Rafael Stone

Tilman Fertitta Says He’s Excited About Rockets’ Future

The Rockets have lost an incredible 43 of their last 48 games, will finish the season with the NBA’s worst record, and will only have a 52.1% chance to keep their first-round pick, which is top-four protected. However, team owner Tilman Fertitta tells ESPN’s Tim MacMahon that he remains bullish on the future of the franchise.

“I never thought I could feel this good after winning only 16 games,” Fertitta said of his 16-53 club. “I never thought I could feel this good when I’ve been so upset about losing. But when I look at all the draft picks that we have and the future, I’m just happy. I know it’s unusual to feel this good with your coach (Stephen Silas) and your general manager (Rafael Stone), but I do.”

If the Rockets’ 2021 first-round pick falls outside of the top four, they’ll have to send it to the Thunder in exchange for Miami’s first-round selection. Houston also owes two more future first-rounders to Oklahoma City, in 2024 (top-four protected) and 2026 (top-four protected).

However, the Rockets have acquired several other first-round picks and swaps in various trades, including the James Harden blockbuster — they’ll have Portland’s and Brooklyn’s first-round picks this year, as well as first-rounders from the Nets, Pistons, Wizards, and Bucks in future drafts. Fertitta expressed a willingness to be patient waiting for those extra selections to pay dividends.

“It could be 2027 that we get a top-five pick that ends up being the next greatest player,” Fertitta told MacMahon. “We don’t know, but my people have shown all they’ve done so far is made the right decision, and I’m proud of all of them. I’m proud of the basketball ops people and I’m proud of Silas, because they keep showing me they’re doing the right things.”

Fertitta specifically credited Stone for the acquisitions of Christian Wood and young building blocks like Kevin Porter and Kenyon Martin Jr. He also praised Silas for the work he has done dealing with adversity this season and developing those young players. The Rockets’ owner added that he doesn’t have a specific timeline in mind for the club becoming a legit contender again.

“I can tell you this: I’m going to be patient,” Fertitta told ESPN. “I know my basketball guys know what they’re doing. We’re not going to go do something stupid to try to get into the playoffs next year that then will prevent us from competing for a championship in a couple years. … I think we’ll be much better next year and we’ll be much better the following year and then we’ll be much better the following year.”

Rockets Notes: Olynyk, Stone, Wall, Brown

The Rockets are experimenting with Kelly Olynyk playing alongside Christian Wood before facing a decision on Olynyk this offseason, writes Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Acquired from the Heat in the Victor Oladipo trade last month, Olynyk has a $12.5MM expiring contract. He has been playing well since coming to Houston and may be raising his value on the free agent market. Iko suggests the Rockets have a limited figure in mind to offer Olynyk and want to take a long look at how his game meshes with Wood’s.

“It seems like they’re getting better every game,” coach Stephen Silas said of his frontcourt combination. “They’re both getting their opportunities, obviously. … They’re starting to play well together and figure it out. There’s a lot I could tell them as far as where they need to be on the floor, but when you play five-out basketball, it’s hard to tell a guy where they should be all the time. They’re both two smart guys; they’re figuring it out. It’s a work in progress, but I like what I see so far.”

There’s more from Houston:

  • In a radio appearance today on SportsTalk 790, Rockets general manager Rafael Stone promised the organization will be “aggressive” on the trade and free agent markets this summer, but his goal remains to “build really smart,” relays Ben DuBose of USA Today’s RocketsWire. “We do think we can be competitive very quickly. We would hope to field a much more competitive team next year,” Stone said. “But in terms of how long the rebuild takes, a lot of that depends on how long it takes us to acquire a player or two who have the ability to be truly elite. Maybe we even have one or two of those guys on our roster. But it’s not a one-day process.”
  • John Wall returned to the court tonight after missing the past four games with hip, hamstring and knee issues, tweets Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. Silas said Wall’s minutes will be limited, but he didn’t provide a specific number.
  • Sterling Brown has earned Silas’ faith in any role, Feigen writes in a full story. Brown signed a one-year deal in the offseason and will be back on the market this summer. “I trust Sterling as a starter (or) coming off the bench,” Silas said. “He’s been super, super consistent for us this season. Him as a starter, him coming off the bench, he’s very steady.”

Rockets’ GM Doesn’t Regret Return In James Harden Trade

Victor Oladipo, the only big-name player the Rockets got in return for James Harden, barely stayed in Houston for two months, but general manager Rafael Stone doesn’t regret making the deal with the Nets, writes Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

Oladipo was traded to Miami last week for a modest return of Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and a 2022 pick swap. As a result, the Rockets’ haul for Harden mostly consists of the collection of draft picks Stone received from the Nets (and Cavs) in the four-team blockbuster.

“I would for sure, 100 percent, do that deal again,” Stone said. “Again, you guys don’t have the advantages of knowing everything I know, but literally no part of me regrets doing that deal. I have not second-guessed it for a moment. A lot of what I said about being in a position maybe to not have to be bad (to rebuild), there’s some other things that we’ve done, too, but it’s primarily that deal that’s allowed us to say, ‘Hey, we want to compete on a slightly quicker time frame.’ We’re not going to go down this path of intentionally trying to lose games for years on end.”

The Rockets could have hung unto Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen in the Harden trade, but flipped LeVert to Indiana for Oladipo and sent Allen to Cleveland along with Taurean Prince for a future first-round pick.

After acquiring Oladipo, the Rockets determined he wasn’t a good fit alongside John Wall and a group of young players. Oladipo is headed for free agency this summer, and Houston wasn’t willing to make the financial commitment it would have taken to re-sign him. The team also wants to give more playing time to 20-year-old guard Kevin Porter Jr., who was acquired from the Cavaliers in January and played in the G League until early March.

The Harden trade could eventually pay huge dividends for the Rockets, who received draft capital from Brooklyn over the next seven years. Stone said critics need to be patient in examining what the team got in return for its superstar.

“One of your colleagues texted me the day after the trade and they said they would evaluate me in 2027,” Stone told McMahon. “And I told them that that was too early; they should do it in 2030. I think we felt at the time that we did the best deal for the franchise possible. Obviously, that’s my job, so I did it. Particularly given the types of things we got back, yeah, it feels like you can’t possibly know how you did for multiple years — like three, five, something like that. But I feel good about it. I do feel good about it.”

The Rockets have bottomed out since the Harden deal, losing 20 straight games at one point and falling into a tie for the league’s second-worst record. Stone said injuries played a part in the collapse, as well as the lack of a foundation after so many years of making short-term moves in pursuit of a title.

Stone has worked this year to build up a stockpile of draft picks, and he believes Houston can quickly rebuild around a “young core that we really like” made up of Porter, center Christian Wood and rookie forwards Jae’Sean Tate and KJ Martin.

“In terms of how we go from here, I feel pretty comfortable that we like where we are in the beginning stages,” Stone said. “We’re going to take constant bets. Everybody does that; it’s just the level you do it at. We’re going to do it — not all of them are going to work out. … I don’t think that we need to do like a wholesale tank strategy like some other teams have done in the past or maybe are doing now.”

Southwest Notes: Lewis, Bey/Hinton, Stone, Porter

Rookie Pelicans point guard Kira Lewis Jr. has carved out further playing time with New Orleans, per Scott Kushner of the Times-Picayune. “He’s just so young,” head coach Stan Van Gundy said of the 19-year-old rookie, the No. 13 draft pick out of Alabama in 2020. “But he does so many good things. Trying to figure out how we throw him into that rotation is something we are definitely thinking about.”

Van Gundy expounded on his interest in exploring more time on the court for Lewis as the Pelicans’ 2020/21 season progresses: “Does that mean every single night? Does it mean 20 minutes a game? Does it mean 12 minutes a game? I can’t give you a definitive on that yet. But I do think I want him to play.”

There’s more out of the Southwest Division:

  • Two-way Mavericks rookies Tyler Bey and Nate Hinton have been sent to the NBA G League’s Long Island Nets to participate in the NBAGL 2021 season in Orlando, per an official team tweet.
  • Rockets GM Rafael Stone has exhibited an aptitude for being able to tinker with his roster quickly, Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle writes. Stone’s haul after trading away All-Star James Harden – led by wing Victor Oladipo – has impressed on the court. Houston is currently riding a six-game win streak to climb into the top eight teams within the competitive Western Conference.
  • The Grizzlies are sending forward Jontay Porter to the the club’s G League affiliate, the Memphis Hustle, for the 2021 NBAGL season in Orlando, according to a team press release.

Texas Notes: New Rockets Backcourt, Doncic, McLemore, Stone

With the James Harden drama now in their rearview, the Rockets have a backcourt featuring two former All-Stars in John Wall and Victor Oladipo, writes Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. That guard tandem, plus well-paid reserve Eric Gordon, will need to develop chemistry and coordinate how they divvy up shooting and ball-handling duties.

Feigen notes that Wall and Oladipo could be a better defensive pair than their predecessor duos of Harden and Russell Westbrook and Harden and Chris Paul, though injuries could be an impediment to that. Both Wall and Oladipo have lengthy injury histories, and Wall is currently out with knee issues.

There’s more out of the Lone Star State:

  • Mavericks All-Star Luka Doncic and longtime head coach Rick Carlisle will have to move past the former’s noticeable frustration that the latter did not employ an available timeout during a pivotal late-game possession in Dallas’s eventual 112-109 defeat to the Bucks last Friday, as Tim MacMahon of ESPN details.
  • Backup Rockets guard Ben McLemore realizes that expectations for Houston may be lower than they were with Harden, but contends that the team has more than enough to compete, per Mark Berman of Fox 26 Houston (Twitter video link). “We got guys that are gonna fight, that’s gonna compete, that’s dogs,” McLemore said.
  • Rockets GM Rafael Stone discussed the new-look club during a virtual media conference call today, according to Tim MacMahon of ESPN. Stone explained his interest in ultimately making a trade with the Nets for James Harden. “What’s super exciting about this deal is that it gives us flexibility,” Stone said. “In the NBA, picks are the best currency. Everybody likes them, everybody values them.” Stone also mentioned that the club “will aggressively be trying to use” the $10.6MM trade exception it acquired in the transaction ahead of the 2020/21 season’s trade deadline in late March.

Rockets Notes: Clemons, Wall, Cousins, Wood, Harden, JVG

A few of Chris ClemonsRockets teammates know exactly what the second-year guard is going through, writes Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. Like Clemons, who tore his Achilles tendon on Tuesday, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, and David Nwaba have all had to attempt to make their way back to full health after suffering a torn Achilles.

“I spoke with him last night after the game,” Cousins said. “My only message was just take your time. One thing I noticed with professional athletes and injuries, we love our craft, we love the game itself. Once you have tough off, you’re always itching to get back and play that game.

“… We’re so used to playing through pain. Sometimes, we feel like we’re in a good place when it’s not necessarily the case. My only message is take his time, get everything right, he has a lot of basketball left to play in his career.”

The only silver lining of the injury for Clemons is that he’ll now be assured of his $1.52MM salary for 2020/21 — it was previously non-guaranteed. The Rockets, who are up against a hard cap, figure to keep Clemons on their roster since they don’t currently have the flexibility to replace him with a free agent if they cut him.

As Bobby Marks of ESPN details (via Twitter), Houston could attempt to make room for another player by trading Clemons (along with a second-round pick) to another club. If the Rockets are uninterested in such a move, they’ll likely have to waive either Gerald Green or Bruno Caboclo before the regular season begins in order to stay below the hard cap.

Here’s more from out of Houston:

  • John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins will sit out the Rockets’ preseason finale on Thursday vs. San Antonio, according to Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. The club is handling both players carefully, since they’re coming off major injuries. Meanwhile, Christian Wood – who missed Houston’s first three preseason contests with a sore left elbow – is considered questionable to play.
  • It’s a bit of a worrisome sign that James Harden said during his media session on Wednesday that he hasn’t had a conversation at all with new Rockets GM Rafael Stone, writes Kelly Iko of The Athletic. Even if Harden remains dead-set on being traded, a deal of that magnitude will require some communication between the superstar guard and the Rockets’ head of basketball operations, Iko says.
  • Sources tell Marc Berman of The New York Post that Jeff Van Gundy probably could have had the Rockets’ head coaching job this offseason, but “was indifferent toward it.” Van Gundy was said to be owner Tilman Fertitta‘s top choice, though it seemed as if the team’s front office and players preferred other candidates. Either way, Van Gundy sounds happy with his current job, telling Berman that he’s  “real fortunate to be able to work at ESPN/ABC.”

Rockets’ New GM: We’re Still ‘All In’ To Contend

The Rockets have undergone a leadership change in the past month, hiring a new general manager and coach, but it hasn’t affected their commitment to being a title contender, GM Rafael Stone tells Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. Stone, who had been executive vice president of basketball operations, was promoted when Daryl Morey parted ways with the organization last month. He said the team remains “all in” in its quest for a championship.

The makeup of Houston’s roster explains the commitment to trying to win right away. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are both 31 and can opt out after the 2021/22 season. Rotation members P.J. Tucker, Jeff Green and Eric Gordon are all over 30 as well.

“The good news is we have really, really good basketball players. I don’t view it as perilous. I view it as a unique opportunity,” Stone said. “I’m getting a talented roster that has already won; not to the level we want but won in a big way. It’s about being very smart to keep the good stuff and be additive. You don’t want to do anything rash. You want to see if there are changes that will help. You don’t want to ad hoc make changes here and there. It’s a really cool opportunity because we’re going to win basketball games. That’s a great place to start.”

Stone touched on several other topics in the interview with Feigen, including:

The decision to hire Stephen Silas as head coach:

“We have a lot of similarities, educationally, background; we’re basically the same age. Even though this is our first opportunity, him as a head coach, me as a GM, respectively, we’re not getting it early in our careers. … He emphasized he wanted to be collaborative. I emphasized I wanted to be collaborative. We’ve been extremely collaborative. That’s great. That’s naturally how I go about things and I think how he goes about things.”

How personnel decisions will be influenced by the luxury tax:

“There are perhaps benefits to avoid it, but we’re planning to be in it. We were planning to be in it two years ago and I think last year. A lot of this is just what happens circumstantially there. There was a deal we for sure would have done last year at the trade deadline that would have had us well, well over the tax line. A team called and we said ‘yes.’ They chose not to do it. It’s not the cash-based decision people think it is. It is more the framework for how you build your roster. That’s still where we are. We’re certainly planning to be in the luxury tax this year. If a great deal appears and we end up shedding salary, we’d do that deal and then probably try to re-spend the salary. There’s no pressure whatsoever to not be in, but real pressure to win.”

Plans for the mid-level exception (projected to be about $5.7MM for taxpaying teams):

“We think we can bring in guys that can be very helpful there. That’s a way of getting depth. And, is there a guy we think we can get at mid-level we think is really good value? If that’s the case, we’re just going to do it, period. It’s all about talent. If we think a guy is better than the market thinks he is, we’re going to want to go get that guy. Mid-level is the best tool we have. We’re just going to be aggressive to try to get talent. Last year, we used it for Danuel House. We didn’t use all of it in that situation. It’s largely based on the market.”

 Whether the Rockets, who don’t have any picks this year, will try to trade back into the draft:

“We certainly wouldn’t mind getting into the draft, particularly if somebody becomes available we think will help us win now. We’re still in the win-now more than the develop four or five years from now mode. There are guys in the draft I think can play right away. We’ve had teams tell us they would be open to (a trade). I think we probably can get draft picks if the right guy is there.”

Rockets Notes: Lucas, Van Gundy, Harden, More

Although new Rockets general manager Rafael Stone opted for Stephen Silas over John Lucas as the team’s new head coach, Stone has been Lucas’ “biggest backer” within the organization in recent years, according to Marc Stein of The New York Times. Stone was a driving force in bringing Lucas back to coaching in 2016, when Houston hired him as its director of player development, says Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle.

The Rockets and Silas are working hard to keep Lucas on the team’s staff and to install him in a more prominent role, tweets Mark Berman of FOX 26 Houston. A source tells Feigen that, as of Tuesday, the two sides were in “extensive talks” on a deal that would keep Lucas in Houston as a member of Silas’ staff. While no deal is in place yet, there’s optimism one could get done on Wednesday, Feigen notes.

Here’s more on the Rockets:

  • Sources tell Marc Berman of The New York Post that Jeff Van Gundy “sent mixed vibes” regarding his interest in the Rockets’ job after interviewing with the team. Berman speculates that Van Gundy may have had concerns about the James Harden/Russell Westbrook fit or that he was just comfortable with his role as an analyst for ABC and ESPN.
  • According to Berman, some Rockets players were pulling for Lucas to get the team’s head coaching job. Marc Stein, meanwhile, says Harden’s top two endorsements for Lucas and Tyronn Lue. Rival teams are wondering if Harden is at all perturbed by the club’s eventual hire and whether the Rockets will become open to trading their superstar guard, Stein adds. Based on other recent reports, it sounds like that’s not an option Houston will consider this offseason.
  • In a pair of stories for The Athletic, Kelly Iko and John Hollinger evaluated a series of hypothetical trades involving the Rockets.

Rockets Coaching Candidates Knew Of Morey’s Decision

While Daryl Morey’s decision to step down as the Rockets’ GM surfaced this week, he said that coaching candidates were notified during the interviewing process that he was departing, Kelly Iko and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

Morey made up his mind nearly a month ago, a day after the team was eliminated from the Western Conference playoffs. Family considerations were the main reason why he chose to leave at this time.

“I mean he just said, ‘You know, I’m kind of just struggling and don’t know what I want to do,’” owner Tilman Fertitta said. “To tell y’all, when we signed Daryl’s last extension, Daryl told me, ‘You know, I’m not going to always be here (and) when my last son graduates (I might leave).'”

Head coach Mike D’Antoni decided he didn’t want to remain in the organization on the plane ride home and Morey said all of D’Antoni’s potential replacements were told that he was headed out, as well.

“We’ve been up front with all the candidates that this was coming and they’ve been respectful to not have it get out early,” said Morey, who added that D’Antoni’s parting did not impact his decision. “It’s been baked in.”

The Athletic duo, though, said that it hasn’t been quite that transparent. At least two of those candidates were uncertain why Rafael Stone, the executive VP of basketball operations who is replacing Morey as GM, was leading the interviewing process. They were not directly told Morey was going to step down.

Morey had essentially been operating as a consultant the past few weeks, The Athletic confirmed.

Houston has interviewed Jeff Van Gundy, Ty Lue, Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, David Vanterpool, Wes Unseld Jr., and John Lucas for the vacant coaching job. Lue has agreed to coach the Clippers, while Van Gundy, Silas and Lucas appear to be the top remaining candidates for the Rockets.

Rockets Notes: Morey, Stone, Silas, Johnson

Longtime Rockets general manager Daryl Morey announced on Thursday he’ll be stepping down from his role with the franchise on November 1, effectively ending a 14-year run with the franchise.

Morey was the engine behind several notable transactions in recent years, including signing Chris Paul to a four-year, $160MM deal, trading him for nine-time All-Star Russell Westbrook and moving center Clint Capela to usher the team into an unprecedented version of small-ball.

“After returning from Orlando and reflecting on what has been an amazing 14 years with the Houston Rockets, and after discussing my thoughts with family and close friends, I’ve decided I’ll be stepping away from the Rockets organization effective November 1st,” Morey said in a statement. “[Owner] Tilman [Fertitta] and I have had many conversations since I returned, and his unwavering support and counsel during our time together has been critical to our success.

“It has been the most gratifying experience of my professional life to lead the Rockets basketball organization, and I look forward to working with Tilman and the management team on the transition. I am very confident that the future – for the Rockets, and for our incredible fans – is in great hands, and that the Rockets will continue to perform at the highest level.”

Morey met with Fertitta on Thursday to inform him of his decision. Houston acted quickly on filling his soon-to-be-vacated position, promoting EVP of Basketball Operations Rafael Stone to GM and giving Eli Witus an increased role as assistant GM.

“On behalf of the entire Rockets organization, I would like to thank Daryl Morey for his hard work and dedication over the past 14 seasons,” Fertitta said. “Daryl is a brilliant innovator who helped the Rockets become a perennial contender. I have truly enjoyed working with Daryl and couldn’t have asked for a better general manager to have at the start of my ownership.  I wish him and his family all the best.”

There’s more out of Houston today:

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle examines the rise of new GM Rafael Stone, who originally joined the franchise back in 2005. Feigen notes in a separate story that Stone will lead the team’s search for a new head coach in the coming days and weeks.
  • Houston will interview Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas for a second time on Friday, according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and Brian Windhorst (Twitter link). The Rockets have reportedly focused on the trio of Silas, Jeff Van Gundy and John Lucas for the team’s vacant head coaching position.
  • Longtime Rockets scout Brent ‘B.J.’ Johnson tragically passed away on Thursday due to a bicycle accident, Feigen relays in a story for the Houston Chronicle. “He was riding his bike and hit a culvert,” Johnson’s wife Claudette said. “There was construction. They are thinking he fell forward and broke his neck because there was no blood.” Johnson is described by those who knew him as hard-working, positive and influential. He was hired by the organization back in 1994. “BJ was beloved and respected not only throughout the Rockets organization, but across the league and the basketball world,” the Rockets said as part of a larger statement on social media (Twitter links).