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The Houston Rockets hold the keys to the 2021 NBA Draft

Will Houston try to trade up for Cade Cunningham? The Rockets have so many intriguing options with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

2021 NBA Draft Lottery Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Houston Rockets had more on the line than any team entering the 2021 NBA draft lottery. Despite finishing with the worst record in the NBA at 17-55 overall, the Rockets had a 47.9 percent chance their pick would slip outside the top-four and thus convey to the Oklahoma City Thunder dating back to the teams’ Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook swap a couple seasons earlier.

Houston breathed a sigh of relief when their pick came in at No. 2 overall, but there was apparently still some disappointment in the air for the franchise. The Rockets reportedly covet Oklahoma State guard and Texas-native Cade Cunningham, who is widely projected to go No. 1 overall. They haven’t given up on trying to get him.

The Rockets have been ‘aggressive’ in trying to trade up to No. 1 with the Detroit Pistons, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Houston’s desire to start their post-James Harden rebuild with another big ball handler who excels in the pick-and-roll makes plenty of sense. We’re about to see how far they’re willing to go, and if the Pistons have any interest in making a deal.

Both the Pistons and Rockets are reportedly still trying to figure out what to do if they keep their picks. The Athletic reported that Detroit is also interested in G-League Ignite guard Jalen Green and “could take him over Cunningham.” The Rockets are also currently being pegged to take Green over USC big man Evan Mobley in the latest mock draft by ESPN.

There is recent precedent for the top pick getting traded. Back in 2017, the Philadelphia 76ers traded up from No. 3 to No. 1 overall with the Boston Celtics to select consensus top prospect Markelle Fultz. While Fultz would get traded to the Orlando Magic two years later after a bizarre injury situation, Boston found their franchise superstar with the third pick in Jayson Tatum.

With such a strong crop of talent at the top of this draft class, there is a serious possibility the No. 1 pick could get traded. The rest of the league will be waiting to see what Houston does on draft night. Here are their options.

How the Pistons and Rockets can swap the top two picks in the draft

The Rockets have plenty of draft capital to use in a potential trade up for No. 1. In addition to having the second pick this year, the Rockets also have picks No. 23 and No. 24. They also have a bevy of picks from the Brooklyn Nets in the Harden deal, Milwaukee’s 2023 first rounder, and Detroit’s 2022 first rounder that is 1-16 protected in the first year with protections that slightly lower until 2027. Read all about Houston’s future picks here.

The Rockets can throw the second overall pick plus a ton of current and future mid-round picks at the Pistons to swap the top two picks. While that could be appealing for Detroit depending on how they view Cunningham vs. Mobley and Green, it’s the infamous draft night trade between the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks back in 2018 that can best inform how this deal could go down.

Back in 2018, the Mavericks sent No. 5 overall and a top-five protected 2019 pick to the Hawks for No. 3 and the right to pick Luka Doncic. Atlanta would select Trae Young and pick Cam Reddish with their selection the next year. If Houston is serious about acquiring Cunningham, a similar deal could look like this:

  • Detroit gets: No. 2 overall pick, 2022 top-five protected pick from Houston
  • Houston gets: No. 1 overall pick

That would be excellent value for Detroit to move down one spot, provided they think Green or Mobley is close to Cunningham in terms of value. It would also be a risky move for a Houston team that is just starting its rebuild and will likely be looking at another high choice in the lottery next season.

Maybe Houston can get the Pistons to bite on a 1-2 swap that also includes Detroit getting its own 2022 first rounder fully back plus additional assets. It would certainly help the Pistons in trying to navigate the Stepien Rule in future years. If the Rockets are truly desperate for Cunningham, though, Detroit could get a valuable 2022 pick from Houston just for moving down one spot.

Who would the Rockets draft at No. 2 overall?

If a deal between the Pistons and Rockets doesn’t work out, Houston will still have some great options with the No. 2 pick. In a scenario where the Rockets keep the pick, the choice will be between Green and Mobley.

We don’t view it as a difficult decision. Mobley is the clear-cut No. 2 overall prospect in this draft with the upside to potentially be even better than Cunningham if he reaches his peak upside. To us, Cunningham vs. Mobley is a much closer debate than Mobley vs. Green.

I recently joined esteemed draft analyst PD Web for a full breakdown on Mobley’s game.

The case for Mobley over Green looks like this:

Mobley has immense versatility for a 7-footer on both ends of the floor. He projects as the most impactful defensive prospect in this draft as the type of big man who can play any style of pick-and-roll coverage due to his lateral mobility and agility. Mobley is quick enough to defend on the perimeter with traps and hard hedges, and has the 7’5 wingspan to contest shots even in drop coverage. Even as he occasionally struggles to hold his ground defending post-ups because of his thin frame, he often can still challenge a shot because of his length.

Offensively, Mobley lacks an aggressive scoring mindset but still has numerous ways to impact the game. He’s a terrific lob target after setting a high screen, and has started to develop as an outside shooter after going 12-of-40 (30 percent) from three as a freshman at USC. Mobley is also a tantalizing passer for the position who can consistently find the open man when the defense is scrambling.

Mobley may never average 25 points per game, but his physical and athletic gifts combined with his burgeoning skill level gives him so many avenues to impact winning at a high level. For a Houston team just starting its rebuild, Mobley feels like a perfect pick because he can unlock so many different styles of play as the Rockets continue to build a team around him.

The downside with Mobley comes if he can’t add strength to his frame and his offensive skill development stagnates. It’s always risky taking a big man so high in the draft (we gave the Warriors a C grade for selecting James Wiseman at No. 2 last year), but Mobley is talented enough to bet on.

Green is a terrific prospect as well. A 6’6 shooting guard, Green has extreme athleticism that allows him to blow by the first line of defense and quickly get off the floor to finish plays above or around the rim. His shot-making touch impressed in the G League, and he showcased advanced footwork on step-backs and side-steps that allowed him to get off a clean look in most situations. Green has questions as a playmaker and defender, but he could be a three-level scorer who threatens to average 30 points per game at his peak.

For as talented as Green is, Mobley has more avenues to impact the game if he reaches his ceiling. We would take Mobley at No. 2 overall and not think twice about it.

Houston could also trade back with the Cavs or Raptors

If Houston can’t agree on a deal to get Cunningham at No. 1, it’s possible they could look to trade down. The Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 3 and Toronto Raptors at No. 4 would be ideal trade partners.

We think Mobley would be an awesome fit with both Cleveland and Toronto. Would either franchise give up a top-five protected pick next year to move up for him? If they would, it would be great value for Houston, provided they think Green and/or Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs are prospects on a similar level to Mobley. Dealing a future pick would make more sense for Toronto at No. 4 because they’re closer to competing for a playoff spot than Cleveland.

The Rockets simply have lots of great options with the No. 2 pick

Houston may be bummed they didn’t land No. 1 overall and the rights to Cunningham, but the reality is they still exited the lottery as big winners by coming away with the No. 2 pick. The second pick puts Houston in prime position to trade up or trade back. If they keep the pick, Mobley would be a tremendous selection in our view.

There’s a ton of pressure on the Rockets to nail this draft after losing Harden during the season. What they decide to do either in a trade or by making a pick will directly influence the rest of the top five. Whatever happens on draft night, Houston will be primarily involved in shaping how the top of the draft plays out.