Houston Rockets: NBA trading season expected

There is no opening bell like the start of trading on Wall Street. There won’t be a sudden rush of deals like when the NBA hits its annual trade deadline on February 9 this season.

Still, Thursday is marked as the start of the league’s trading season, with players who signed free-agent deals last summer eligible to be negotiated, and talks dormant early in the season commonly lead to this shopping window in December.

This season, 74 players will be eligible to trade on Thursday. But the date that summer free agents are eligible to trade rarely results in instant trades.

The last time there was a trade on the day free agents became tradeable, the Rockets were part of a 2010 three-team deal in which they acquired Terrence Williams from the New Jersey Nets for a first-round pick.

In 2014, they made one of the trades in that December window when they acquired Corey Brewer from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Troy Daniels.

Yet, as rare as these deals are, it’s become a tradition, at least among those chatting up opportunities and new names to tap into the ESPN trading engine, as well as general managers looking ahead to February, Thursday as a way of looking at opening night.

The Rockets are in no rush on the deal given their commitment to a long, youthful rebuild. But they are among the teams that will attract the most speculation.

That’s largely because it’s a team of nine players under the age of 21, including seven from the first round of the last two NBA drafts, and features Eric Gordon, who is less than two weeks from his 34th birthday.

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His schedule doesn’t seem to square with that of Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr., but dealing with Gordon has proven complicated for reasons that are unlikely to change.

There were preliminary talks with around half a dozen teams, said a person familiar with the situation. Gordon is expected to be among the top targets for contenders (like the Suns, who played the Rockets on Tuesday) looking for help to get over the top. Gordon’s ability to catch and shoot from long range, defend from a variety of positions and let other stars out ahead makes him an easy addition to already well-positioned teams.

However, with earnings of $19.6 million this season, he sits between the mid and maximum contract, dramatically shrinking the pool of players on competing teams who would work in a trade.

Although many teams can and would treat Gordon’s contract, which was not guaranteed in 2023-24, as an expiring contract, the Rockets consider him signed for this season and next.

There is no urgency in delaying his contract to create cap room as next season is not guaranteed anyway and the Rockets will likely already have more cap room than they need next summer. If they traded him, they would be wary of bringing back one or more players with longer contracts or veterans who would cut into young players’ playing time, as the Rockets are already struggling to find roles for some of the recent first-round picks.

The Rockets’ position on dealing with Gordon hasn’t changed substantially from last season when the deadline passed without trading the Rockets’ top veteran.

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The Rockets would want a first-round pick primarily, but since they’re likely to be dealing with teams that are considered competitors, they would seek improved picks, either coming in future seasons or via another team. As with last season’s trade talks, the Rockets have two first-round picks in the next draft and aren’t looking to add a third, especially after picking many players in the last two drafts.

They are even reluctant to push KJ Martin, another name in frequent trade speculation. Martin has a team-friendly contract worth just $1.9 million with a team option next season. The Rockets could decline that option and extend him, the type of overtime general manager Rafael Stone has favored for the past two seasons.

After investing two seasons in Martin, the Rockets are now reaping the benefits, winning his game time more regularly and believing he still has room to grow at 21. Amid reports of a three-team deal with the Suns and Bucks, that type of deal never really mattered after the bid stage or a second phone call.

The Rockets will likely be patient, too, given their final season as a rebuild team in control of their own picks before the Thunder make their picks, or the option to swap positions in the draft.

Moving further into Reconstruction, they could look for the kind of veteran who could fill a gap. In their phase, they’re trying to develop players rather than putting a veteran at the head of their rotation, the thinking behind their last significant trade that sent Christian Wood to Dallas.

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However, as trade talks pick up steam, so do trade opportunities. And Thursday is the season.

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