Where were you when the Houston Rockets drafted Jalen Green?
That’s a two-pronged question. If you’re a diehard Rockets fan, you remember where you were physically. With that said, you also remember where you were philosophically. At that time, Rockets fandom was in the throws of a bloody civil war. You were either #GreenGang or you were #MobleyMob.
I was a Mobster. I admit it. It’s a scarlet letter that I wear to this day. Some of my thinking has changed since that time. It’s not that I’m any lower on Mobley. He’s going to be a special defensive player and a sturdy second offensive option. Still, there’s a case to be made that special offensive players are scarcer than defensive studs. It may be that it’s a poor use of resources to draft for defense in the lottery.
What if the Rockets had thought differently?
What if the Houston Rockets had drafted Evan Mobley?
Firstly, let’s be clear: this is basically a work of fan fiction. With that said, the angle isn't “What would the author have done”? The angle is “What does the author think Rafael Stone would have done”? Since the author is not clairvoyant, it’s likely that some of my preferences and biases will bleed into the piece.
Let’s answer the question with another question: why didn’t the Rockets draft Mobley? This was a controversial decision. It feels like more than half of the league’s general managers would have gone with him.
In all likelihood, there are at least two answers. Stone probably philosophically believes that you draft for offense with a high lottery pick. Fair. At the same time, it’s been widely reported that Mobley’s father didn’t want his son to play with Kevin Porter Jr.
...Sounds like a pretty good dad.
OK. So, the Rockets select Evan Mobley with the second overall pick in the NBA draft. They quickly trade Porter Jr. - at that time, he probably doesn’t go for much. Let’s say they trade him for a pair of second-round picks. That’s one more than they got him for. Positive value!
Here’s what the Rockets don’t do: trade a pair of protected future firsts for Alperen Sengun. Yes, Sengun and Mobley could play together. If anything, Mobley could be precisely the player to cover for Sengun on the defensive end. Still, it feels like a major misuse of resources to go for two big men with that much draft capital. Moreover, the Rockets still have Christian Wood:
We’re not changing anything else about the 2021 draft, The Rockets still go with Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher. Some have speculated that Stone only picked Christopher due to his relationship with Green. That could have been a factor, but surely Stone liked something - anything - else about the kid. Now that we haven’t taken Green, he’s an even more sensible pick. The 2021-22 depth chart looks something like this:
PG: John Wall / Daishen Nix / D.J. Augustine
SG: Eric Gordon / Josh Christopher / Armoni Brooks
SF: Jae’Sean Tate / KJ Martin / Garrison Matthews
PF: Evan Mobley / Danuel House Jr. / Usman Garuba
C: Christian Wood / Daniel Theis / Usman Garuba
How does the 2021-22 season look with Mobley?
Frankly, this is probably a marginally better team than the Rockets actually fielded in 2021-22.
Wall is washed. Correct. He’s still going to organize and manage an offense better than Porter Jr. ever did. Moreover, Mobley is going to be more impactful on winning than Green as a rookie. Volume scorers like Green tend to struggle early. Mobley has been a plus defender since the moment he entered the NBA.
Plus, this hypothetical is more fun if the Rockets are a little better. In that spirit, the Rockets land the fifth pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. Here come those preferences and biases we talked about...
First, an order of business. The Rockets still make the Christian Wood trade. Wood still alienates his teammates with his insistence on playing NBA basketball like he’s a 10-year-old James Piercey on the playground pretending to be Michael Jordan in the ‘90s. So long and short, we’re still getting TyTy Washington.
We’re not getting Jabari Smith Jr. This was a three-man draft, and the Rockets are on the outside looking in. I’m also taking the liberty of assuming Jaden Ivey is off the board. The Sacramento Kings may have been the only team in the NBA that wouldn’t have picked him in that spot. We’re invoking the butterfly effect here: someone else is picking fourth in this alternate universe. They take Jaden Ivey.
Guess what? The Oklahoma City Thunder love Keegan Murray. They think he’s the perfect three-and-D wing to pair with Chet Holmgren. On the other hand, Rafael Stone has a different vision. So the Rockets are getting in on a three-team deal that allows them to net two lower lottery picks via the Thunder and the New York Knicks.
Sorry? If Ivey is off the board because the Kings aren’t drafting fourth, why is the rest of the order the same? Oh: I’m rigging this whole thing. Anyway, we can assume that there would have been enough consistency in this hypothetical outcome that such a deal is realistic. Get off my case.
The Rockets select Tari Eason and Ousmane Dieng. Both are seen as a reach. Eason is going to dispel that notion as a rookie. We’re not sure how Dieng looks with higher usage - probably not great. Here’s a rough 2022-23 depth chart:
PG: John Wall / Daishen Nix / TyTy Washington
SG: Eric Gordon / Garrison Matthews / Josh Christopher
SF: Jae’Sean Tate / Ousmane Dieng / KJ Martin
PF: Tari Eason / DJ Wilson / Usman Garuba
C: Evan Mobley / Usman Garuba / Daniel Theis
How about 2022-23?
Some housekeeping is in order. Stone still lets House Jr. walk to a contender - even if nobody wants his number. He doesn’t bother with the Schroeder / Theis deal. Without Sengun around, the Rockets need the big man depth at least as badly as they need point guard depth. So everybody’s favorite rotation player is still on the roster.
Although, Usman Garuba has usurped him. It’s not that he’s better - this team is still tanking, and Garuba has shown promise. He’s seen as a long-term rotation player. Garuba is getting 20ish minutes per game as a reserve combo big.
This team regresses. They didn’t like Wood’s brand of offense, but they still miss his raw production. The Mobley/Eason pairing is enough to get fans excited throughout the year. The Rockets employ an aggressive switching scheme that can generate a lot of turnovers on some nights. They just struggle to get the ball in the bucket. Wall is a shell of himself - Nix is a better option at times.
Oh, and we’re still making the same Eric Gordon trade. He’s still tired of losing and he’s still showing it on the floor. The Rockets are the second-worst team in the NBA, and this time, the lottery balls bounce as they did in real life.
Free agency plays out a little bit differently. The Rockets still sign Fred VanVleet, Jock Landale, Jeff Green and Aaron Holiday. The idea is still to take a major leap forward, but with Mobley in Green’s place, the need for shooting is more pressing than the need for defense. So the Rockets make an aggressive play for Seth Curry instead of Dillon Brooks. Yes, they wanted Austin Reaves. Reaves wanted to stick with the Lakers and play for championships. With that in mind, we’re still dumping Christopher, Washington and Martin to make cap space. We’re hanging onto Garuba - he’s established himself, and Curry comes cheaper than Brooks. Without further ado, Here are your 2023-24 Houston Rockets:
PG: Fred VanVleet / Amen Thompson / Aaron Holiday
SG: Seth Curry / Garrison Matthews / Aaron Holiday
SF: Ousmane Dieng / Jae’Sean Tate / Cam Whitmore
PF: Tari Eason/ Jeff Green / Usman Garuba
C: Evan Mobley / Jock Landale / Usman Garuba
Are the Rockets in a better situation in his alternate universe than they’re in now?
Selecting Mobley has unintended consequences. For starters, it dissuades the Rockets from making a move for Sengun. Whether you believe he’s the future of the franchise or future playoff pick-and-roll food, he’s clearly got star upside. If the Rockets eventually decide that they’d prefer a defensive presence at the five, Sengun will be an excellent trade chip.
Moreover, the Rockets are victims of their own success. Drafting Mobley means cutting early ties with the Porter Jr. experiment. Mobley was a better rookie than Green, so it also means decreased lottery odds in 2022.
Of course, this is all a bunch of nothing. It could have played out a million different ways. The most egregious liberty I took here was probably selecting Dieng. God, I just love that kid. He’s flashed some potential with the Thunder too, but he’s far from a sure thing. Either way, the operating principle that if the Rockets had selected Mobley, their odds of landing Smith Jr. or Ivey would have decreased is, in my own opinion, sound enough.
With that said, in hindsight, perhaps we all should have been #GreenGang.