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Should Rafael Stone be on the hot seat following Kevin Porter Jr. incident?

Could Stone’s commitment to Kevin Porter Jr. cost him his job?

2023 NBA Draft Pick Portraits and Press Conferences
Is Stone the future GM of the Rockets?
Photo by Cristobal Zelaya/NBAE via Getty Images

Alternate title: Another Rafael Stone piece.

Alternate alternate title: Another KPJ piece.

Sigh. The season could not come quickly enough. You’d rather be reading about which lineups are succeeding and failing, and which areas of the floor Amen Thompson is defending well. Only, the NBA is rumored to be cracking down on public access to advanced metrics and openly looking to squash illegal streaming services. I guess I’ll have to get NBA TV.

Life is pain.

Just ask Rafael Stone. If he reads ClutchFans, he got a tongue-lashing recently. If you haven’t read the piece, click the link. It’s excellent. It also happens to be scathing.

Should Stone be held accountable for the sins of Porter Jr.?

Does Stone bear responsibility for Porter Jr.’s actions?

It’s an interesting ethical dilemma. When a person commits an immoral act, to what extent do the influential people in his life bear responsibility? Victims of abuse are statistically more likely to be abusive than others. Is a father responsible for the abusive actions of his son if he was his abuser? Or is he only responsible for his own abuse?

Still, that’s not even the question here. Let’s be clear: Rafael Stone didn’t abuse anybody. That’s not the accusation. The accusation is that Stone enabled Porter Jr.

It’s hard to refute that accusation. Here’s an exert from Dave’s aforementioned piece:

“Kevin Porter Jr. being accused of crimes of this severity should not be shocking – at all. Before he even came to the Rockets, he had a long list of serious problems. He was suspended multiple times in high school. In 2019, he had a “conduct issue” significant enough that USC suspended the 5-star recruit indefinitely. He fell to the end of the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft because of his behavior liability. He was accused of punching a woman in the face in Cleveland. He also had a gun and marijuana charge later dismissed after getting into a car crash. He went into a tirade and got into a nasty confrontation with both the Cleveland coach and GM, resulting in the Cavs severing ties immediately and dumping him to the Rockets for nothing.”

We can’t blame Stone for taking a free flyer on Kevin Porter Jr. The Rockets were in the infancy stages of a rebuild. A good 20-year-old ball player was available at no cost. It would be borderline negligence not to make the trade that Stone made with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Nobody is criticizing the trade. The criticisms pertain to everything that happened after.

Here’s the crux of the issue: why has Porter Jr. been running point for the Rockets for the past three seasons? My operating assumption was that Porter Jr. was the tank commander. It made sense to experiment with him running point. If it worked, the Rockets would have gotten a superstar for a second-round pick. With Porter Jr.’s preferred methods of “running point” (if you can even call it that), he was playing a superstar-or-bust brand of basketball by virtue of style. If the Rockets had started winning games with a shooting guard playing point guard, that would have meant that Porter Jr. was a ruthlessly efficient offensive machine.

If you didn’t notice, that’s not how it went down. His defenders would point to his stats: 19/5/5! Right. Basic counting stats are partly a product of usage. His assist-to-turnover ratio was consistently a big, steaming pile of (redacted). Porter Jr. ignored corner shooters like the prom queen ignores the AV club. He wasn't even going to consider making the pass. A pick-and-roll was a vehicle for him to find his contested midrange - the exact shot that pick-and-roll sets are designed to minimize. You’re looking for a layup or dunk attempt unless you’re prime James Harden with the stepback three.

Porter Jr. was never going to be Stone’s Harden. That’s fine - you shouldn’t assume to be landing a James Harden with a second-round pick. This is where the dilemma arises - it seems as if Stone was intent on making Porter Jr. his James Harden.

Running Porter Jr. at point to enhance his skill set for the day that he inevitably transitioned into a backup off-guard role made sense - unless he was routinely proving that he hadn't matured emotionally behind the scenes, that is. In that event, he wouldn’t be worth the trouble. The Rockets could have run TyTy Washington at point last year, and they'd have lost, in all likelihood, even more. Giving Jalen Green more on-ball reps probably wasn't a recipe for a play-in push, either.

These are the revelations we’ve been witnessing over the last week or so. A broken laptop. Regular spats with the coaching staff. Porter Jr. wasn’t so integral to the tank - or the long-term vision of the team - to be worth this kind of hassle. At least, not to most of us.

Apparently, he was to Rafael Stone. Is that a fireable offense?

How hot is Stone’s seat?

For what it’s worth, I’ve typically defended Stone. I think he’s made a number of shrewd moves. Let’s review.

Most significantly, Stone has done a fantastic job in the draft. Sure, anyone can draft at the top. Smith Jr. especially fell into his lap - the Rockets had the third pick in a three-man draft. OK, but Stone has drafted a player with real star potential in the middle of the draft in each of the last three drafts too. Doesn’t he deserve credit for that as well?

I’ve heard it all. “Well, Sengun wasn’t his guy” - OK. That makes me want to give him even more credit. He had reservations about a player, but he was willing to put enough trust in his staff to delegate responsibility and select that player anyway. Kudos. Excellent management. It hardly even makes sense - isn't this the domineering general manager who insists on his own vision?

As for Tari Eason and Cam Whitmore, the counterargument is “Anyone would have made those picks”. Anyone? Eason is already jumping five spots in redrafts, and I’d bet my Streameast access that he’ll jump more in the coming years. Even if he doesn't, that’s at least five GMs that should have taken him and didn’t. Do they fall under “Anyone”?

Otherwise, Stone’s trade record is a little underrated. He got roughly the same return for Christian Wood that the Detroit Pistons got for Jerami Grant. This summer, the former nearly disappeared into a vast ether while the latter was signed for almost $30 million dollars a year. Stone turned Robert “Barely in the NBA anymore” Covington into, essentially, Wood and an unprotected first as well. It’s also worth noting that he effectively turned Eric Gordon into Whitmore. Even if you’re not willing to give him credit for an obvious selection with the 20th pick, you need to credit him for making the trade that gave the Rockets access to that pick in the first place.

He also deserves credit for his creative approach to structuring contracts. The Porter Jr. deal, with its opt-out clauses, was a stroke of genius. I’ll always remember this: a friend texted me. He said, “What are the Rockets thinking”? I didn’t get a chance to reply before the details came out. He followed up:

“Sorry. What is Porter Jr.’s agent thinking?”

Fred VanVleet’s deal inspired a similar reaction. Two guaranteed years plus a team option with an oversized average annual value? Perfection.

Yes, there have been mistakes along the way. This summer, Stone turned Kenyon Martin Jr., Usman Garuba, Josh Christopher, and Washington into a bag of wet cats. We will see how the Brooks contract looks. Yet, none of these are fireable offenses.

His commitment to Porter Jr. could be.

Stone may have made a critical error

Something does strike me as funny. If Stone was intent on making Porter Jr. his magnum opus, why did he sign VanVleet and draft Amen Thompson this summer? The Rockets didn’t lose their heliocentric ball-handling hub: they lost their backup off-guard.

Yet, it’s hard to imagine why he allowed so much bad behavior to go unpunished unless he had grander designs. It feels likely that Stone wanted Porter Jr. to be a star so badly that he overlooked his personal flaws. He finally got the memo this summer: this is not a superstar. It was just too late. Now, the Rockets are hung out to dry. Porter Jr.’s abilities as a catch-and-shoot player should have been a crucial dynamic in their rotation next year. Now, it won’t be.

If that costs the Rockets their goals this season, they’re probably going to be looking for a new General Manager next summer.