Dec 19, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; against the Houston Rockets general manager Rafael Stone smiles before the game against the San Antonio Spurs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Five biggest questions facing Rafael Stone and the Rockets in 2023
2023 may very well be the most consequential year of the Rafael Stone era. The Rockets are going to finish at or near the bottom of the standings for a third straight season, but decisions that are made before it ends and into the summer will shape the team’s future. Here are the five biggest questions facing Stone and the Rockets in 2023:
Should the Rockets be interested in a James Harden reunion?
We are coming up on two years since Stone ended the Harden era by sending him to Brooklyn, and reports last month indicated he could be interested in a return when he likely hits free agency this summer. Does it make sense for a very young Rockets team to be interested in a 34-year-old Harden? Would he aid in the development of the team’s young pillars, or would he stunt their growth?
The Rockets could have as much as $60 million in cap space when the season ends. They don’t have to spend it this summer, but that cap space will be gone in 2024 when Jalen Green and the rest of their 2021 draft class is due for contract extensions, so it’s important they take advantage of the flexibility they have.
Harden has relationships with the Rockets’ young core and played pickup with most of it over the summer at Toyota Center. Harden could use his old team as leverage to get a max contract with the Sixers, who traded a lot to get him last winter, but Harden and the Rockets have only praised each other since Harden’s departure, even though it was quite messy.
Will the Rockets spend their cap space this summer or will they choose to wait?
Even as he is slated to turn 34 years old before the start of next season, Harden is the best player slated to hit the market this summer, which is all you need to know about the strength of the class. Khris Middleton, Fred Van Vleet, Kyrie Irving, Draymond Green, Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner, D’Angelo Russell, and Nikola Vucevic are the next highest-rated possible free agents, according to HoopsHype. The most intriguing name that could be available to the Rockets after Harden is Phoenix’s Cam Johnson, but he’s a restricted free agent, and with an ownership change coming in Phoenix, the notoriously cheap Suns are now likely to match any offer sheet for Johnson.
The Rockets could roll their cap space over to the summer of 2024 when the likes of Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray, and Dejounte Murray hit the market, but that can be a risky game to play. Aside from Dwight Howard a decade ago, the Rockets have come up empty when chasing the biggest prizes in free agency.
Is it time to trade Eric Gordon?
It felt like the Rockets were going to trade Gordon the second Harden was dealt, but here we are two years later, and he remains in Houston, but for how much longer? Gordon told Stone he wanted to remain with the team before last year’s trade deadline, but it feels like, at age 34, he’s ready to move on.
There seemed to be momentum toward a trade to Philadelphia before June’s draft, but that never materialized. The Rockets were close to sending Gordon to Phoenix in a three-way trade with Milwaukee earlier this season, but a deal couldn’t be agreed on. Moving Gordon now would open 30 minutes each night to divvy up to the Rockets developing core, minutes that will become increasingly valuable whenever Jae’Sean Tate returns from his ankle injury, which is expected to be this week.
One reason the Rockets may be inclined to hold onto Gordon is his relationship with Harden. The two have known each other since high school and remain close, so Harden may be more inclined to rejoin the Rockets if Gordon is still around, but the Rockets the Rockets end up trading Gordon, there’s nothing stopping them from bringing him back when he’s also likely to hit free agency after the season.
Will K.J. Martin get an extension?
Martin has become an indispensable role player for the Rockets since they declined to grant his trade request over the summer. In his third NBA season, the soon-to-be 22-year-old is averaging 10 points and five rebounds per game while essentially serving as the team’s sixth starter. He’s become a versatile defender who can protect the rim, and he’s become a well-rounded offensive player who can shoot, finish inside, put the ball on the floor, and make plays for others.
Martin will certainly be looking for more than the three-year, $22 million contract Jae’Sean Tate signed in June, but Tate’s contract was team-friendly, and with the way the cap is expected to spike in 2025, a contract that looks like an overpay today will seem like a bargain in the future.
Does Stephen Silas have a future as the Rockets head coach?
Silas is 47-144 as head coach of the Rockets, and the team holds an option on his contract for next season, but it feels like that option would’ve been picked up if the team thought he was part of its future. After spending two decades as an NBA assistant, Silas was hired to coach a team with championship aspirations but shifted to a complete rebuild in a matter of months. The Rockets’ 10-27 record is not a surprise to anyone in the front office, which is why the team could’ve picked up Silas’ option before the season or even given him a contract extension, but the fact none of that has happened leads me to think he’ll be made the fall guy for the Rockets third consecutive losing season, something that hasn’t happened since its first three campaigns in Houston.