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The Houston Rockets slipped to picking third in the 2022 NBA draft during the annual draft lottery on Tuesday, with both the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder jumping up, selecting first and second respectively.
While the Rockets obviously would have preferred to win the lottery, drafting third has some perks, chief among them being a general lack of pressure. The number one pick is always put under the microscope to a high degree, providing the Rockets with the chance of flying under the radar with their selection.
That is of course if the Rockets decide to stay at three, which isn’t necessarily a lock. With that in mind, here are some considerations the Rockets should enter the draft with.
With Auburn forward and Jabari Smith and Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren projected to get selected as the first two players, the Rockets could feel a need to swing for the player with the highest upside in the draft – Holmgren – and use their third overall selection to build a package going to either Orlando or Oklahoma City.
Naturally, the pick alone won’t be enough for a trade-up scenario. This is where the Rockets could expand the deal and add Christian Wood to the mix, providing a necessary injection of talent into the equation to balance trade value.
Would the Magic accept a package of #3 and Wood for #1 and Terrence Ross, for salary matching purposes? It’s worth a phone call to find out, and that sort of offer could be a starting point for future negotiations, should Houston chase Holmgren aggressively, and be open to add more pieces to the trade.
Trading up does come with risk, as we saw back in 2017 when the Philadelphia 76ers moved up from #3 to #1 in order to select Markelle Fultz. The Boston Celtics won the lottery and agreed to trade down, knowing there was a strong chance that Jayson Tatum would be available two slots later. The Sixers added another first-round draft pick as additional compensation, which turned into a massive overpay due to Fultz developing a shoulder injury, which led to him losing the touch on his jump shot. Tatum, meanwhile, developed into an MVP candidate.
This isn’t to say history will repeat itself, but when trading up, there’s added pressure in knowing who you’re trading up for. If Holmgren is the target, every bit of homework needs to be done, several times over in fact, as to best assure the front office that they indeed got a significantly better player out of the trade. But with no established NBA data points to go off of, there will always be a major element of gambling involved.
While trading down means relinquishing better prospects in theory, reality often paints a different picture. Giannis Antetokounmpo went 15th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, and 12 picks later – at #27 – Rudy Gobert was chosen. Jimmy Butler, currently one of the most productive players in the ongoing postseason, was selected 30th overall in 2011, and of course the current two-time MVP, Nikola Jokić, was selected 41st overall in 2014.
That’s a long way of saying quality is available all over the draft, meaning it can be a viable strategy to trade down, as to get two bites at the apple, assuming the Rockets in this scenario receive two selections in return. One of those picks could be replaced by a player of known commodity, allowing the Rockets to get something safe, while still having a pick at their availability to select a potential star.
The Hornets check in with the 13th and 15th selections in the first round. While those picks are too low to fetch the third overall selection, Charlotte would even the scales by adding James Bouknight to the trade, assuming they’re willing to pay up to that extent for a Top 3 pick.
Another option for Houston is to acquire a pick in this 2022 draft, and then receive a future selection with limited pick protection, allowing the franchise to have future incoming assets, which could serve them well if they receive a decent pick in a loaded draft class.
Trading for more picks
With Wood presumably not a major part of the future in Houston due to the presence of Alperen Şengün, it’s fair to wonder if the agile scoring big man is now available to be had in a trade. Wood is earning a modest $14.3 million next season, and can be penciled in for at least 18 points and nine rebounds per game. At 26, Wood would make more sense on a team that’s trying to win now, which could allow the Rockets to get back draft compensation for Wood in a larger trade. Here, the aforementioned picks from the Hornets (#13 and #15) re-enter the picture. Would the Rockets be willing to fork over Wood for two mid-tier selections in the first round?
Given that the Rockets acquired and used four first-round picks last year, it seems unlikely they will be as aggressive again, as they already have several players to develop. But this is where they can use a pick on a player who isn’t ready to come over quite yet, and stash that player overseas to create a continuous flow of incoming talent over a series of years.
The overall idea of trading Wood for more age-appropriate talent is one with a lot of merit given his low financial compensation level, which will make him attractive to several teams trying to win now. Whether that means moving him for numerous selections, or using him to trade up, it’s all about optimizing a proper return for him as the Rockets are deep into their stage of asset accumulation.
So while the Rockets may appear as NBA Draft Lottery losers, they could easily change that narrative due to the flexibility they have at their disposal.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.