June 14, 2024

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Rockets pick up K.J. Martin option. Is a trade on the horizon?

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The Houston Rockets picked up the team option on K.J. Martin’s contract for the 2023-24 season, a source inside the organization confirmed Monday. The Athletic’s Kelly Iko was the first to report the news.

Thursday’s decision will prevent Martin from becoming a restricted free agent this summer. Rather than be forced to match an offer sheet from an opposing team, the Rockets will now pay Martin $1.9 million in 2023-24 before he enters unrestricted free agency next summer. 

Martin’s case is a bit of a curious one for Houston’s brass. The Rockets and Martin couldn’t agree to a contract extension before the 2022-23 season, and given Houston’s goals of adding veteran free agents this summer, signing Martin to a long-term deal prior to Thursday became a relative non-starter. So where exactly does that leave Martin ahead of next season? His future could be in a different uniform as early as the next week.

Houston, for what it’s worth, views Martin as more than salary filler in a potential trade. The Rockets rebuffed trade attempts for Martin before last year’s trade deadline—when no offer included a first-round pick—and there was some momentum toward an extension prior to 2022-23 before talks broke off. But now, both Martin’s contract and Houston’s current rotation makes a trade sensible for both parties. The Rockets don’t want to lose Martin for nothing next summer. Martin likely doesn’t want to lose minutes in a crowded wing rotation that includes Tari Eason, Cam Whitmore, Kevin Porter Jr. (who will presumably act more as a spot-up shooter and multi-positional defender) and likely Dillon Brooks. A divorce is more probable than a harmonious fourth season in Houston.

What exactly could Martin (plus some combination of Josh Christopher, Usman Garuba and future pick capital) fetch in a trade? It’s difficult to pinpoint specific pieces available at the moment, though there do seem to be a number of potential matches given both Houston’s roster construction and the need for quality wings across the league. Perhaps the Cavaliers view Martin as a springy small forward on the rise, one who could make for more functional lineups with Evan Mobley at the five. The Rockets once passed on the chance to land Jarrett Allen in the 2021 James Harden trade. Maybe they’ll acquire the talented center in 2023.

Allen likely represents the ceiling of what the Rockets could fetch in a trade involving Martin given the center’s age (25) and rim protection skills (1.2 blocks per game in 2022-23). Some other potential targets? Perhaps Houston can reunite with Clint Capela, as Martin becomes a far cheaper replacement for John Collins in Atlanta. Neither Mo Bamba nor Jaxson Hayes are especially exciting options, though given the Rockets’ lack of a real rim-runner, they could make sense as rotation pieces. Ultimately, the Rockets may not opt to add any players at all in dealing Martin, choosing a handful of second-round picks to make a trade happen.

We won’t exactly pack Martin’s bags so shortly after Houston picked up his extension. The former second-round pick is a legitimately useful player with elite athleticism, defensive smarts and a burgeoning jumper, and perhaps he’d earn the trust and confidence of new coach Ime Udoka early in the 2023-24 season. But the potential (and even likely) trade of Martin is more a product of contractual circumstance than on-court potential. 

When looking at the future of Houston’s salary sheet, an eight-figure annual contract for Martin feels less than feasible. A trade to a new team willing to accommodate an extension appears to be the most likely path in the coming weeks.


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