RNH Mailbag Debut: Jokic or KD?
Answering your Rockets questions
Good morning and welcome to the debut of the Red Nation Hoops mailbag! The plan is for these first few mailbags will be free posts for all to maximize questions sent in by the time it goes under the paywall.
Full transparency: We’re a little light on questions for this first one, but that’s fine. It just means those who did send in questions will get better thought-out answers.
By the way, every question sent in through email will get answered just the same as if they were sent in anywhere else. There’s no favorites here. Email is just a nice way for subscribers to maintain anonymity. If you don’t care about that stuff, feel free to send in questions via Twitter or Substack.
Question 1 comes to us from Twitter:
So I actually think Rockets GM Rafael Stone has done a pretty good job with the hand he was dealt at the beginning of this rebuild. The James Harden haul was good, Stone’s hitting well on draft picks, and they’ve remained aggressive and creative with their dealmaking. I have qualms about their hesitancy to trade veteran players, but other than that, you can’t complain too much if you’re a Rockets fan.
They already have one of their foundational pieces in Jalen Green and now it’s just a matter of acquiring or developing at least one more. I wouldn’t be so focused on ‘needs’ as much as pure talent acquisition. With that being said, now that they know Green will be a franchise cornerstone, there are certain traits I would prioritize over others as they build the team out. Those traits would be playmaking, shooting, athleticism, and high-level defense. This is to make up for Green’s weaknesses (defense and playmaking) and compliment his strengths (getting to the basket, transition play, and moving without the basketball)
Fortunately for the Rockets, there is plenty of elite defense and shooting in this upcoming draft. Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr. specifically would be wonderful fits next to Jalen Green long-term. Houston’s shown a propensity to finding value late in the draft so their 17th pick (via Brooklyn) could bring in some value too. Internal improvement wise, I’m most intrigued by the development of Alperen Sengun (no shocker there), Josh Christopher, and Usman Garuba. If Sengun pans out to be a star talent, it’s going to be due to his special passing ability and I suspect he’ll have improved as a shooter as well. Christopher
To answer your question more directly, I’d say Houston’s biggest ‘need’ is a second cornerstone talent that possesses at least two of those traits. That’s how they truly advance to the next stage of their rebuild.
Question 2 comes to us via email:
Ugh, I can’t believe I’m taking the bait here.
It’s ‘Salman’, not ‘Salmon’. You’re unlocking some real childhood trauma for me here.
So this emailer is referring to the time I tweeted that I’d seriously inquire about Ben Simmons if I were the Rockets (when Simmons was on the market). At the time, I said I’d be willing to trade up to Eric Gordon, Christian Wood, and one premium pick. And I went on to clarify that ‘premium pick’ means one of the later Nets’ picks Houston owns or their own 2023 first round pick.
Obviously a lot has happened since I said that. Simmons has yet to play his first professional basketball game under the guise of mental health and back concerns. He even backed out of playing in Game 4 against the Boston Celtics when he was expected to do so. Simmons and his agent Rich Paul filed a grievance against the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this month to recoup the $20 million in salary they withheld while he wasn’t playing. That process is currently in arbitration and it naturally makes one feels as if Simmons and Paul are attempting to build a paper trail to present as evidence to the league office.
Whatever the case, my feelings on Simmons’ as a talent remain unchanged. I think he’s one of the best defenders in basketball while also being one of the best playmakers in basketball. At age 25, that unique combination should be extremely tantalizing to a rebuilding team like the Rockets, especially considering what they need to add around Jalen Green.
However, the headache that the combination of Simmons and Paul present as a package has changed what I’d be willing to pay if he were ever on the market again. This is new territory for me as I subscribe to the belief that executives should remain cold and not allow personal feelings to influence level-headed decision making. With Simmons, I’m willing to make an exception to that rule. If I were a team like Houston, I would no longer be willing to include a premium draft pick in any Ben Simmons package.
I hope that answers your question.
Question 3 comes to us via email:
(In the future, if anyone wants their name displayed, send your question in via Twitter or Substack. I wasn’t sure if you wanted it shown so I hid it just in case.)
So right off the bat, I can’t answer your second question in-depth because I haven’t done a deep-dive on the second half of the lottery yet. I’ll get there. I promise I’m way ahead of schedule this year.
Hmm, I’m not sure if you’re asking me who I’d take at number one or who I’d take between those two. I’ll just answer take the question at face value and tell you who I’d take between those two. On a pure talent level, I have both Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith Jr. in the same tier so I think they both have compelling cases over one another. However, in the tier, I have Banchero ranked ahead of Smith Jr. and I’ll explain why in a second.
First I want to say this: If I were Houston, I’d actually take Smith Jr. over Banchero. While I think Banchero will end up being the slightly more talented player, I believe Smith Jr. would be a better fit on the Rockets. This is usually not my methodology with the draft. Most of the time, I think teams should take the best player available. However, if you have two players in the same tier (like this situation), I think it’s defensible to take the better fitting player.
As I talked about above, the Rockets badly need prospects who project out to be elite shooters and defenders, especially if both Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun are part of their long-term vision. Banchero’s shooting and defensive ability were points of concern at Duke this past season. On the other hand, Smith Jr. has a compelling case to be both the best defensive and shooting prospect in this draft.
The reason I have Banchero above Smith Jr. on a pure talent level is because of my confidence in his creation and playmaking ability off the bounce relative to Smith Jr. We’re all kind of banking on Smith Jr. becoming a substantially better creator once he enters the NBA with a better supporting cast, but that’s not a guarantee. With Banchero, it’s a near certainty that he’s going to be a very capable scorer in the NBA. His comfort level handling the basketball at his size is just ridiculous. I see shooting and defensive ability as possible speed bumps, not red flags.
With that said, I’m terrified about the prospect of taking one of these awesome prospects over the other. If I’m any of these teams, I’d want to collect as much data on them as I can and see them both my own gym before I make a selection.
Thanks for your question.
I can always count on Raheel throwing me a curveball like this.
Uhh, so let’s lay out some parameters before I answer this. In a completely crazy hypothetical, let’s say the Rockets are in a position to sign one of these guys outright with cap space, but one guy doesn’t want to play with the other. Normally, if two guys want to play together in a specific location, a team like Houston could do some maneuvering to make it happen, so I had to add that last caveat in there. In this situation, you effectively have to pick one to sign to their five-year max.
If the Rockets were an older team with veterans, I think you take Kevin Durant here without question. As good as Jokic is, Durant is one of the 25 greatest players of all time and in my opinion, he’s been the best player in the game since 2017. Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo both have cases, but I personally believe the only thing that has held Durant back from holding that mantel in the general public’s eyes are injuries. He’s possibly the greatest scorer of all time, one of the greatest shooters of all time, and a very good defender when healthy/engaged. I just trust him to lead a talented team to a championship more than any other player on the planet.
However, the Rockets are not in that championship contention phase of their rebuild and Durant turns 34 before next season. It would be irresponsible for the Rockets to give a player like that a five-year max when a 27-year-old MVP is the alternative. The age difference between Jokic and Houston’s core is still significant, but not an insurmountable hurdle like Durant is. In this hypothetical, the Rockets could realistically start building for a title run around Jokic in the next few years. If they had Durant, he would almost certainly request a trade by the February deadline.
‘Thanks for all your questions! We didn’t get quite the volume we wanted, but that can happen with a new newsletter. I’ll answer more at this time next month.