There is a pipeline between Houston and Sacramento. Over the last few years, these two teams have shuffled players back and forth, almost like they were the only two teams in the league.
Remember Ron Artest for Bobby Jackson, Donte Greené and the pick that became Omri Casspi? What about Kevin Martin for Carl Landry? There are almost too many deals to recall and that is before we touch base on free agent acquisitions.
“They always draft guys we like too and so there’s always been a synergy between the franchises,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told Grantland’s Zach Lowe during the SLOAN Analytics Conference in Boston this year.
From the Sacramento side, what is it that makes the Rockets’ players so appealing? Why did Geoff Petrie chase Chuck Hayes and Aaron Brooks in free agency? Or what about the latest big deal that shipped Thomas Robinson, Francisco Garcia and Tyler Honeycutt to Houston for Patrick Patterson, Toney Douglas and Cole Aldrich.
According to coach Keith Smart, the Rockets, as well as other teams in the league, are finding players that not only have size and athleticism, but a high-level understanding of the game as well.
“I think every team is developing players,” Smart said during his pregame media session on Sunday. “So I don’t think it’s one team over the other. I think they (Rockets) do a good job of looking at guys that fit not only from a physical standpoint, but also from the mental part.
“As you move through the league, the guys with the physical attributes, it evens out,” Smart continued. “Now (you look for) the guys who can take it to the next level from a mental understanding of how the game is played – how to prepare, how to be ready for adjustments in game…”
And the Houston front office, led by Morey, is doing a great job of finding these types of players
Really, Morey and his staff mine the draft for talent that not only have the prerequisite physical tools, but also have the acumen to improve over time due to their high basketball IQ.
This was a signature of Petrie-run teams in previous decades. Folks seem to forget draft picks like Peja Stojakovic, Hedo Turkoglu and Martin, who all brought the Kings high-end talent deeper in the draft.
This may sound counterintuitive, but selecting outside of the NBA Draft lottery may in fact be helping the Rockets find players that develop faster at the NBA level.
The lottery is strictly a raw, physical asset game. That’s not to say that you can’t find a high IQ player in the lottery, but the focus has clearly shifted to youth, potential and physical attributes when at or near the top of the draft.
As you slide down, teams are looking for rotational talent, not star-quality players. There are still a few high-level athletes that slip through the cracks, but research says that players drafted outside of the lottery tend to be slightly older on average and have more experience, which gives teams a larger sample size when assessing their skill set.
While a team like the Rockets have had a difficult time finding high-level talent like Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins outside of the lottery, they have been able to secure someone like James Harden, the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, by moving assets they’ve developed and cultivated.
“We’re not a team that’s going to pick high,” Morey told Lowe. “Look, we’re competitive people, we’ve got good players. We’re just never going to be bad enough to be in the top five and if we’re not in the top five, we’re going to hustle.”
It’s how Houston has to build. They aren’t bad enough to draft high in the lottery or good enough to waste late round picks on potential. They need to find quality talent like Landry (31st pick, 2007), Hayes (undrafted), Brooks (26th pick, 2007), Patterson (14th pick, 2010) and Chandler Parsons (38th pick, 2011). Talent they can mold quickly into functional players.
The team in Houston takes calculated risks on talent they feel they can turn into assets, where a lot of other teams swing for the fences with boom or bust players. It is a philosophical decision that has worked wonders for the Rockets.
So why would Houston trade a productive starter in Patterson for Robinson? Because they have to gamble when high-end talent becomes available. They already have the structure and track record in place to attempt to develop Robinson. They also have the role players to surround Robinson if he ever reaches his potential. It’s another calculated risk for the future, but one that the Rockets feel comfortable making.
“We’ve stressed to our coaching staff that we’ve made it harder to make the playoffs this year,” Morey said. “We think it was the right move to get Thomas because we need other guys who have All-Star potential and I thought Patrick would fall a little short of that.”
As it stands, the Rockets will attempt to develop Robinson and hope to convert talent into production, like they’ve done with players less naturally gifted. If it works, they may have another star player to pair with Harden.
And why would the Kings make such a move?
Because they don’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with yet another physically gifted young player that needs nurturing. While many will disagree, this isn’t really an indictment on the Kings, as much as it is a reality of the situation.
Every player develops at a different pace and because Sacramento continues to sit high in the lottery every year, they follow the league trend of drafting for physical attributes and not intangibles.
While Robinson has incredible upside, he also has the potential to be a complete bust at the pro level.
Could Petrie have gotten more for Robinson? Maybe, but he got a player that he knows understands the game and can help his team sooner rather than later. He bought a little bit of basketball IQ and a whole lot of cash for his owners.
Does Petrie wish he had drafted Damian Lillard? You bet he does. But again, this is the danger of drafting in the lottery every year. It truly is a crapshoot. Robinson isn’t the first top five pick to get off to a slow start and if he is a bust, he won’t be the first to accomplish that feat either.
If there is one major mistake the Kings made in this whole saga, it came in their evaluation of Robinson before they drafted him. Like the other four players selected in the top five of the 2012 NBA Draft, Robinson refused the invitation to come out to Sacramento. Maybe they thought they got a good feel for the kid at the combine, but I’m pretty sure they are wishing they had some real face time with Robinson before they spent the fifth pick on him.
The reality is once Robinson was drafted, he was no longer the fifth pick in the NBA Draft. He was Thomas Robinson, the backup power forward for the Sacramento Kings, which isn’t nearly as valuable.
And keep in mind that this isn’t the first time Houston has gambled on a cast-off, lottery pick either. Two seasons ago they brought in both Hasheem Thabeet (second pick, 2009) and Jonny Flynn (sixth pick, 2009) with the thought that maybe they could turn around the careers of two major league busts.
Neither player responded to the challenge. Flynn is out of the NBA and Thabeet is now playing for his fourth team in four seasons in the league.
While Morey and Petrie have completely different methods, they have similar tastes in players, something Morey confirmed to me last year at the SLOAN Conference. Houston has refined assets. Sacramento has high-end talent in need of nurturing. When you factor in that their general managers like many of the same players, it makes sense that they would look to each other to improve.
You can’t escape the fact that cash considerations on the part of the Maloof family were a motive in this deal. But from my point of view, both the Rockets and the Kings got exactly what they needed out the latest trade between the clubs and it’s not often you can say that.