockets should not trade down. In the interests of journalistic integrity, I opted to consider both sides of the issue. Now I’m somewhere in opinion purgatory.

The best I can offer is a presentation of both sides of the issue.

The Case For Trading Down

As is often the case, there’s already a tweet that summarizes the argument better than I can. I guess that 250 character limit is good for something.

Nathan has a point. The 2023 draft looks considerably more potent than this year’s crop. Victor Wembenyama has the potential to revolutionize basketball. That’s not hyperbolic. He’s a 7’3” demigod with a step-back three, a handle, and the mobility to run the open floor. He’s widely regarded as the most anticipated prospect since LeBron James.

The man affectionately known as Wemby highlights the class, but he’s not alone. Scoot Henderson is already an upper-tier player in the NBA’s G-League. He’s 18. He possesses a combination of athleticism and IQ that’s only found in the league’s best point guards.

I won’t bore you with an amateurish scouting report for every player in the class. I recommend you look up names like Amen Thompson, Austar Thompson, Dariq Whitehead, Kel’el Ware, Derrick Lively, and Anthony Black. You’re likely to be impressed if you’re not already familiar.

It’s a stronger class. That’s not a controversial claim. If the Rockets were to trade their third pick for a pick in the four-to-eight range and future assets, it would have a two-pronged effect. Firstly, the Rockets get the future assets. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it increases the likelihood that the Rockets will bottom out again in 2022-23.

I know “tanking” is a dirty word. It’s a controversial topic. Whether it’s what the Rockets have even been doing is up for debate. Still, something is frustrating about being this bad, this close to a draft featuring these prospects, and fighting for a play-in spot the year before.

Not that the Rockets will necessarily be there next year. Playing meaningful games next season is probably a pipe dream no matter what the team does in the draft. Still, adding one of the presumptive choices at number three will increase the odds of winning games.

God forbid, I know. Still, winning five more games next year could be the difference between picking in the top five in a historic draft and picking in the top ten. On the other hand, walking away from this draft with Shaedon Sharpe instead of Paolo Banchero could pay dividends down the line if Sharpe evolves after a (likely) rough rookie season.

Drafting Dyson Daniels and Jeremy Sochan could do the same. Selecting a couple of floor raisers will pay off when the Rockets select their second (or third, depending on your view of Alperen Sengun and Kevin Porter Jr.) star in 2023.

Patience is a virtual. The Rockets have an opportunity to decide to take a step back in favor of taking several steps forward in the future.

wait a minute Why exactly wouldn’t the Rockets trade down?

The Case Against Trading Down

The case against trading down is simple enough. The Rockets have a top three pick. Why hold out for a star when you’ve got the opportunity to get one now?

Let’s say the team has the worst record in the league again in 2022-23. Bottom five odds. Let’s say their lottery luck runs out and they land the fifth pick. Are we 100 percent sure Paolo Banchero wouldn’t be a candidate to be selected fifth in that draft?

Drafting is not an exact science. The NBA Draft is the subject of frequent and surprisingly intense debate. Generally, the discourse between draft nerds, in my experience, divides itself into two camps.

The first seems to believe that drafting is to exact science. They’ll tell you “we shouldn’t select him, he is bad”. The second takes the opposite side of the false dichotomy. Their position tends to be that the draft is so unpredictable that no opinion can be educated.

As with any false dichotomy, the truth is in the middle. A prospect is projectable to a certain extent, and any prospect has the potential to exceed or fall short of their projection.

In other words, Paolo Banchero has every opportunity to be a top ten player in the NBA. Jabari Smith Jr.’s self-creation abilities could never develop, and he could still justify a number-three selection as the best three-and-D wing of his era.

There are an overwhelming number of outcomes. There’s a degree of control that Rafael Stone possesses, and only a degree. The Rockets could trade down to seven, select a player that never gets to starter level, land the fifth pick in the 2023 draft and select a player who’s never as good as the would-have-been available Paolo Banchero.

Of course, that’s the nightmare scenario. The Rockets could also trade down to fifth, select a future star, land the first pick in the 2023 draft, and build a dynasty.

What Should The Rockets Do?

Gray areas make people uncomfortable. It’s human nature to want a thing to definitely be a thing. At the risk of getting too deep, sometimes, we just don’t know what a thing is.

The NBA draft is one big gray area. It’s not total darkness, and it’s not entirely clear either.

I’m thinking out loud, as I promised I would. As I type, I would lean towards keeping the pick. Ultimately, I lean towards thinking that trying to control your destiny too rigidly has a way of pushing it in a direction you don’t want it to go.

Trying to force another league-worst finish next year could be harmful, and that’s coming from someone pro-tank. With the way that player movement has developed in this league, there’s probably some benefit in Jalen Green getting used to winning games in Rockets red.

A look at the league’s Conference Finalists reinforces the position. There is no Victor Wembenyama left. Of course, having the most talent puts you in the best position to win the most games. Still, the teams remaining made the best selections with the picks they had and won because those players exceeded expectations.

Jayson Tatum was picked third, and he should have been picked first. The same is true of Luka Doncic. Bam Adebayo is better than expected. That goes triple (pun intended) for Steph Curry. Draymond Green was a second-round selection. Whichever team wins the NBA championship this season will not have a player who was deemed “the next LeBron”.

The Rockets may be better off with the first Paolo Banchero. At the same time, I can’t be certain.

It’s a gray area.

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