What should the Rockets do with KPJ?
This is going to be substantive, I promise.
There is no more polarizing player on the Houston Rockets than guard Kevin Porter. Conversations about Porter tend to happen in extremes. Either he’s a bonafide starting point guard with star potential or he’s someone the Rockets should look to dump at the first chance they get. As one might expect, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. And while discussions about Porter often feel like a hot oven that’s not worth touching, we’re going to attempt the impossible today - nuance.
To start, Rockets fans must understand that because there’s still so many unknown variables, there’s no clean answer to the question in the title of this article.
You have to divide it into two different universes:
The universe in which the Rockets keep Porter
The universe in which the Rockets move on from Porter
A world in which the Rockets keep Porter
We’ll start here because it allows us to acknowledge the elephant in the room:
If Kevin Porter, Jalen Green, and Alperen Sengun are all building block talents, only two can become core players for Houston long-term. It’s nearly impossible to build a modern championship team with more than two starters who are average to below-average defenders and right now, all three project to be below average. Also, they’re all turnover prone and require a heavy usage to be their most effective on offense. It’s just not a great fit on either end of the floor.
This will eventually force Houston to have to prioritize. Jalen Green appears to have the most upside of the three, with Alperen Sengun and Kevin Porter following behind. This means the Rockets will have to decide between Sengun and Porter at some point. I’m sure there’s someone reading this thinking “Who’s to say Houston has to pick?” To those people, I’ll point you to a relatively recent example of a talented trio that was troublesome as a unit.
Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic
It didn’t take a pro basketball scout to know that Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic made for an unusual core. Lillard and McCollum were too similar on offense (role-wise) and when you threw in Nurkic, the Trailblazers were a disaster defensively. But because Lillard and McCollum were elite three-point shooters, it didn’t appear to be as clunky a fit as it actually was. As a result, Portland ignored all skeptics and doubled down on awkward roster, amounting to years of Lillard toiling away in mediocrity.
While far from a perfect comparison, it’s not hard to make the corollary to Porter, Green, and Sengun. There’s a universe in which Lillard and McCollum could’ve worked together as a backcourt, but it would’ve required three elite defenders in the front-court, meaning Nurkic would’ve certainly been a no-go. The Cavaliers accomplished a strong defense despite Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell sharing a backcourt by packing the frontcourt with players like Caris LeVert, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley, and Jarett Allen. That point is important for this reason:
There’s a world in which Sengun becomes the odd man out for Houston instead of Porter, but it requires winning the lottery and drafting Victor Wembanyama. The reason for this is Wembanyama, like Mobley for Cleveland, is the kind of gifted defensive talent that could tie the Rockets together (sans Sengun). It’s a longshot (14%), but it’s something that has to be considered until lottery day.
A world in which the Rockets trade Porter
Since there’s an 86% chance of the Rockets losing the Wembanyama lottery, the Rockets and their fanbase should be priming themselves for a world without Kevin Porter. Even if Houston drafts someone other than point guards Scoot Henderson or Amen Thompson, the organization should still ready themselves for a Porter trade sometime next year. As a counterexample to the Trailblazers, below is an example of a smart organization recognizing a bad fit and benefiting from getting ahead of it:
Tyrese Haliburton and DeAaron Fox
By trading Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis, the Kings may have lost the battle, but won the war by swapping out the better asset for a more well-fitting talent who optimized the strengths of DeAaron Fox. Instead of wasting years of Fox’ prime like the Trailblazers did with Lillard, the Kings are currently sitting pretty as the third seed in the Western Conference. And remember, the Kings were absolutely excoriated by analysts and their own fanbase for the Haliburton trade last year.
The lesson here is that if your goal is to be a strong front office that makes smart decisions, you can’t have emotional attachments. To complete successful rebuilds, you have to be cold about the assets you’ve acquired along the way. Emotional organizations waste years of their franchise player’s prime because they can’t bring themselves to make hard decisions. Calculating organizations recognize road blocks as they appear and are able to enjoy the fruits of their once-unpopular decisions.
So while trading Porter sometime next year is an unpopular decision, there’s an 86% chance that it’s what’s best for the organization long-term.
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