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Rockets GM defend James Harden trade return: We’re not trying to lose for years on end

Former Rockets players Victor Oladipo and P.J. Tucker and Nets star James Harden

HOUSTON, TEXAS - MARCH 03: James Harden #13 of the Brooklyn Nets loses the ball as he is pressured by P.J. Tucker #17 of the Houston Rockets and Victor Oladipo #7 during the second quarter at Toyota Center on March 03, 2021 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

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The Rockets didn’t take Ben Simmons from the 76ers in the James Harden trade. Houston didn’t take Caris LeVert or Jarrett Allen from the Nets, either.

Instead, the Rockets preferred a picks-heavy package from Brooklyn and rerouting LeVert to the Pacers for Victor Oladipo and Allen to the Cavaliers for another first-round pick. Houston also kept P.J. Tucker rather than including him in the deal.

Houston has already flipped Oladipo to the Heat for a meager return. Ben Simmons is still starring in Philadelphia. Allen is thriving Cleveland. P.J. Tucker brought only modest return in a trade with the Bucks.

Rockets general manager Rafael Stone on the Harden trade, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“I would for sure, 100%, do that deal again,” Stone said in a virtual media availability Monday. “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 timeframe.’ We’re not going to go down this path of intentionally trying to lose games for years on end.”

The Rockets are 13-33 and just suffered a 20-game losing streak. Good to know that, if they continue to lose for years on end, it wasn’t intentional.

Stone is unsurprisingly defending himself. Not only is admitting mistakes difficult, Stone is new to running an NBA team. He doesn’t have a strong track record to fall back on.

The last Nets unprotected first-rounder conveys in 2026. The last Nets pick swap comes in 2027. Of course, Stone will love to defer judgment – and hold his prestigious job – until then.

But Houston could have had all those picks (save the Bucks’ 2021 first-rounder, which later got included in the Tucker trade) AND LeVert AND Allen. Not getting those two players looked like a mistake at the time and looks even worse now.

Oladipo didn’t keep the Rockets competitive. He didn’t hold much trade value. Targeting him was just an error.

Passing on Simmons is more complicated. We don’t know the 76ers’ exact offer, and we can’t know how he would have fared in Houston. Unmade trades are extremely difficult to evaluate.

But we know the trade the Rockets made. They didn’t necessarily do poorly, especially considering Harden reduced their leverage by forcing his way out. But – in ways that were foreseeable at the time – they also didn’t do as well as they should have.

It’d bode better for Houston’s future if Stone realizes that – whether or not he publicly admits it.