It was just over 15 months ago when Houston’s trade talks involving disgruntled star James Harden reached a boil, and a package from Philadelphia involving young All-Star Ben Simmons was a finalist. Clearly, the Rockets had at least some level of interest in January 2021.
Now, as the calendar turns to May 2022, is that still the case?
Today, there are certainly reasons for the Rockets and other teams to have less interest. After all, Simmons didn’t play in a single game during the 2021-22 season reportedly due to a combination of mental issues and a longstanding back injury. That adds considerable uncertainty to his future projections of him. On the other hand, Simmons is still only 25 years old and, on paper, still has his NBA prime years in front of him. While interest in Simmons is down, there’s a case to be made that it shouldn’t be zero.
With Brooklyn (where Simmons is now under contract) having a high sense of win-now urgency based on the veteran All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, many speculated after their playoff elimination that Simmons could become a trade chip to bolster that roster.
To that end, The Ringer’s NBA insider Kevin O’Connor recently wrote about a potential Rockets-Nets trade involving Simmons:
Perhaps a young team like Houston would revisit a Simmons trade since his trajectory is on the same timeline as Jalen Green. A package with some combination of Eric Gordon, Jae’Sean Tate, and Christian Wood with draft picks could provide Brooklyn with the necessary depth and versatility to make other moves.
Assuming none of those picks are premium assets like Houston’s own first-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023, it’s not implausible. However, it still might be too risky to Rockets general manager Rafael Stone.
As of now, Houston is positioned to have significant salary cap room in the 2023 offseason. Simmons, on the other hand, is owed $37.9 million guaranteed in the 2023-24 season and $40.3 million in 2024-25. Given the new wave of uncertainty surrounding Simmons, Stone would likely want to feel confident that Simmons could easily be offloaded in 2023 to re-create that salary cap flexibility, should the fit not work out.
Hypothetically, if Simmons goes through a second straight season with major issues surrounding his mental state and/or his back, the remaining two years of that contract could become as burdensome to offload as what the Rockets have gone through with John Wall over the past year .
In January 2021, while Simmons certainly wasn’t viewed as a perfect player, there weren’t nearly the same concerns about his basic availability. In other words, even in a worst-case scenario where the fit turned out to be poor, it was reasonable to assume that he could be traded elsewhere at a later date. Suddenly, that no longer appears to be the case. By comparison, Gordon, Wood, and Tate all have expiring contracts and can easily be moved or let go, if that salary room is needed for an upgrade.
It’s an unusual circumstance, to be sure, since it was just over two months ago when Simmons was valued highly enough to be the key piece going to Brooklyn in a blockbuster deal sending Harden to the 76ers. But for a Houston team with relatively clean salary books after next season, Simmons may pose too much of a financial risk to acquire — even considering Stone’s past interest and an inherently lower asking price.
The Rockets might also want Simmons to stick with the Nets due to the fact that Houston controls Brooklyn’s first-round draft assets through 2027and the increased variance of Simmons’ outcomes might increase the odds of the Rockets eventually landing a high first-round selection.
A deal shouldn’t be viewed as impossible, since Houston has shown prior interest, and there does appear to be a positive relationship between Simmons’ agent (Rich Paul) and Stone. But the Rockets would likely need to have some level of confidence that 2022-23 will be different for Simmons than 2021-22, and from the outside, it’s hard to envision what would justify that confidence prior to seeing Simmons in NBA games.