How a Spurs-Rockets draft-day deal can be a win-win
By Cal Durrett
After missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season, the San Antonio Spurs will have a chance to get back on track this summer. The Spurs, along with the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets, share the top odds for the number one pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, and each team's future will hinge on ping-pong balls, of all things.
Regardless of how the draft lottery shakes out, it appears that the Spurs, as well as the Rockets, could look to improve their rosters this summer. In fact, a surprising rumor suggests that the Rockets could trade their best player in free agency:
If true, the Spurs should strongly consider a trade with their in-state rivals. After all, Jalen Green is a high-upside young player, and the Spurs might have the assets needed to get a potential deal done.
What could a Spurs-Rockets trade look like?
The decision to shop Green at this juncture might seem confusing, but former Spurs assistant coach Ime Udoka took the job under the condition the Rockets make an effort to improve. Green is the best asset on their roster, and they are apparently dangling him in hopes of landing a star.
With rumors James Harden will return to Houston, finding a star to pair with the one-time MVP makes sense. While that might be music to some Rockets fans' ears, it's probably not all that realistic. Houston's pick will likely land inside the top three, and that player will presumably play big minutes from day one. Unless that player is Victor Wembanyama, they may be better next season, but perhaps not quite a playoff team.
Instead, they could and should look at other potential offers, such as Keldon Johnson and a top-three protected 2024 first-round pick for Green. Green has a higher upside than Johnson, but the latter is the better player after a career season in which he averaged 22.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. He has improved every season and doesn't appear to have reached his ceiling.
If Keldon can build on his improvements and regain his shooting form, he could have a massive breakout next season. That could coincide with the start of his four-year, $74 million extension. The average annual value already makes it a bargain, but with the rising salary cap and Johnson's continued development, it could become one of the best contracts in the NBA in a season or two.
Why Johnson-Green swap makes sense for both teams
How about we contrast their contracts? After next season, Green is eligible for an extension. And as a former second-overall pick that averaged 22.1 points per game, he will surely command a rookie max contract from the Rockets. That would guarantee him 25% of the salary cap, meaning he could make at least $30 million each season on his next deal.
The Rockets may not want to be the team that pays him that amount, which may factor into their decision to shop him on the trade market. Though Johnson is over two years older than Green, he is still in his early 20s, putting up better numbers, and is cost-controlled for the next four seasons. That could make him a valuable asset. Factor in the top-three protected 2024 first-round pick, and it might be enough to entice Houston to send the Green to the Spurs.
If that happens, the Spurs could acquire him and pair him with Amen Thompson or Scoot Henderson in the backcourt next season. That would drastically upgrade their talent and athleticism. Or perhaps they will continue experimenting with point-guardless lineups if they land Green and Wembanyama. With the Spurs appearing not to have a timeframe for their rebuild, they could afford to take on Green. Green is still rough around the edges, but the talent is undeniably there, and the Spurs could be the team that maximizes his potential.
Whether Green becomes available will depend on the results of the draft lottery. If the Rockets get the number one or two picks, they may keep Green and stick out their rebuild, even with Harden on board. But if they fall back in the draft order, they may change course in their rebuild by moving Green, and the Spurs would be wise to take advantage of their desperation.