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Houston's long-term future murky after trading disgruntled James Harden

Seerat Sohi
·5-min read

The last time Victor Oladipo was traded for a disgruntled superstar, he turned into the consolation prize that outshined the trophy, when the Indiana Pacers dealt Paul George for him and Domantas Sabonis (man, what a haul).

Coming off picks, Oladipo was sunshine bursting through an open runway. You didn’t know if he’d shoot or pass, which side of the rim he’d finish on or which hand he’d use, whether he’d hang in the air before dumping it off on his way to his first All-Star season.

He developed one of the quickest dribble-to-shot gathers in the NBA, like a hero drawing his weapon in a Western. Every move was a fresh surprise. He didn’t just grow. He glistened. He smiled. He sung. He was home. Have you seen him in transition? He was fun.

After a ruptured quad in 2019, he’s almost back to his old self, and he’s the infusion of energy the Houston Rockets need.

A team with a disgruntled superstar has a mission beyond getting a heavy return: They need to get out of an exhausting situation. If you couldn’t see it on rookie head coach Stephen Silas’ face when the Lakers punked the Rockets on Tuesday, you could see it in the players. James Harden said more in a 45-second news conference than he had all season, reiterating his desire for a trade. Fighting words emerged from the mouths of vets John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, guys who have seen things, been through things.

Victor Oladipo goes up for the dunk against Mikal Bridges of the Phoenix Suns.
Victor Oladipo is headed to the Houston Rockets. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Two months after Harden’s initial demand, something had to give, and it did, fast. The deal involved four teams, but for the purposes of this column, here’s what you need to know: The Rockets traded Harden to the Brooklyn Nets, who provided them with Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, four unprotected first-round picks (the Nets’ 2022, 2024 and 2026 picks and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2022 pick) as well as the right to swap picks in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027. The Pacers traded Oladipo, a more politely disgruntled star, for Caris LeVert and a second-round pick.

Oladipo has had an interesting career arc. The No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, he toiled in Orlando and became a super-role player in Oklahoma, hunting steals next to Russell Westbrook and running the second unit. When he was traded for George, the Pacers were ridiculed.

Oops.

In Indiana, the world was his. You got the sense he got used to it. Then he ruptured his quad. While Oladipo was on the mend, the Pacers unlocked Sabonis as the passing nucleus of a well-balanced half-court attack. The gambit has worked out quite well, but it took away driving lanes and touches that once belonged to Oladipo. Sabonis leads the NBA with 105.3 touches per game. Pacers point guard Malcolm Brogdon is not far away with 94.8.

Fans will always wonder if new coach Nate Bjorkgren’s modern infusions would have smoothed the divide, but you can understand why a small market would part ways with a star who was already eyeing the door.

Circumstances change fast, and so the pick-and-roll impresario lands in Houston. Oladipo is three years removed from that breakout season, but so far this season, he looks 90 percent of the way back.

At 28, he’s averaging 20 points and shooting 7.7 threes at 36%. Any athletic decline looks consistent with a player who has aged three years out of their athletic prime, not one hampered by an injury.

If Oladipo arrives with demands, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta knows how to cater. If he wants the ball, the Rockets just traded the most ball-dominant player in the NBA. He’ll have to divvy up touches between his new teammate, former All-Star point guard John Wall, but there’s plenty of vacuum to fill.

In Indiana, Sabonis evolved into the setup man. Aside from Wall, Oladipo’s new teammates are at their best being set up. P.J. Tucker and Danuel House are stocky 3-and-D wings. Christian Wood, Houston’s big free agency acquisition, can set picks, pop out for threes, roll for lobs, with touch everywhere on the floor.

James Harden warms up prior to a game for the Rockets.
The Houston Rockets needed to get out of an exhausting situation with James Harden. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Between Wall and Oladipo, the new Rockets backcourt averages 3.5 steals per game. Those skill sets could compound and make something combustible — a defending, running and passing style Silas has been trying to implement. At 3-6, they have an uphill climb at making the playoffs.

What this trade means for Houston in the long-term is still murky. Months ago, the Rockets were loaded for the present. To pair Harden with a star in his prime, they gave up assets to trade for Chris Paul and then Westbrook — offering four draft picks to exchange the guards. But the life cycle of an NBA team is fickle, unpredictable. The Rockets’ needs shifted the moment Harden wanted out. General manager Rafael Stone then found two teams — the Sixers and Nets — looking to win now and held their best offers under the light.

It’s not surprising that, in the aftermath, the Rockets field a roster on multiple timelines. Wood and Oladipo are in their primes, Wall and Cousins are likely in their twilight and then there are the picks that range from 2022 to 2027, that help them restock the picks they gave away in the Westbrook deal.

Even Oladipo’s future is a question. His contract is expiring this season, and if the Rockets want to rebuild, they could trade him starting March 4. His future will reveal Houston’s intentions. Did they really think Oladipo was better than Sixers star Ben Simmons, who was also reportedly on the table? Or is this deal just a veiled cost-cutting mechanism for Fertitta? All that has yet to reveal itself. The Rockets are still in the muck, but it’s better than where they were yesterday.

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