To trade or not to trade the No. 4 pick? That is the question that will be on the minds of every Rockets front office executive between now and next month’s NBA Draft.
As I sat in the secluded room in the McCormick Place convention center last week, something in my gut told me that Houston was going to be disappointed with the draft lottery results. I didn’t see things working out in their favor, for whatever reason. The odds were somewhat stacked in their favor — at least for securing a top-three pick — but as the basketball gods would have it, the Rockets slid to four. No chance at Victor Wembanyama. Likely no chance at Scoot Henderson or Brandon Miller, either. If there is a silver lining, it’s the fact the organization can finally move forward with predraft planning.
“The biggest thing is we now have certainty about the pick number,” general manager Rafael Stone told The Athletic. “We’ve done a lot of contingency planning about if this, then that. Now we can just try and outline various ideas and concepts that we think we want to try and achieve. This is a super busy month for us and the two times trades happen are around the trade deadline and the draft. We can start to evaluate various trade options, we can really think through free agency.”
We know the Rockets are moving from phase one of their rebuild to phase two, a period that is supposed to align with a return to the postseason at some point. The purpose of this exercise is to show coming up with trades involving the No. 4 pick that make Houston better isn’t easy. There are several factors to consider, most importantly if the team on the other line is interested enough to accept Houston’s terms. So to get a better idea of what those conversations might entail, I fired up the good old trade machine and got weird with it. A few of my colleagues here at The Athletic were kind enough to indulge in this journey with me.
Let’s see what I cooked up.
San Antonio Spurs
Rockets receive: Keldon Johnson
Spurs receive: The No. 4 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft and a 2025 first-round pick (top-3 protected)
Why Houston does this: At first glance, I’d have to think twice if the Rockets would be comfortable with Johnson taking up a third of their available cap space but considering this summer’s available crop of wings, Johnson’s age and his potential, I could see this phone call being placed. Johnson had the ball in his hands quite a bit in San Antonio but he showcased some legit off-ball potential at times and could be the answer at small forward for a Rockets team that frankly hasn’t had one in years. Johnson’s contract is front-loaded, meaning Houston’s cap hit reduces with every year — a valuable tool considering what the 2024 class and the looming TV deal could bring. The only drawback is his wingspan isn’t great for his size and he didn’t show much defensively last season but that might be more of San Antonio’s general nastiness more so than his own ability and potential.
Law Murray: The San Antonio Spurs got Keldon Johnson as part of the Kawhi Leonard-DeMar DeRozan trade, sent by the Toronto Raptors in the 2018 offseason as a future first-round pick. That selection wound up being 29th overall in 2019. Johnson is a Spurs developmental success story, going from being a 2018 McDonald’s All-American and one-and-done starter at Kentucky to a player who earned a four-year rookie scale extension last year. This past season, Johnson showed his full offensive game, averaging 22.0 points (5.2 free throw attempts per game), 2.9 assists (2.1 turnovers), and 2.1 3s while shooting 45.2/32.9/74.9.
Johnson’s extension kicks in next season, the start of the Victor Wembanyama era. In this trade, the Spurs lose their leading scorer from their 60-loss team. But not only do they get to add another top-five pick to go with Wembanyama, they’ll be betting on the Rockets to add to their first-round selections in two years as well, giving the Spurs another draft asset right as their rebuild should just about be over. As good as Johnson is now, there may be a higher ceiling for one of Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller, Cam Whitmore, Amen Thompson, Ausar Thompson, Taylor Hendricks, or Anthony Black. Whitmore, in particular, has a similar profile to Johnson when Johnson was draft eligible. The Spurs don’t have to go the route of replacing Johnson with the Houston pick, however, and could improve their wing and playmaking with one of the Thompson twins or if Henderson or Miller unexpectedly drop to No. 4. Either way, I’m making this deal if I’m San Antonio.
Rockets receive: Cam Johnson
Nets receive: K.J. Martin, Jae’Sean Tate, the No. 4 pick in 2023, two future firsts (including Nets’ own 2024 first)
Why Houston does this: I could have easily swapped another one of Houstons’s future first-round picks for the option of giving Brooklyn one of theirs back so before you go running to the comment section, please don’t haggle on that. I know teams don’t typically send back picks in trades like that. The point is to get a conversation going and enticing Brooklyn back with their lost draft capital is a great way to do so.
In essence, the Rockets get their hands on Johnson, a versatile two-way wing they’ve coveted for a while. There would need to be some creativity applied here since both Johnson and the outgoing Martin could be restricted free agents but this is a hand-in-glove fit. Johnson would slot in alongside Jabari Smith Jr. in the frontcourt and give Houston a much-needed shooting lift. Again, there would have to be some serious cap considerations as Johnson is slated for a big payday, but he’s the type of veteran help the Rockets consider worth it. Is he three firsts worth it? Maybe, maybe not.
Alex Schiffer (Nets beat writer): This is an interesting package for the Nets, who get younger and more team-friendly salaries in addition to one of their own picks back from the original James Harden deal. Teams almost never return picks to their original owners, which makes this trade a bit unrealistic, but it would give the Nets a younger core around Mikal Bridges and the ability to tank for a possible co-star, even if it’s just for a season while getting another young and talented player with the No. 4 pick. It also gets them out of the luxury tax. It allows the Nets to see what they have in a lot of their players and subtracts from the abundance of wings currently on the roster, and allows them flexibility to keep their picks and maybe go chase a star with their new ones in addition to the draft capital and young players acquired from this trade. I have a hard time seeing it happen because of the return of their own pick, but if offered, Sean Marks would have quite the decision on his hands.
Rockets receive: O.G. Anunoby
Raptors receive: K.J. Martin, Tari Eason, the No. 4 pick in 2023 and a 2025 first-round pick (top-six protected)
Why Houston does this: New Rockets head coach Ime Udoka is known for his defensive acumen and Anunoby is one of the game’s most versatile and physical ball-stoppers around. From a basketball perspective, it’s a nice fit, especially for a team that wants to turn things around. Houston would have to think twice about giving up on Eason’s upside after only a year and the Raptors likely ask for even more draft compensation but considering Toronto’s organizational position as a team in flux, I wouldn’t consider anything off the table. Pascal Siakam was another option, but his price tag might be too high for Houston. Anunoby is on a team-friendly deal relative to his on-court impact. Less than $20 million annually? Sign me up.
Eric Koreen (Raptors beat writer): The positives: Due to the Rockets’ financial situation, the Raptors take on precious little salary, clearing things up with the rest of the roster, including their three unrestricted free agents. Eason is a nice future piece, although not necessarily a core guy. That’s obviously where the fourth-overall pick comes in, which is the complicating factor. Both Scoot Henderson and Brandon Miller make a lot more sense next to Scottie Barnes than the players who are likely to go in that 4-8 range. There are plenty of intriguing players, but bigger guards/wings with plus playmaking and questionable shooting are awkward fits. The 2025 first is nice, and nicer still if we can loosen the protections. Still, from both an age and fit perspective, Pascal Siakam makes more sense to deal than Anunoby, and the real prize for the Raptors is more likely to be found in a trade with Portland than Houston. This is a reasonable offer, and it’s something to be revisited on draft night if other things fall through. For now, it’s a no.
Rockets receive: Dejounte Murray and John Collins
Hawks receive: Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate, K.J. Martin, the No. 4 pick in 2023, 2025 and 2027 first-round picks
Why Houston does this: This looks like a lot and it is. It’s only contingent on the Hawks deciding to blow things up rather than wade in the Eastern Conference water. Murray is the prize here, adding a tenacious two-way guard who immediately raises the floor and ceiling of a young team. In Collins, the Rockets get their hands on a player Atlanta clearly wants to move, someone they’ve been interested in and who can be a quality rim protector and lob threat. The Hawks gave up quite a bit in the Murray deal a year ago and would be recouping some of their lost assets. But in reality, do the Rockets even see a combination of Murray and Collins as the way to go, considering how much of their cap space both players would consume?
Jeff Schulz (Atlanta columnist): It’s a nice package and there are some elements of the deal I like, notably the No. 4 pick and the two other first-rounders. Draft picks potentially help the Hawks cut some salary, which is needed. Porter also probably would fit well with Trae Young. The problem is I don’t think the Hawks are in the mode of trading Dejounte Murray. They really like what he brings to the team and they gave up a lot to get him. The persistent question is whether Murray and Young can play together and that question could be answered early next season. If it doesn’t work, I could see the Hawks using Murray as a valuable trade asset at the deadline, especially since he’ll become a free agent after the season.
Rockets receive: Myles Turner and Buddy Hield
Pacers receive: Alperen Şengün, Kevin Porter Jr., K.J. Martin, the No. 4 pick in 2023 and a first-round pick in 2025
Why Houston does this: Ime Udoka probably won’t have Al Horford or Robert Williams with him in Houston next season, but Turner is a better player than both. I can’t state what sort of positive impact Turner would have on both ends of the floor, being able to shore up his teammates’ deficiencies and spread the floor for the Rockets’ guards. Houston’s brass is high on Turner for good reason. In addition, the Rockets would get one of the league’s best three-point shooters in the last decade almost as an add-on, with how many rumors have been attached to his name in the last year alone.
Now, adding a talent like Turner would most certainly cost Houston Şengün, a talented young center brimming with potential. With what he brings to the table, I think the Rockets would be comfortable with the tradeoff, though. Can’t say the same about Twitter.
Bob Kravitz (Indiana columnist): The Pacers are — or should be — all about youth at this point. Sengun, KPJ and Martin give them some young, productive pieces, and they would salivate at a chance to move up to four. Turner had a career year this past year, but I still think they’re open to the idea of moving him for the right price. Hield was terrific (offensively) last year, but I don’t see him fitting the Pacers’ timeline. Plus, it’s my sense he will be replaced in the starting lineup next year by Bennedict Mathurin and will be a sixth man. So some young, intriguing pieces, a chance to move up to four and a 2025 first … heck yeah.
Golden State Warriors
Rockets receive: Jordan Poole and Jonathan Kuminga
Warriors receive: Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate, K.J. Martin, the No. 4 pick in 2023, Houston’s first-round picks in 2025 and 2027
Why Houston does this: I have to admit, of all of the proposed deals, I feel the least confident about this one. Poole’s stock is down some after an underwhelming postseason run but all things considered, he’s had a tough season and might benefit from a change of scenery. At his best, he’s one of the game’s brightest young guards with in-the-gym range, a sweet handle, underrated playmaking and a knack for scoring. Kuminga seems to have fallen victim to Golden State’s win-now mode and hasn’t been able to develop at the rate they’ve expected, but he’s also a talented, physical forward that can guard multiple positions and his potential should peak anyone’s interest.
Can Poole mesh with Jalen Green? That’s a question Houston’s brass would have to deliberate on, but I would trust that Udoka could get the best out of both of them in a Rockets backcourt. Poole is scheduled to make $27 million next season but because of the outgoing contracts of Porter and Tate — plus Houston’s boatload of cap space — the Rockets could still be big players in free agency with roughly $60 million to spend.
Anthony Slater (Warriors/NBA writer): It’s an intriguing offer, especially if the Warriors’ scouting department loves somebody at the fourth spot — or if Scoot Henderson or Brandon Miller escape the top three. The problem is it creates the same sort of problem the Warriors are trying to solve, flipping youth for youth. They have an urgent need for players who are ready to contribute to title-winning in Steph Curry’s fading window. Kuminga hasn’t been yet. Poole flamed out spectacularly in the playoffs and is about to get expensive. Would Porter, Martin, Tate and whoever they get at four give more in any given series? Maybe. Tate has some defensive qualities that could translate. Then maybe you could re-route Porter and the fourth pick for an established veteran. It’s at least an offer, from a value perspective, the Warriors would have to debate internally.
(Top photo of Dejounte Murray: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)