Rafael Stone

Rockets’ Rafael Stone Talks Draft, Udoka, Free Agency, More

This season, the Rockets finished with a solid 41-41 record but missed the postseason as the West’s No. 11 seed. The team then moved up in this past weekend’s draft lottery, claiming the No. 3 pick.

General manager Rafael Stone recently explained to The Athletic’s Kelly Iko that, despite the middling reputation of this year’s draft class, his front office likes a lot of the prospects available.

“I think it’s a really talented draft, and there will be very good players in it,” Stone said. “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.”

Their conversation is well worth reading in full, but here are some key highlights.

On how new Houston head coach Ime Udoka’s input impacts Stone’s draft process:

“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.”

On whether the team’s strong season will affect its offseason approach:

“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.”

On the growth of young talent like Alperen Sengun and Jalen Green, both of whom are extension-eligible:

“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.”

Celtics’ Brad Stevens Named NBA’s Executive Of The Year

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has been named the NBA’s Executive of the Year for the 2023/24 season, the league announced today (via Twitter).

In his third season as the Celtics’ head of basketball operations after eight years as the team’s head coach, Stevens put together a dominant Boston roster that posted a 64-18 record, easily the best mark in the NBA, along with a +11.7 net rating, the third-best mark in league history.

The Celtics were coming off a 57-win season in 2022/23, but Stevens shook up the roster drastically last summer, trading away longtime defensive stalwart Marcus Smart in a deal for Kristaps Porzingis, then moving key role players Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams in a a blockbuster for Jrue Holiday as training camps got underway.

Stevens also signed several Celtics players to contract extensions in the past 12 months, including Jaylen Brown, Payton Pritchard, and Holiday.

Unlike the NBA’s other major awards, the Executive of the Year is voted on by 29 team executives from around the league rather than 99 media members. Stevens received 16 of 29 potential first-place votes, along with six second-place votes and three third-place votes, for a total of 101 points (Twitter link).

The runner-up, Sam Presti of the Thunder, had 47 points, including four first-place votes. Tim Connelly of the Timberwolves also earned the top spot on four ballots en route to a third-place finish (29 points).

Knicks president Leon Rose (27 points; one first-place vote) was the only other executive to earn more than 11 points, though Nico Harrison (Mavericks) and Monte McNair (Kings) also received first-place votes, while Rockets general manager Rafael Stone earned a pair of them. A total of 13 executives showed up on at least one ballot.

Rockets’ Rafael Stone, Eli Witus Received Contract Extensions

Rockets general manager Rafael Stone and assistant GM Eli Witus signed multiyear contract extensions with the franchise earlier this season, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (Twitter link). The deals were agreed to in January, per Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required).

Stone and Witus were promoted to their current basketball operations roles back in 2020 when longtime head of basketball operations Daryl Morey left the Rockets. The revamped front office immediately faced trade requests from veteran stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden and launched a full-fledged rebuild after having made eight consecutive playoff appearances.

That rebuild began to pay dividends this season, as third-year center Alperen Sengun enjoyed a breakout year while third-year guard Jalen Green had a big second half. Other young players, including rookies Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore, as well as second-year big man Jabari Smith, showed promise in regular roles for Houston.

Additionally, free agent additions like Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks fit in well with the Rockets, and new head coach Ime Udoka led the team to a 41-41 record following three straight seasons between 17 and 22 wins.

All of those positive developments were factors in ownership’s decision to extend both Stone and Witus, according to Wojnarowski.

“It became clear that the Rockets had executed our plan to draft and develop young potential cornerstones for the franchise, stabilized the team with veterans that translated to winning games and found our coach for the present and future,” Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said, per Feigen. “We wanted to show them as well as the public we’re excited with the direction the Rockets were going.”

The Rockets are projected to control at least one lottery pick this June, and Sengun and Green will become extension-eligible in July, so Stone, Witus, and the rest of the front office will have plenty of big decisions to make in the coming months.

Stein’s Latest: Bickerstaff, Mitchell, Kidd, Stone, Donovan

Pressure is mounting on the Cavaliers, who have stumbled to an 11-16 record after the All-Star break after once sitting at 36-17, NBA insider Marc Stein writes in his latest Substack post. While an 18-2 record spanning through December and January improved coach J.B. Bickerstaff‘s standing within the organization, he may be on the hot seat following this disappointing stretch of games.

As Stein writes, Bickerstaff is still dealing with the fallout from losing to the Knicks in the first round of last year’s playoffs in just five games. Frustration is growing in Cleveland after last season’s playoffs and this season’s lackluster recent stretch, according to Stein.

The Cavaliers as a whole are feeling pressure, given the need to sign Donovan Mitchell to a contract extension this offseason. Mitchell is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract next year if there’s no extension and there’s a “growing belief” from rival teams that the Cavs might be forced to trade their superstar if the two sides can’t agree to an extension, Stein writes.

The Cavaliers paid a hefty price to bring in Mitchell in 2022, sending out Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, Collin Sexton and multiple first-round picks for the All-Star guard.

We have more from Stein:

  • The Mavericks are 16-2 since they inserted Daniel Gafford and Derrick Jones Jr. into the starting lineup, and have officially secured their second 50-win season since Jason Kidd took over as head coach in 2021. An offseason extension for Kidd seems likely, according to Stein.
  • Likewise, the Rockets‘ strong play in the second half of their season means general manager Rafael Stone may also earn a contract extension, Stein writes. The Rockets are hovering around the .500 mark after winning just 22 games last season. The Ime Udoka hiring and the additions of Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks are among the reasons for Houston’s impressive season, which were all accomplished without sacrificing any of its core pieces. Still, future decisions regarding whether the team will continue to build around Alperen Sengun and Jalen Green or trade for a higher-profile star are percolating, per Stein.
  • Bulls head coach Billy Donovan‘s name was thrown around in regard to the newly opened Kentucky coaching job, but Stein expressed skepticism about the chances of him moving back down to the college ranks, where he most notably coached at Florida from 1996-2015. It looks like Stein’s skepticism was warranted, as Kentucky is reportedly targeting BYU’s Mark Pope to be its next head coach, meaning Donovan will stay with the Bulls, tweets NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson.

Rockets’ Stone Discusses Adams Deal, Green, Deadline Talks

After the Rockets acquired Steven Adams a week before the trade deadline in a move with next season in mind, the front office had plenty of discussions about deals that would’ve helped the team more in the short term, writes Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required). According to Kelly Iko of The Athletic, Houston kicked the tires on players like Kelly Olynyk, Andre Drummond, Jericho Sims, and Xavier Tillman, among others, but couldn’t find a trade that worked for both sides.

“We certainly weren’t going to do something that would hurt us on a going-forward basis,” general manager Rafael Stone said. “The moves we were the most excited about were moves where we thought that could help us in the short term and also the long term, the moves subsequent to (the trade for) Steven.
We were very excited about acquiring Steven. Subsequently, a lot of the ones we had long discussions about were moves that would have provided elements this year maybe that we don’t have, as well as stuff for the future.

“But they didn’t happen, and we’re fine with that. We like our group, and this gives everybody on our current roster an opportunity to shine.”

If the Rockets had wanted to make a more significant deal, it would’ve likely required them to part with a player from their young core: Alperen Sengun, Jalen Green, Jabari Smith, Tari Eason, Amen Thompson, or Cam Whitmore. But Stone said the team wasn’t looking to move on from any of those youngsters, adding that he and head coach Ime Udoka were in agreement on the deals they pursued and those they didn’t.

“We’re looking at the long term more so than anything,” Udoka said. “When you have that many young, talented players, you want to see what they become and not rush to judgment on anything.
As far as those guys, everyone’s going to check in when you have this amount of young talent. We’re trying to win. We’re in the development and winning stage at the same time, so people checked in. We knew they would. They are talented young guys, and we have some duplicated positions there. We like what we’re seeing from those guys and want to see what we are as a whole unit.”

Here are a few more of Stone’s most notable comments from Monday’s post-deadline media session:

On the acquisition of Adams:

“I think we got a really high-level basketball player. A guy who’s been a dominant rebounding force in the NBA for the last five, six years. One of the best defenders in the NBA. We obviously feel great with Alperen, but now we have two truly starter-level centers next year. Depth is extraordinarily important. On top of that, he’s a very different player and will be a good complement on and off the court for our group.”

On the long-term fit of Jalen Green, whose name popped up in some predeadline rumors:

“Jalen has been and continues to be, on paper, a great fit with us. He has a skill set that isn’t really replicated on our roster. My expectation of him – and he knows this, and I think he echoed in his postgame comments – my expectation is that the defense, which has gotten better, is still going to get a lot better. That the physicality and the efficiency are all going to get better. He needs to take those steps. That’s extraordinarily important. He’s aware of it. We’re aware of it. And that’s the challenge for him and for us.”

On Stone’s assessment of his own job performance in the past year:

“I’m happy with the choices we made. I think for the most part, we’ve gotten what we want. And the additions of Fred (VanVleet) and Dillon (Brooks) were necessary and really important. I like that we brought Boban (Marjanovic) back. I like that we have Jeff (Green). I love the hire of Ime. And then I think we did well drafting Cam and Amen. So we had a very successful offseason, which set us up to make the right steps for this season.

“But I would say for myself, similar to our young guys, it’s not good enough. And so they need to improve. Our front office — not just me, all of us, our coaching staff, all of us — we’ve got to continue on the grind and make sure the choices we make between now and the end of the season, the ones in the offseason all set us up to have the best possible chance to win a championship in the short term. Not meaning like a year or two, but not 20 years either. And that’s very much our goal. And my goal.”

Rockets GM Stone Talks Strong Start, VanVleet, Green, Holiday, More

After winning no more than 22 games in a season for three straight years from 2020-23, the Rockets are off to a 13-11 start in 2023/24, and while they’re currently outside of the top eight in the Western Conference, they’re within three games of the No. 3 seed.

General manager Rafael Stone is happy with what he has seen from the team so far, but he’s certainly not celebrating the results of the first two months of the season, as he tells Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

“December is not the right period of time to measure how good any team is,” Stone said. “We feel good about the progress we’ve made to date, but it’s just too early to tell where exactly we are. We’re a quarter of the way through the season, not at the end of the season.

“… I think we’re happy with where the group has been to date. But again, the challenge is to make sure that we’re not complacent and that we keep improving because we do need to improve in all facets of the game.”

Stone praised the progress that young Rockets players like Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith, and Tari Eason have made so far this fall, especially on the defensive end, and lauded the work the coaching staff has done to maximize the players’ strengths.

Stone’s conversation with Iko also covers many more topics and is worth checking out in full if you’re an Athletic subscriber, but here are a few highlights:

On his early impressions of major offseason addition Fred VanVleet:

“With Fred, we had all heard good things. But again, I take all that with a grain of salt. And so one thing that’s been nice is not only has he lived up to kind of those expectations, but he’s exceeded them. He’s just a great guy off the court. He’s been great for our group. He’s willing to talk and able to talk and communicate, but he’s mostly a quiet guy. What’s awesome about him is that he says everything that absolutely needs to be said. He provides a voice every time we need a voice. A nice guy who’s incredibly tough, tough-minded, physically tough. We’ve been really happy with Fred.”

On the impact of under-the-radar free agent signings Jeff Green and Aaron Holiday:

“Well, both of those guys are guys that we’ve liked for a long time. We were lucky that they were free agents at a time when we could play in free agency. And so yeah, they’ve done well and I’m happy for that. Jeff’s a super veteran player, but Aaron’s been around for a while, too. So they both have come in and done exactly what we thought they would do. And we thought that with our current mix, they fit well. And it’s been nice that through a quarter season that’s been the way it’s played out.”

On whether the Rockets will continue to aggressively pursue roster upgrades leading up to the trade deadline:

“We like our current group. We like the way they are playing on the court, we like the way they’re interacting. We think there’s a lot of room for improvement just in the guys we have playing better and getting better. So by no means, this year at least, are we aggressively hunting a particular deal or series of deals.

“Having said that, it’s kind of my job to talk to everybody and to hear what other teams are trying to do and see if there are things that make sense for both parties. And we’ll make sure we make every phone call and run out every ground ball. At least right now, we need a better sense of exactly where our team is before we start thinking, ‘Oh, we need to add this.’ We’ll have a better sense, honestly, a game from now, right? Like every game gives us critical information.

“I think it’s too early to predict how active we will or will not be at the trade deadline or in the days in between. But we are not feeling any need to do something, per se. We like where this group is and mostly we want there to be internal improvement.”

Rockets Notes: Green, Stone, Sengun, Smith

Jalen Green made a positive impression during his time scrimmaging against Team USA in Las Vegas, writes Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. Green helped the Select Team pick up an early victory in the competitions, and Grant Hill, managing director of USA Basketball, liked what he saw from the Rockets‘ young guard.

“He played well,” Hill said. “He was one of the few guys that I had not seen in person. I obviously had seen him in highlights and on videos, even going back to high school. He’s dynamic. He’s explosive. He’s very confident.”

Green has experienced individual success during his first two NBA seasons, averaging 17.3 and 22.1 points per game, but the rebuilding Rockets have been among the NBA’s worst teams. Houston aggressively upgraded its roster this summer, and Hill sees a brighter future for Green and the organization.

“He’s had a couple of seasons to really understand what the NBA is, and that’s important,” Hill said. “I like the moves the Rockets made this offseason bringing in veteran guys, guys who have been around the league, guys who have had success — Fred (VanVleet) has been a champion — but can still play. You bring in coach (Ime) Udoka, who brings in a level of accountability and teaching. All of that, for a guy like Jalen, is a great chance for him to really grow. I think he’s ready and that team is ready to take a step this season.”

There’s more from Houston:

  • NBA teams don’t have full control over whether their players take part in international competitions, but Rockets general manager Rafael Stone is happy to see so many of his players involved, Feigen adds. Australia’s Jock Landale and Canada’s Dillon Brooks will both participate in the FIBA World Cup. “If we were in a position to have more control, it would be a very player-by-player thing,” Stone said. “This summer, I’m really happy for our guys. They’re at points in their careers the additional reps are very valuable. … I can see where teams have concerns. In our case this summer, we’re comfortable, and we’re encouraging those guys not just to play but to play great and come back as better players.”
  • Another Rockets player getting international experience is center Alperen Sengun, who is on Turkey’s roster for an Olympics pre-qualifying tournament that begins Saturday, per Cesare Milanti of Eurohoops. The Turkish team will face Bulgaria, Iceland and Ukraine.
  • A survey conducted by Kelly Iko of The Athletic finds that fans are optimistic about the Rockets’ chances to improve and are expecting a breakout season from Jabari Smith Jr.

Rockets Notes: K. Young, Griffin, Culture, Free Agency

The Rockets‘ interview with Suns assistant Kevin Young for their head coaching position took place on Friday, according to Kelly Iko of The Athletic (Twitter link). Houston followed up that meeting by interviewing Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin on Saturday, Iko adds (via Twitter).

Young and Griffin are at least the third and fourth candidates known to have interviewed for the Rockets’ coaching vacancy. Frank Vogel and Ime Udoka also reportedly met with the team.

Kenny Atkinson, James Borrego, and Sam Cassell have been mentioned as candidates Houston plans to talk to, though there’s no indication those meetings have happened yet.

Here’s more on the Rockets:

  • Speaking this week to the media, including Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required), general manager Rafael Stone strongly pushed back against criticism of the rebuilding Rockets’ culture. “We have not managed to turn that culture into wins at this point in time,” Stone said. “But culture — I would put our team up there with anybody in the NBA. We work really hard. People are very supportive of each other. They get along very well. They spent a ton of time together off the court. A lot of that is a function of their youth, which is always one of the reasons why we’ve struggled to win. It’s all interrelated. I’m willing to fight with anyone who will say that our culture, on this team, this year was challenged.”
  • Stone went on to speculate that there are people in the media who have a residual distaste for how Houston conducted business under Daryl Morey, including the unconventional way the front office built the roster and the organization’s deference to stars like James Harden. “I was part of these teams, so I don’t want to walk away from it,” said Stone, who was an assistant GM under Morey. “… Those teams were very successful. They did things in their own way. I think some people didn’t like the way they did them. One of the things that happened is complaints about the way those people did things are being conflated with us now, even though the only commonality is the Houston Rockets. The players, coaches, front office has changed hugely. That’s my perception.”
  • Iko teamed up with John Hollinger of The Athletic to take a closer look at the offseason decisions facing the Rockets. As The Athletic’s duo notes, Houston owes its top-four protected 2024 first-round pick to Oklahoma City, so the team may be motivated to use its cap room (approximately $60MM) to add win-now veteran help. In addition to Harden, Hollinger names Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent, Cameron Johnson, and Grant Williams as some of the free agents the Rockets could look into.

Rockets Notes: Martin, Stone, Rookies, Next Coach

Rockets small forward Kenyon Martin Jr. has endeared himself to Houston with his play this season. As we’ve previously noted, the team has a variety of options for how it can retain the 6’6″ swingman into next season.

The Rockets hold a $1.93MM team option on Martin for the 2023/24 season that they could opt to exercise, though that would put him on track for unrestricted free agency in 2024. Turning down the option would allow Houston to make him a restricted free agent this summer. Martin is also extension-eligible.

As Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required) writes, while the Rockets are weighing their various options, Martin is trying to focus only on what he can control.

“If there’s a conversation that happens between us, that’s the most that can happen,” Martin said. “There’s nothing I can really do to control that side of it. Whatever they want to do, whether it’s this year or next year, whatever it may be, that’s on them. I’m just here to play basketball and hope it happens for the future.”

“Obviously, it’s important to me, contract extension and stuff like that,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it, the draft, a lot of stuff in the summer that goes into it. I can’t determine whether they’re going to … just wait until my fourth year is done. I’m just here to play and whether it’s this year or next year, I’m excited.”

There’s more out of Houston:

  • The future of Rockets general manager Rafael Stone may be on the line depending on how he performs during the 2023 offseason, according to Kelly Iko, Shams Charania, and Sam Amick of The Athletic. Stone will need to hire a new coach, draft well, and figure out how to use over $60MM in available cap space. “It could be a make or break summer for [Stone],” a source told The Athletic.
  • Rockets rookies Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, TyTy Washington Jr. had an intense first NBA season with Houston, writes Feigen in another piece. “Just the ups and downs of it — I don’t think anything prepares you for it,” Eason said. “You know it’s 82 games, so you’re not going to have a great night every night, whereas in college, there was a third of that. So you know, you could kind of dwell on your losses and things like that a little bit more.” Smith responded similarly when asked about his thoughts on what stood out from his first pro season. “Just the long grind, the ups and downs of the season,” Smith said. “The bad things, the quick turnarounds, how important it is to stay in the gym, really work on your craft, don’t take days off, just get better every day.”
  • Stone revealed that the next Rockets head coach will have the opportunity to select their own staff, Iko reports (via Twitter). “That’s not gonna be my decision,” Stone said. “I think it’s important that the new coach picks that.”

Texas Notes: Dieng, McDermott, Graham, Kleber, Stone

Spurs veterans Gorgui Dieng and Doug McDermott will be tasked with helping to ensure that San Antonio’s young players continue to grow as the year winds down, writes Jeff McDonald of The San Antonio Express-News.

The team is currently mired in a 14-game losing streak en route to a prime lottery pick. McDonald writes that some of the coaching burden falls onto the team’s two most experienced players, McDermott and Dieng, who can operate as unofficial coaches on the floor.

How long both players remain on the roster beyond this season is anyone’s guess. Dieng, 33, is signed to a one-year minimum deal, and will be a free agent this summer. McDermott, 31, is the team’s highest-paid player, and is set to earn $13.8MM in the final season of his very tradable current deal, 2023/24.

There’s more out of the Lone Star State:

  • New Spurs guard Devonte’ Graham is still acclimating to his new environs, McDonald reports in another piece. After arriving in San Antonio by way of the Pelicans in a trade, he has yet to suit up for his new club in a home game. “I’m just trying to get adjusted,” Graham said. “I just packed enough to maintain for a couple of weeks… I’m just living out of a suitcase right now.”
  • Mavericks big man Maxi Kleber indicated to Callie Caplan of The Dallas Morning News (Twitter link) that he expects he will miss at least Dallas’ next two games as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury. Previous reporting suggested Kleber was hoping to return by the end of February.
  • Rockets team president Rafael Stone sat done for an extensive discussion about the team’s rebuild with Kelly Iko of The Athletic. “When we came into (the rebuild), we didn’t really have talent on the roster,” Stone said. “We didn’t have any cap space, we didn’t have any draft picks. We now have been able to recoup our draft picks, we have more cap space this summer than anybody else and I think we have a very talented roster… We need to translate those things into a team that becomes competitive and hopefully starts winning and winning big over time. And that’s the challenge in front of us starting this summer, but continuing on.”