Rockets draft notebook: Options with the No. 4 pick, free-agency plans and more

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Between now and next month’s draft, the Houston Rockets have their work cut out for them. Before the franchise can envision what to do with its nearly $60 million in cap space, it’ll need to figure out the direction they take with the No. 4 pick awarded in the recent lottery.

Last week, the organization’s brain trust made the annual trip to Chicago for the draft combine, laying the groundwork for what figures to be a busy period over these next few weeks — collecting intel on incoming players, potential trade discussions and general offseason planning. No matter which version of Houston’s rebuild you align with — the patient, methodical approach, an accelerated, aggressive one or some amalgam of both — the long-term goal is winning.

With presumed top pick Victor Wembanyama not present in Chicago last week and the overall talent pool not as ripe as seasons past, the combine didn’t have the same feel as it has had in the past. Still, important conversations were had and early outlines can be sketched. The first version of our draft notebook takes a deep dive into an important upcoming Rockets draft and the subplots that stem from it.

• After the initial disappointment of missing out on the top pick in last week’s lottery subsided, the Rockets’ key decision-makers must now strategize with the No. 4 pick and the myriad of options that come with it.

Given that the combine concluded late last week and the franchise is still in its preliminary planning stages, definitive calls can’t be made at this point. The combine is often regarded as an entry point into developments that occur later in the offseason — draft, free agency, hirings/firings — and as such, the conversations that take place are important building blocks. Multiple teams have already expressed interest in acquiring Houston’s lottery pick ahead of the June 22 draft, league sources, who were given anonymity to speak freely, said. One of the underlying themes of the combine and hot topics stemming from last Tuesday’s result among league personnel was the expectation of Houston, Portland and Detroit aggressively seeking trades centered around their picks, albeit for different reasons.

• For the Rockets, the fourth pick presents a Gordian knot. On one hand, it’s easy to see why the Rockets would use the pick to upgrade their roster. Houston currently owes Oklahoma City a 2024 top-four protected first-rounder by way of the Russell Westbrook-for-Chris Paul trade in 2019. Even though there’s a mathematical chance the Rockets could finish the 2023-24 season with a bottom-three record and potentially keep their pick, it would be foolish to test Lady Luck. Just ask the Detroit Pistons, who have been forced to settle for the No.5 pick in consecutive seasons despite having a bottom-three record on both occasions. With a substantial amount of incoming cap space and a roster brimming with young talent, there’s an incentive to win now — aside from the outside pressure of ownership that has publicly referred to “phase two” of the Rockets rebuild as returning to the postseason.

• On the other hand, conceptualizing a trade involving the No. 4 pick that pushes the franchise forward isn’t a cut-and-dry situation. This isn’t the first, second or even the third pick that’s being discussed, especially in a draft that’s largely considered weaker than others. Before the lottery, the only scenario in which a trade would have effectively been off the table was landing the No. 1 pick and in essence, Wembanyama.

In reality, history doesn’t favor the odds of the fourth pick being traded for an established player. Given that the Rockets don’t own a top-three pick, the list of suitable trade partners likely whittles down to mid-tier willing to press the reset button or lower-level teams that have players in the second threshold of talent. At the same time, however, Houston has to be confident in their long-term approach. If a trade were to be actualized and the Rockets landed a win-now veteran, that player would likely carry a sizable portion of their cap space, just under the $60 million mark. Are they willing to go that route? The next few weeks will involve a lot of internal calculus as Houston’s brass examines all of their options.

• The other option available is taking the best player available and worrying about roster construction in free agency. Wembanyama stands in a class alone but after him, G League Ignite’s Scoot Henderson and Alabama’s Brandon Miller reside. It’s widely accepted that the latter two are the most talented players in this incoming class not named Wembanyama and as such, among Houston’s options being considered between now and the draft is the possibility of moving up with a package comprising of their two first-round selections (Nos. 4 and 20), league sources said.

Outside of the three players presumed to be off the board by the time Houston is on the clock, Overtime Elite’s Amen Thompson is the name that has been highlighted most frequently with several individuals within the organization particularly high on the 19-year-old guard. Starting shooting guard Jalen Green, who appeared on Paul George’s “PodcastP” show this week, appeared to give an endorsement of Thompson. “I don’t know who we’re gonna get,” Green said. “But I wouldn’t mind the Thompson twin. He’s solid. He’s a real solid player. But we’ll see what happens.”

There are a host of other players in a similar tier who the Rockets like — including Thompson’s twin brother Ausar, Villanova’s Cam Whitmore and Houston’s Jarace Walker — but Amen’s athleticism, penchant for playmaking and defense and more importantly, upside, are hard to ignore. It’s understood that both of the Thompson brothers had positive interviews with Houston last week.

• Rockets head coach Ime Udoka continues to spend time with his new team, recently traveling to meet with Green, including workouts and dinner in the Los Angeles area. “It’s been great,” Udoka told The Athletic last week. “I’ve gotten the chance to spend a lot of time with the players. Got some lunches, dinner, gym time with guys. Also been busy putting together a staff, getting to know everybody, but the most important thing is to spend time with the guys, build a relationship with them, and I’ve done quite a bit of that.”

The 6-foot-5 Green still has a way to go from a physical standpoint, but from an on-court perspective, his early offseason training ahead of an important third season has looked sharper than at any point previously. There’s been more of an emphasis on the mental aspect of the game for the talented young scorer with an aim to increase his processing speed and slow down his movements. Green’s ability to make high-level reads is still a work in progress, despite flashes and improvement he’s made since entering the league in 2021. Becoming a more complete player is Green’s No. 1 priority and winning the mental battle is a critical step.

• Regardless of what the draft entails, the Rockets continue to maintain confidence in adding veterans to the roster and will be aggressive in doing so. As stated above, the franchise has a level of financial flexibility they haven’t had in quite some time. With nearly $60 million in cap space, they want to upgrade their playmaking, shooting and defense departments on the open market.

James Harden. (David Butler II / USA Today)

Former franchise player and current 76ers guard James Harden is the top target for Houston in free agency, according to league sources, representing the veteran leadership and elite point guard needed to establish structure and offensive cohesion. Outside of Harden, other high-ranking targets for Houston include Brook Lopez, Dillon Brooks and restricted free agents Cam Johnson and Austin Reaves, league sources said. They also said acquiring a veteran point guard is Houston’s primary objective, meaning even if a move for Harden didn’t materialize, names like Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Donte DiVincenzo and even former Rockets player Chris Paul could be considered should they become available.

• It’s unknown what the future holds for assistant coach Mahmoud Abdelfattah, but he was part of the Rockets contingent taking part in the combine’s activities last week and has been a regular at the facility since the conclusion of the regular season, according to team sources granted anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly. Houston maintains their stance, allowing all assistants that served under former head coach Stephen Silas to seek opportunities elsewhere should they so choose to — and a bright mind like Abdelfattah would likely garner interest. Team sources also said assistants Lionel Hollins and Rick Higgins are not expected to return.

(Top photo of Amen Thompson: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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