May 25, 2024

Rockets GM Rafael Stone on the No. 3 pick, player development and more

CHICAGO — The journey from desolate to determined to driven is onerous and many organizations have tried — and failed — to actualize the task.

For the Houston Rockets, who are in a position of strength off the back end of a 41-41 season and have the No. 3 pick in next month’s draft, every move is critical.

The first steps, hiring Ime Udoka as head coach and signing veterans Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks in free agency, were essential. The next phase, maintaining momentum and continuing an upward trajectory following a 19-win improvement, is paramount.

Finishing the 2023-24 season at .500 should be seen as positive, especially looking back at recent history and the many holes this franchise had to climb out of.

But it’s not good enough. Not for Udoka, whose body language following Houston’s final regular season game showed his disappointment. Not for VanVleet and Brooks, two individuals experienced with winning cultures and playoff atmospheres. And not for Rafael Stone, Rockets general manager, or ownership.

Where this team goes from here is the result of a collective effort. But for Stone, the man tasked with assembling a competitive roster, most of the responsibility falls to him. This week during the draft combine, The Athletic caught up with Stone to discuss next month’s draft, the importance of shooting, maintaining growth and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you carved out this rebuilding process four years ago, did you ever anticipate this sort of position — having a top-three pick after a season where you were within striking distance of the playoffs?

One of the things we valued was trying to give ourselves this long runway and potentially multiple swings of the bat at really talented players. I probably didn’t think as granular as ‘We’ll pick in the top four versus eight versus 12,’ but when we embarked on the rebuild process, we wanted to be in a position to have good draft choices. Not just early on, but for a while out or at least the potential to have them. And that was something we definitely valued when we embarked on it.

Did Ime’s arrival change things? At some point you wanted to get back to winning but as far as drafting, is the philosophy to find the best player and let Udoka coach? Or is there more of a collaborative process now?

No, it’s the same. We want to get the most talented players and provide them to him. Ime is a really good coach and basketball mind. We definitely solicit his opinion and get his thoughts as another smart person who can give us some insight on who’s likely to be successful. But in terms of draft philosophy, it’s very much let’s try and bring in guys who can be good basketball players.

I take a little bit of pride in that if you really study the guys we brought in and not just through the draft, but just overall, we very much don’t have a type other than just being good basketball players. Because I do worry at times that if you think basketball players only come in one size or shape, you can miss out on really good ones.

Brining in Ime Udoka as coach has helped the Rockets take the next step. (Petre Thomas / USA Today)

When you hear this draft class described as lacking a true No. 1 guy or blue-chip prospect — as many times as it’s been said already — does that impact your scouting?

I think it’s a really talented draft, and there will be very good players in it. Historically, what we’ve seen is that people do not do a very good job predicting how good a draft is or is not. There are kind of unicorn-type players that occasionally appear in drafts and that signal early on in their lives that they have a chance to be extraordinarily special. And you see teams kind of falling over themselves to get themselves in positions to pick No. 1 in those drafts, even though the way everything’s set up, that’s a pretty impossible task. In that sense, there’s not someone like that in this draft.

But I do think that there’s a lot of talent. It’s a really cool thing that our game has become such a worldwide game, played everywhere. I do think it makes it more challenging to evaluate guys because it’s just much less apples-to-apples. Some guys are playing professionally at different levels. Some guys are playing collegiately. The college game itself has changed remarkably. And all of those things are things you have to factor in. One thing that happens is the harder the analysis gets, the more people want to say it’s just bad. This is one of the harder drafts to do an analysis in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean the draft is bad. It just means that you’re gonna have to put in a little bit more work to figure it out. You’re gonna have to do a little bit of apples-to-oranges comparison and figure out what you got.

You guys have talked at length about shooting as a premium. Knowing that and understanding the crop of draft hopefuls, does that influence any direction you take next month? Or do you view shooting as an improving skill with those already on the roster?

We do expect to shoot better next year with no external changes. One enormously important aspect of shooting is shot selection. You can highlight players with equivalent shots and one guy will shoot 33 percent, one guy will shoot 43 percent, because the guy shooting 43 percent is taking much easier shots than the guy shooting 33 percent. As our team matures and figures out their spots and makes the right play, shooting percentages will rise.

Similarly, the one constant trend through the history of basketball is that as guys go on in their careers, they become better shooters. So as our young players get a year older, they should all individually improve. Notwithstanding it, of all the skills in the NBA, shooting is probably the one everybody pays a premium for. So we’ll look at that both in terms of people we bring in as free agents and people we draft.

This team won almost as many more games this season (19) as they did in the entire season (22) before. After a substantial leap like that, is the next step even harder?

We’ll see. The real answer is we have to do it. Ultimately our goal is to win championships, right? Jumping to 41 wins is awesome but it doesn’t put you in that mix. So we know we’re a long way away and we’re determined to get there.

Seeing how close you were to making the playoffs, does that impact the level of aggression in free agency or via trade, looking for additional pieces to take you higher?

We’re comfortable with our team and we think we’re going to improve internally. Because of that, I don’t think we’re likely to be super aggressive. It doesn’t mean we won’t listen. And it doesn’t mean if we think that there’s a unique opportunity, we won’t jump at it. But we have very talented players, they’re young and we lost a ton of games to injury. That combination means our primary focus is bringing back our core group as a better core group than it was last year, both through internal improvement and health.

It’s rare to see a team get this many consecutive cracks at the apple and find a way to turn that into a winning product. That being said, are there things you could have done differently over the past four years?

In terms of drafting?

Drafting, yes, or overall team building.

I wish I was a lot better at everything. Tomorrow, I should be better than today. I don’t think I’m a finished product any more than I think our players or our coaches are. We all need to be grinding to be better every day. A lot of the evaluations I think back about are where I just misvalued a guy. Like, we’ll just say a guy in the draft, maybe somebody we would never have taken, but he ended up being a whole lot better than I thought he was going to be. I’ll spend a lot of time trying to figure out why. Did the one-percent chance hit on the guy and I evaluated it correctly and he got lucky? Or did I miss something? And I spend real time on that all the time trying to figure out, was there something I missed? If so, why? Because I want to be the best at my job that there is. I’m not content to just be what I was yesterday, that’s not my personality.

As an organization, you have always expressed a willingness to have multiple conversations with other teams. Compared to the other years where you had a top pick, do you expect more or fewer conversations, given the outside perception of the overall class quality?

I’m gonna guess it’s going to be the same, honestly. There are going to be teams that are more interested and teams less interested. They may not be the teams that we would anticipate. I think it’s getting easier for us to be flexible. The last couple of years, it’s made a ton of sense for us to draft, because we’ve needed this infusion of young talent. It’s a little easier (now) to be more diversified in terms of pushing draft picks out, taking veteran players. Our optionality is we always wanted to keep an open mind in case there was something that we needed to do. But because we like our current roster so much, it actually provides us with more flexibility to explore creative deals of all sorts. We weren’t foreclosing things two or three years ago, but it’s gotten easier.

Players like Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün, and a good chunk of your young talent took a step in their growth last season — at times. How do you ensure that you get more consistency across the board in addition to an upward trajectory? That might be the difference between winning 41 or 50 games.

We want those guys to start next year at or above the level they finished at the end of the year. I think all of our young players got materially better. They understood what Ime wanted, how to play defense better, the right reads on offense. It needs to not be two steps forward, one back. If we do that, we’ll be in a good position. Those guys just have to work and we have workers. I’m very confident they will do it, but there is no magic elixir. It’s all about putting in the work. We don’t expect it to be linear. And some of the reason is because of externalities — playing time from the coach, the way the offense flows. All these other things can influence how people play. But notwithstanding, it’s mainly on them. They need to make sure they stay on this trajectory. And everything we know about our group says that they will, but you don’t take it for granted. Our guys are already back in the gym and that’s what we expect and are happy about things.

(Top photo of rookie Amen Thompson and GM Rafael Stone: Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images)