Culture / Sporting Life

Half Lucky — Rockets Miss Out on No. 1 Pick and Likely Cade Cunningham, But Jalen Suggs Gives Them a Chance to Still Grab a Star

NBA Draft Lottery Isn't Perfect for Houston, But It Falls Kindly for the Fertittas and Rafael Stone

BY // 06.22.21

Trading James Harden did not get the Houston Rockets Ben Simmons. And finishing with the worst record in the NBA is likely not going to secure the Rockets the services of Cade Cunningham, the potentially transcendent Oklahoma State star, either.

Being No. 2 offers few guarantees. Still, things could have bounced much worse for Tilman Fertitta, Patrick Fertitta, Rafael Stone and the rest of the Rockets brain trust. They did not fall out of the top four in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, which would have given their first pick to Oklahoma City and made their first selection in a packed draft come down in the hinterlands at No. 18.

You are not changing the course of your franchise with the 18th pick.

At No. 2, where the Rockets ended up, you have a chance. Even if it’s not at Cunningham.

After a season of very few wins, the Rockets get something of one with the ping pong balls. If the Detroit Pistons take Cunningham No. 1 as expected, the Rockets will still have a chance to add a talent like Jalen Suggs, the proven clutch commodity from Gonzaga with oodles of upside.

Suggs is the surest thing in the draft — and a potential future star. Of course, the Rockets could decide to defy the way the NBA is going and draft USC 7-footer Evan Mobley or fixate on combo guard Jalen Green’s upside instead. That’d be a mistake, but not as big of one as not getting more for Harden.

The Rockets are at least in the game with this No. 2 pick, in a position to grab a player to center their rebuild around. Ja Morant went No. 2 in 2019. Kevin Durant was once the No. 2 pick. And so was Steve Francis, Jason Kidd and Isiah Thomas back in the day.

Of course, Marvin Bagley, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Hasheem Thabeet and the immortal Darko Milicic were all also No. 2 picks

Landing at No. 2 clearly puts Rafael Stone, the Rockets’ second-year general manager, under the microscope. Stone did not do a great job with the Harden trade. Whether that’s all his fault or not remains uncertain. We may never know for sure if Stone was discouraged from the idea of trading with ex-Rockets GM Daryl Morey. (And yes, Ben Simmons would make these Rockets so much better as the conductor of a fun, fast-breaking, young team no matter how much overreactive Philly fans despise him at the moment.)

But there will be no limitations on this No. 2 pick. This is a selection that could set the tone for Stone’s entire Houston tenure.

If the Rockets had landed the No. 1 pick, Cunningham likely would have been a no-brainer, little-pressure choice. If Houston had fallen all the way to 18, no one would have expected anything. But picking at No. 2 means the Rockets will be very much shaped by Stone’s analysis of Suggs, Mobley and Green.

Stone has to know he has little margin for error here. New GMs in competitive markets like Houston rarely have anything close to a safety net.

Jalen Suggs’ No. 2 Power

Suggs was an absolute force for an ultra talented Gonzaga team as a freshman. He was the player opponents worried about most, the one who took the biggest shots (see the incredible game winner against UCLA in the Final Four). Suggs showed the type of high-level competitive fire that Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant showed in their own brief college careers.

That does not mean Jalen Suggs is going to be a Jordan or Durant — no one is. But that means something.

Now Rockets fans can only hope that Rafael Stone sees it.

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