Though the rebuilding Houston Rockets finished with the league’s worst record in the 2021-22 NBA season, it was in many ways a very successful year for second-year general manager Rafael Stone.
For starters, that 20-62 record guarantees the Rockets another top-five draft pick in 2022 to add to their stockpile of young talent. In many ways, that lowly record was by design to help achieve a longer-term goal.
But in terms of Houston’s roster today, there are already promising signs of development. All four of the first-round rookies acquired by Stone in the first round of the 2021 draft (Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Josh Christopher, and Usman Garuba) improved as last season went along, and Green finished with a historic scoring burst in becoming the easy choice for Western Conference Rookie of the Month in March/April games.
That’s likely one of the many reasons why two of Stone’s GM peers gave him third-place votes for 2021-22 Executive of the Year. The award is voted on by each team’s top basketball decision maker.
Stone also had success at lower levels of the organization, with undrafted rookie signing Daishen Nix and two-way contract addition Trevelin Queen leading the Rio Grande Valley Vipers—Houston’s NBA G League affiliate—to its fourth championship in club history. Garrison Mathews proved to be an astute waiver claim after his preseason release from Boston and quickly became an important rotation player in Houston.
Stone also had success in negotiating a unique non-playing arrangement with veteran star John Wall — which contributed to Houston’s lofty draft status while simultaneously allowing promising young talent Kevin Porter Jr. to get the majority of reps and experience at point guard.
Finally, while Stone’s decision to trade James Harden to Brooklyn was technically a move from the 2020-21 season, that transaction is grading out much more favorably in hindsight — with the 2022 first-round draft selection acquired from the Nets coming in much higher in the order (No. 17 overall) than many had anticipated when the deal was made. The fact that Harden already forced his way out of town helps.
Even so, Stone isn’t likely to win such a prestigious award until the club’s on-court results start to match that optimism. The only time his Rockets predecessor, Daryl Morey, won the award was in 2018, and that came after Houston finished 2017-18 with the NBA’s best record.
Ultimately, a broader perspective is important. But what the 2022 voting does show is that Stone already has admirers for his rebuilding efforts.