At 23-26, the 11th-placed Houston Rockets are within striking distance of postseason positioning, essentially engaged in a three-way tussle with the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors for the final Play-In spot in the Western Conference.
With the right move (or moves) before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, the organization could strengthen itself for the back half of the regular season. Last week, head coach Ime Udoka addressed the trade deadline and even highlighted some areas the team could reinforce.
“I think you look to improve in all of those areas that you’re lacking (in),” Udoka said. “Three-point shooting is one, versatility at the big spot is one. We mainly want to rely on what we have and get healthy first to see what this group looks like.”
The Rockets are among a group of teams that historically have been more active than others at the deadline. Last week, we asked you for your best fake trades. Let’s see what you came up with — with some help from colleagues and contacts around the NBA.
How the Rockets rebuild is accelerating ahead of schedule
Rockets receive: Jonathan Isaac
Who says no? Magic.
I’m aware of the adage that the best coaches can mold players to fit their style or adapt to their available tools. But it’s hard not to look at someone like Isaac and not think he was crafted in a lab for Udoka.
Jonathan Isaac vs Wemby highlights! pic.twitter.com/2hDT2brjTz
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 1, 2024
Isaac, with a defensive impact in the 100th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass, remains in a class of his own. Orlando is a whopping 13.5 points per 100 possessions better on defense with him on the floor. He takes all the right angles, has strength and, at 26, is one of the league’s most versatile and impactful defenders across multiple positions. It’s not that Isaac is a wing who can also protect the paint. He’s a big who shuts down anything in the paint and can also switch out on the perimeter and wreak havoc.
Detractors will point to his outside shooting, which has regressed this season, but Isaac is only shooting slightly below league average on open 3s. That’s not great, but you can work with it. Elsewhere, the potential fit alongside starting center Alperen Şengün, with Isaac’s elite cutting ability, makes the move all the more intriguing. Isaac is also an average roller, but that quality is still something different from what Houston currently has offensively. I would still start Jabari Smith Jr. at the four, but Udoka could get creative with his in-game lineups with Isaac. Good luck trying to score on Isaac, flanked by Smith, Dillon Brooks and Tari Eason. It’s not happening.
I just don’t see why Orlando would let him go, especially with the kind of season they’re having. The Magic are the team I could envision grabbing a first-round upset from a contender. Bullock and Landale simply wouldn’t get minutes for them. I can see a specific subsection of Rockets Twitter cringing at the prospect of relinquishing more second-round picks, but Isaac could be worth it.
NBA writer Josh Robbins: I would think the Magic would say no to this offer. Certainly, it’s better to receive two second-round picks than not to have them. Perhaps they could provide the grist to make future trades. But I don’t think they would bring sufficient utility to Orlando unless they would fall early in those years’ respective second rounds.
Yes, the Magic would benefit from having more shooting. But I don’t think Reggie Bullock would provide enough of an upgrade there to merit such a trade from Orlando’s perspective. If Magic officials want to bring in a long-range shooter of Bullock’s ilk next summer, they can do that in free agency, potentially at a low price point.
When Isaac is healthy enough to play, he provides a massive defensive jolt. He’s a game-changer on that end, especially down the stretches of close games. The Magic have invested so much time, effort, emotion and, yes, salary in Isaac over the years that team officials would like to see him turn the corner (from an injury perspective) in their uniform. Given his 2024-25 salary is non-guaranteed, his salary is not onerous long term. That contract could have value this summer in potential trades that, ideally, could command a better return than that from Houston in this hypothetical offer.
Rockets receive: Kelly Olynyk
Jazz receive: Jae’Sean Tate, Jock Landale, two second-round picks
Who says no? Maybe both?
Even after trading for Steven Adams, who is currently injured for the season, the Rockets could still use another big — preferably on an expiring contract — who can provide a nice collection of floor spacing, rim protection and two-way rebounding. Enter Olynyk, a versatile center in a league where multi-faceted centers are becoming increasingly necessary.
Olynyk was in Houston during the dark days of the most recent rebuild, providing a positive influence on and off the floor amid a changing roster. But he’s still capable of providing on-court value. He’s always been an underrated passer and now is showing more effort on the offensive glass.
With Olynyk’s elite shooting — he’s connecting on a career-high 42.7 percent of 3s — in addition to his playmaking and defensive ability, Udoka could certainly play him with Şengün at times, similar to how he used Al Horford and Robert Williams III in Boston. Acquiring Olynyk also provides the early benefit of experimenting with dual-big lineups and seeing if it’s a route the team wants to take in the future.
But like Orlando, Utah looks like they’re focused on making the playoffs. I also don’t know how thrilled Houston would be at surrendering two additional second-round picks for an expiring contract, knowing they still have Adams coming in next season.
Jazz writer Tony Jones: It’s hard to find a reason for the Jazz to do this. Landale is a fine player, but you probably shouldn’t be paying $8 million a season for your backup center. Tate is a good player, but undersized as a power forward, where the Jazz would like to find length at every position. Maybe most importantly, Will Hardy likes shooting from every spot, and neither is exactly a shooter.
Bulls receive: Jae’Sean Tate
Who says no? We might be on to something. If I were to tweak this framework, I would probably include a third team like Phoenix that has been keeping tabs on Tate and needs sturdy, versatile defenders. But I like this idea.
Zach Lavine’s season-ending surgery is a reality check for Chicago. They’ve avoided a full rebuild for long enough, but it might be time to turn the page. If anything, I would include a second-round pick, have the Suns shed some additional salary (Nasir Little) and call it a day. The Rockets would get a bona fide rebounder and solid rim protector in Drummond. Houston is still sniffing around for some two-way shooting help and Craig fits the bill as a great locker room addition and veteran who can step in and play spot minutes if necessary.
The cost is Tate, but it’s becoming clearer that minutes are hard to come by under Udoka. It’s been more than a month since Tate played at least 19 minutes, and once Tari Eason returns to action – which should be soon – Tate’s minute total could continue to go down. It doesn’t make things easier for Tate that rookies Cam Whitmore and Amen Thompson are emerging.
NBA Agent 1: If I’m the Rockets, the reason why I do it is so I don’t have to make a decision on Jae’Sean. I get two vets for my bench to make a playoff push — makes them a little deeper and they can grow with the young cats. If I’m the Bulls, you get Tate, who has proven he can play and do a lot of things on the basketball court. He’s also relatively cheap. I think he’s worth a little more than his $7 million price tag.
It makes sense for both sides. The Bulls aren’t anywhere near (the top of) the playoff picture, so they have a guy that comes in, if he plays well over the last 20 or so games, they pick up his option. If not, let him walk. They’re getting some value for two players they don’t value.
(Editor’s note: NBA Agent 1 does not represent any players in this article)
Rockets receive: Nick Richards
Who says no? Hornets.
One of the good things about the Landale signing is because his outgoing salary — $8 million, with the final three years of his contract non-guaranteed — he’s able to be thrown into several of these deals.
The more I’ve watched Richards, the more I’ve come to appreciate him. He’s an athletic, rim-running center who has a good work ethic and is consistent. There isn’t anything he does at a standout level, but as a backup making $5 million, he doesn’t have to be great at any one thing. The Rockets need someone who can come in, play hard on both ends and give maximum effort. Richards does that and does it well. Last week’s 26-point, 13-rebound, four-block effort against Chicago was a reminder of his talent and potential. His 7’4 wingspan gives him presence in the middle of the floor – Richards is averaging 1.4 blocks per game and doesn’t foul much.
It also helps that when Adams does return, Richards can act as a go-between while Adams gets his legs back. Richards is still a solid insurance option to have in any case, and it’s only costing Houston some seconds and Landale in this potential trade. But because of how good Richards has been — and how Landale hasn’t been able to match last season’s production — the Hornets can get better value elsewhere.
NBA Agent 2: (Richards’) play as of late will only increase the demand for him. He’s on a team-friendly deal so they don’t have to trade him unless they get a really good deal. What happens (or doesn’t happen) with P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges will affect what they do with Richards.
For Houston, I guess they make this move to have salary to trade for the future? Or to free up cap space this offseason? Landale has nothing guaranteed past this season and Richards has guaranteed money on the books for next year. Landale can also function as insurance for (Hornets starter) Mark Williams.
(Editor’s note: NBA Agent 2 does not represent any players in this article)
Rockets receive: Grant Williams
Who says no? Mavericks.
I’m sure Udoka and the rest of the coaching staff would love to get their hands on Williams, even if it costs them Green.
JJ Redick asks Grant Williams about being coached by Stevens, Udoka & Mazzulla.
Williams says Udoka is best of both worlds: x’s & o’s/analytics while still relating to & challenging guys.
“Ime is probably the best one I played for.”
— Vanessa Richardson (@SportsVanessa) July 28, 2023
But I struggle to think why the Mavericks would do this.
Green’s defense has regressed at age 37 and his outside shooting has plummeted over the last three seasons, but even imagining him (and Bullock) in an optimized floor-spacing role alongside Luka Dončić isn’t enough to wrestle Williams from Dallas. Taking it a step further, while Udoka could be able to extract consistency out of Williams — who has struggled on both ends of the floor since signing a big offseason deal — I’m not sure how he would crack the Rockets’ rotation. From the outside looking in, it’s a tall task.
Mavericks writer Tim Cato: Williams has had an underwhelming start to his Mavericks career after being the team’s main free agency target this summer, and Dallas would be willing to move him in the right deal. But this isn’t one.
Despite his inconsistencies, Williams has provided plenty of serviceable minutes and some important stretches of play when his jumper isn’t falling. Swapping him for two worse role players, ones who don’t even have Williams’ potential to figure things out, makes little sense for this team.
Who says no? Knicks. And Rockets, for that matter.
This reminds me of one of my days on the trade machine. Those aren’t the days I yearn for.
The Knicks, who are thriving in the upper tier of the Eastern Conference, aren’t going to trade Hartenstein, who has stepped up tremendously as a starter after Mitchell Robinson went down, for Landale and Tate. Let’s remove Tate from the equation, because he could be a contributor on a contender like New York. A team that has an eye on a deep postseason run – especially one playing some of the best defense I’ve seen in years – simply isn’t turning from Hartenstein toward Landale.
Now, let’s shift to Grimes, the exciting young guard who has shown an ability to step in and help right away. Grimes has talent, for sure. Has he been better than say, Aaron Holiday has for the Rockets? There’s an argument there. You also have to think about Grimes potentially taking time away from Thompson and Whitmore, something I don’t think the Rockets would entertain right now.
Hartenstein would be an upgrade, but the Rockets coughing up their precious Nets pick for a player they may let walk for nothing this summer isn’t happening.
NBA Eastern Conference scout: Grimes could be a possible starter in this league in the right situation. Isaiah would fill a need immediately as far as a gap in big man rotation minutes. Landale frees up Houston’s books a bit because he hasn’t quite fit, although he had a productive year last season. Tate plays hard and is tough-minded, which bodes well to mesh with coach (Tom Thibodeau’s) mentality, but he probably won’t play many minutes given the Knicks’ wing depth.
(Top photo: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)