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The Houston Rockets were wise to extend Rafael Stone

Fans of NBA teams don’t typically love their team’s general manager.

You probably love your guy if you’re a fan of a handful of exalted teams. They put your team in this situation. Otherwise, if you pull for one of 25 or so clubs, you’ve got complaints.

It’s human nature. Most teams in the league have issues. As fans, we’re likely to develop some parasocial feelings towards the players. Those are the guys that we’re fans of.

The GM? Who cares? He’s a bumbling fool. Surely, that explains why our group of perfect players aren’t serious title contenders.

Only, if you care for objectivity, it doesn’t work that way. General managers are at the mercy of their fortunes. They’re likely to catch some bad breaks. They can also make mistakes without being utterly incompetent.

Look at Rafael Stone. Sure, he’s made some mistakes. He’s also put the Houston Rockets in an optimal position.

Ownership agrees. Stone just received his extension. You may think he doesn’t deserve it:

You’re wrong.

Let’s look at the situation in the aggregate. When Stone was named the GM, the Rockets were a sinking ship. Mike D’Antoni infamously took flight – well, during a flight. James Harden was quick to follow.

The situation was crazy. It couldn’t be fixed. As it turns out, it could – it would simply take a few years.

Stone has had a plan from the moment he moved Harden. The Rockets opted to trade the beared superstar for draft capital. They received no young star player in return. The obvious intention was to tank.

After all, the Rockets had John Wall’s dead money on the books. That wasn’t Stone’s fault. It was Daryl Morey who pulled the trigger on the Russell Westbrook deal. Trading his bad contract for another bad contract and some draft capital was the opening salvo of Stone’s tenure.

Now, three years later, the Rockets have a core group of six young players who’d be the envy of most rebuilding teams. They just clued up a .500 season.

Has everything gone according to plan?

We wouldn’t go that far.

It’s often suggested that the Rockets tanked for three seasons, and still don’t have a clearcut franchise player.

That was always a possibility. The Rockets didn’t land a number-one pick. The closest they came was in 2021 when they selected Jalen Green with the second overall pick.

Arguably, that was the wrong call. Currently, several players from that class are on a stronger trajectory – including Sengun.

OK. This was a three-man draft. The Pistons nabbed Cade Cunningham with the first pick. The Rockets were only going to take one of Evan Mobley or Green with the second overall selection.

The Raptors shocked the world by selecting Scottie Barnes over Jalen Suggs with the fourth pick. Nobody was taking Franz Wagner with the second overall pick. It was Green, or it was Mobley.

Mobley hasn’t looked like a franchise-altering talent either. He’s roughly on pace with Green – Mobley is a transformative defender with limited offensive tools.

Otherwise, the Rockets took the guy that everyone was taking in both the 2022 and 2023 lotteries. If you want to judge Stone as a talent evaluator, you need to look at what he’s done later in the draft.

Who have the Rockets selected outside of the lottery? How about Alperen Sengun, Tari Eason, and Cam Whitmore?

Sengun nearly made an All-Star team this year. Eason has the potential to be one of the most impactful role players in the NBA. Whitmore could wind up being the best scorer in his class.

Some will chalk that up to luck – we’ll address that later. They’ll also point to Stone having wasted picks on Josh Christopher, Usman Garuba, and TyTy Washington.

Fair. Unfortunately, the Rockets didn’t get value from that trio. At the same time, it’s worth noting that those were all late first-rounders. On average, players selected in the mid-to-late 20s have low value.

Let’s review. Stone has selected the same players every GM would have selected in three straight lotteries. He’s scored a huge steal in the middle of each draft, and he flopped in the backend of the first round three times.

Given the expected return from all of the picks he’s made, that’s an impressive track record. Stone has drafted well. How about that luck?

Well, it cuts both ways, right? If the Rockets had landed the first overall pick in 2023, they’d have selected Victor Wembanyama. That was a fairly easy decision for the Spurs, wasn’t it? So why are we docking points from Stone for making the obvious choice with the 20th pick in Cam Whitmore?

Luck is a variable for every general manager. We shouldn’t criticize Stone for making obvious decisions if they were also the right decisions.

Besides, he also made a clever trade for Alperen Sengun. The Rockets sent the Thunder two additional picks that are likely to convey in the second round in exchange for the young star.

Surely, Stone deserves credit for that.

Doesn’t he?

Well, it’s become a piece of Rockets X folklore that assistant Eli Witus was responsible for selecting Sengun.

Is that true? We’re not sure. Google doesn’t provide any answers. If you can find an article that suggests that Witus wanted Sengun, send it our way.

Let’s assume that it’s true. So what? Isn’t part of Stone’s job to delegate responsibility? Let’s pretend, for argument’s sake, that Stone was thoroughly opposed to selecting Sengun.

We’re going to credit him for trusting his staff. That’s leadership. We don’t care who wanted Sengun.

We care that Sengun was acquired by Stone’s regime. Any criticisms about what Stone wanted or didn’t want are speculative if your name isn’t Fertitta, Udoka, or Stone.

It’s not reasonable to judge a general manager on incomplete, uninformed hearsay. There’s a simple formula for judging a GM. What situation was the team in before they took over, and what situation are they in now?

By that measure, Stone has done a fine job.

That doesn’t mean that he’s been perfect

Last summer, Stone gave away second-round picks like Oprah Winfrey used to give away cars:

“You get a pick, and you get a pick, and you get a pick!”

Stone was firing off second-round picks to clear marginal contracts from the books. It was a bit messy. It was worthy of criticism.

Overall, his track record on trades has been mixed. He’s also been relatively inactive on the trade market. The biggest deal Stone has made post-Harden has been the Christian Wood deal.

Some fans will say that Stone waited too long to move Wood. That may be fair. At one point, there were P.J. Washington rumors. By the time Stone moved him, he was only able to receive the late first that he used to select a different Washington – TyTy.

At the same time, he received a comparable return that the Pistons did for Jerami Grant. If we’re strictly looking at the market at the moment, it was a fine deal. Wood had been outed as a low-effort defender and problematic locker room figure.

Speaking of problematic locker room figures, Stone got Kevin Porter Jr. for an expired sandwich. That was a high-value trade.

Yet, critics will point to the Porter Jr. saga as another reason to doubt Stone. Did he spend three years trying to convert him to a point guard because he believed in him? Or, was that a covert tanking tactic?

We’ll never know – we can only speculate. Still, we’d suggest that Stone doesn’t sign Fred VanVleet and draft Amen Thompson in the same summer if he believes Porter Jr. is the point guard of the future. If nothing else, he recognized that the experiment wasn’t working.

Did he damage the young players by giving Porter Jr. such a long leash? That’s debatable. It’s subjective – it can’t be proven or disproven.

Where is the proof of that damage? Jabari Smith Jr. elevated from non-NBA caliber to starting-caliber between his rookie and sophomore seasons. Sengun is a star. Has Green’s arrested development proven that tanking and running Porter Jr. at point was destructive?

It’s an interesting, chicken-and-egg, nature vs nurture philosophical question. We would suggest that player development likely hinges on the players before it hinges on their circumstances.

Still, tanking is likely suboptimal in terms of development. That’s fair. On the other hand, the Rockets don’t have their core six if they don’t tank.

There’s no foolproof plan in the NBA. The Rockets opted to tank for three seasons because there was no star to pivot toward after Harden. It’s not a question of whether this is the best plan in a vacuum. It’s a question of whether this was the best plan in the context of where the Rockets stood in 2020.

We think it was.

So does Tilman Fertitta.

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