According to Tim MacMahon of ESPN, the Houston Rockets didn’t want to completely commit to smaller lineups as part of their flurry of moves at this past season’s trade deadline in February 2020.
Rather, it happened in part because a planned deal for an established backup center didn’t work out following the blockbuster trade of center Clint Capela for versatile forward Robert Covington.
Per MacMahon, Houston’s target was Nerlens Noel of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Here’s how he described it on Zach Lowe’s podcast:
They obviously went all in on micro-ball, but they thought at the time that they could find a bargain big man. If Clint Capela was a full-service Marriott, they thought they could find a Courtyard by Marriott type of big man to at least be in the rotation. .
For example, they had discussions before the trade deadline and were optimistic and thought that they could get a deal done to bring in Nerlens Noel.
The Rockets did trade for Bruno Caboclo in the final hours before the deadline, in hopes that he could potentially fill a similar role. However, he struggled in limited opportunities with the Rockets.
As for Noel, the deal likely fell apart because the Thunder were much closer to contention than expected, and thus less likely to be a seller at the deadline. (Oklahoma City, of course, ended up pushing the Rockets to seven games in a tightly contested first-round playoff series.)
Now 26 years old, Noel averaged 7.4 points (68.4% FG), 4.9 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 18.5 minutes per game this season. Noel made the minimum salary and is set to become a free agent this offseason, so he very plausibly could again become a target by the Rockets — assuming they still want the option of larger lineups. As an athletic center, he could potentially provide both rim protection on defense and a lob threat on offense (like Capela did) as a pick-and-roll partner for James Harden.
Noel was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by Philadelphia. During his career, he’s played four seasons with the Sixers; one season in Dallas; and the last two in Oklahoma City, where he played alongside current Rockets star Russell Westbrook in the 2018-19 campaign.