Late on Monday night — 12 hours after league’s trade moratorium was lifted — the Houston Rockets made a big trade. However, it was not one of the major moves that the NBA world is eagerly anticipating from Tilman Fertitta’s franchise.
James Harden is still a Rocket, as is Russell Westbrook.
Robert Covington — arguably Houston’s third-best player — will be traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for veteran 3-and-D wing Trevor Ariza, the no. 16 overall pick in the 2020 draft, and a protected 2021 first-rounder. (The deal will be finalized after Wednesday’s draft, per the Stepien Rule).
The Rockets are finalizing a trade to send Robert Covington to Portland for Trevor Ariza and 2020 first-round pick and 2021 protected first-round pick, sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) November 17, 2020
The trade pushes Portland a step closer towards contention while pulling Houston farther away. Let’s hand out grades.
Covington represents the exact type of player the Blazers have needed since Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless departed in 2019. Portland sorely lacked wing defense to complement C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, contributing to the 28th-ranked defense.
And Covington isn’t just good on D — he relishes it. His hands are elite (1.6 steals per game in Houston), he brings a unique blend of size, athleticism, and savvy, and he can guard five positions. At 6’7, he protected the rim impressively well as a small-ball five (2.2 blocks per game in Houston), and he can help on the glass, too (5.7 career rebounds per game).
He can hit spot-up threes at a decent clip (35.6% career from three), though not as reliably as Ariza.
Covington averaged 11.6 points and 2.2 blocks per game with Houston, and shot 50% from three in the playoffs. Overall, he’s averaged 12.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in his seven NBA seasons with three teams.
By swapping Ariza, 35, for the 29-year old Covington, Portland acquired a younger and better version of the same player. (The Blazers acquired Ariza from the Sacramento Kings in January for Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, and two second-round picks.)
Portland still has Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood on the roster, too, and with a healthy Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic, Terry Stotts suddenly has solid defensive options at multiple spots.
Plus, Covington is under one of the team-friendlier contracts in basketball — two years, $25 million — preserving flexibility for Portland ahead of free agency. (The Blazers are eyeing Paul Millsap, and will likely bid farewell to Carmelo Anthony after landing Covington).
The only reason this trade doesn’t receive an outright “A” is because the draft pick cost is fairly steep, especially if the Rockets enter rebuild mode. (On the other hand, the Blazers haven’t hit on a first-round pick since McCollum in 2013).
But, it’s hard to imagine Portland finding anybody in the 2020 draft as impactful as Covington is right now, as Lillard and McCollum hit the back-half of their primes. Ultimately, Covington’s age, fit and contract make this deal eminently worth it for Rip City.
Trading Covington isn’t as significant of a roster shake-up as a Harden or Westbrook would be, but it might be just as symbolic.
When Daryl Morey paid two-first round picks and Clint Capela to acquire Covington last February, it signaled a commitment to an experimental, hyper-small approach. Now, after another disappointing playoff exit, the departures of Morey and Mike D’Antoni, and trade requests from Harden and Westbrook, the Rockets are re-thinking everything — and Covington is gone.
Houston is interested in the draft pick more than Ariza. GM Rafael Stone seems to be setting the table for some major shakeups, and cashing in Covington for a mid-first rounder is solid return. In the end, the Rockets basically swapped two first-round picks (no. 17 and no. 22, via the Capela trade) for the 16th pick and Portland’s protected 2021 first-rounder. In terms of value, that’s more or less a wash.
If the Rockets hang onto Harden and Westbrook, Ariza — who played with Houston from 2014-18 and started in the 2018 conference finals — could still be a useful player on a good team heading into his 17th season. Post-trade to Portland, he started 21 games, averaging 11 points, 4.8 rebounds and one steal, draining 40% of his threes. He has one year and $12.8 million remaining on his deal.
The Rockets, under new head coach Stephen Silas, are pivoting back to more traditional lineups. Depending what happens with Harden and Westbrook, who actually ends up in those lineups could change a lot between now and opening night.
The franchise emptied its cabinet of picks to acquire Westbrook (gulp), and Stone is doing what he can to get some back. While he did a nice job recouping value for Covington, this trade clearly signals the beginning of the end of an era.