Rockets GM Rafael Stone: ‘This organization hasn’t been in a position to invest in the future like we are now’
Stone prepares the Rockets to select the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft
Houston Rockets general manager Rafael Stone is making franchise-altering moves less than a year into his new role.
Stone, following in the big footsteps of former general manager Daryl Morey, hired a new head coach in Stephen Silas and traded nine-time NBA All-Star Russell Westbrook all since October. But most notably, Stone also dealt the face of the franchise in NBA superstar James Harden, who asked for the trade and voiced his displeasure with the team’s performance publicly.
This week, he has yet another major franchise decision when he selects the second overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
“It’s a really good draft and we’ll get a really, really talented player. I’m loathing to load expectations onto some 19-year-old player. But I do think whoever we end up selecting will be extraordinarily talented, and then it’s on us and on that person to grow,” Stone told The Undefeated.
Stone’s latest challenge will be to choose one of four heralded prospects, Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, the G League Ignite’s Jalen Green, USC’s Evan Mobley or Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs as the second overall pick on Thursday.
This with free agency right around the corner.
“We needed a reset, and so I feel good that we gave ourselves the best opportunity available at that time to reset and kind of reload and rebuild,” Stone said. “We’re at a different point than we’ve been in for a very long time. But I think we took the steps and they won’t be enough. It’s not good enough to make one good decision. You need to make 15 in a row. You have to get a little lucky.
“There’s a lot that goes into building a franchise, but I felt very good. I felt good at the time of the Harden trade. And I feel good now about how we conducted the process and the decisions we made.”
Lost in all the quick change in Houston is the story of how Stone actually became a general manager of the Rockets after paying his dues in the organization for 15 years. He joins a growing number of African Americans in NBA leadership roles. And long before he became the Rockets general manager, he fell in love with basketball after being introduced to the game by his father, also named Rafael Stone.
The elder Stone led Garfield High School in Seattle to the Washington state tournament while receiving All-Metro honors each season. The quick and athletic 5-foot-9 point guard averaged 6.0 points and 2.7 rebounds at the University of Washington from 1967 to 1970. He still holds the record for most assists in a game with 16 against Cal-Berkeley during the 1969-70 season.
Then-Washington head coach Tex Winter, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, tried to convince “Rafe” to play professionally in the NBA or the American Basketball Association in 1970. Instead, the elder Stone went to the University of Washington School of Law and eventually became the first African American hired at a major law firm in Seattle.
“He played at the University of Washington in the late ’60s and could have gone pro and chose to be a lawyer instead,” Stone said of his father.
“Sports, in general, bring along a lot of skills in terms of teamwork, theoretically where your strengths are may not be in areas that are as public and demanding in the sense of is the team better if you’re scoring 30 points a game or if you’re scoring five, 10 points a game. But you’re commanding the situation, and so I had to learn and accept my role and what made the team better. And I was able to take that if you will and use it in the practice of law,” the elder Stone said.
The Rockets’ Stone is the oldest of Rafael and Donna Stone’s three children. While his mother is white, he says he always viewed himself as African American rather than mixed race. He said he also had conversations with his parents about race during his youth.
“One of the uniquely weird things about America is that you don’t get to choose, at least publicly. One is either Black or you’re not,” Stone said. “And this notion of being mixed race didn’t even exist when I was a kid. It’s not the way the public is going to interact with you. And so, particularly for me, my dad was a relatively high-profile person in Seattle. We have the same name. People knew who I was and it just is. But also they look at you and they treat you a certain way. It’s just in America, it’s inescapable. So I’ve never thought of myself as particularly mixed race. I’ve just always found myself as Black.”
Stone said he grew up in a “basketball family” and with a ball in his hands since he was a child. Stone followed in his father’s footsteps by playing college basketball at Division III Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The elder Stone said his son was like a “coach on the court” and was a very well-rounded basketball player.
“Very, very intelligent, very, very heady and saw the whole court,” Stone’s dad said. “He was very good in anticipation, a very good ball handler and distributor of the ball, and had a decent jump shot, especially at the elbow. But more importantly … he was an extremely good defensive player and he saw the game. He was ahead of the game and vision, which is what at that time a point guard, if you will, for no other better description, has to be a good point guard just see the game and be able to coach the team.”
The younger Stone earned an undergraduate degree at Williams College in history and political science in 1994. He continued to follow in his father’s footsteps when he earned a law degree from Stanford University in 1997. Stone went on to practice in the New York City-based Dewey Ballantine LLP’s mergers and acquisitions and capital markets group.
“By the time I got to college, I realized I wasn’t going to go to the NBA,” Stone said. “So it was basketball for the sake of basketball and I actually really, really enjoyed it.”
Stone first joined the Rockets as general counsel in 2005. He started as a statistical analyst in 2008 and has led the Rockets’ analytics department and cap management since his promotion to vice president of basketball operations in 2013.
“I was a lawyer on Wall Street and I was doing really well,” Stone said. “I was making a lot of money and this job was uniquely interesting because I love basketball so much. And ultimately my goal way back then was to position myself as such that I would be able to get this type of opportunity. And so from my perspective, that moment was a cool moment because I did the work such that I had positioned myself to get the opportunity.”
Said the elder Stone: “He just said, ‘Dad, there are 30 jobs like this in the world.’ He said he was very interested and he said if given the opportunity he was going to take it. He’s loved basketball since he was born and this was right up his line.”
On April 19, 2019, Stone was promoted by the Rockets to executive vice president of basketball operations and general counsel. The position put him second in line in terms of basketball decisions behind Morey. But after 13 seasons of leading the Rockets, Morey resigned on Oct. 15. On the same day, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta promoted Stone to general manager.
While there were big shoes to fill in Morey, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, Stone didn’t shy away from the opportunity that he was very appreciative of.
“Tilman Fertitta deserves a lot of credit,” Stone said. “I’m not a former player. I’m not a high-profile name. But they did know me and we’d worked together intimately for years. And so I think it should be credited. I’m very thankful, but I also think they did the right thing for the right reasons and I’m appreciative.”
Coach Silas said Stone was certainly deserving of the opportunity to be the Rockets’ general manager after the dues he paid.
“The qualified are people who are capable of moving up and get more responsibility. And that’s what happened to him. Maybe because it’s the NBA thing and the former player thing and whatnot, but for most people, it’s the common story of people who work their butts off, do a good job and are rewarded for that,” Silas said.
Today, Stone is one of 11 African American general managers, along with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Koby Altman, the Denver Nuggets’ Calvin Booth, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Elton Brand, the Chicago Bulls’ Marc Eversley, the Phoenix Suns’ James Jones, the Dallas Mavericks’ Nico Harrison, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Trajan Langdon, the New York Knicks’ Scott Perry, the San Antonio Spurs’ Brian Wright and the Detroit Pistons’ Troy Weaver. Masai Ujiri, who is Nigerian, is also president of the Toronto Raptors.
Stone is proud to be among that growing list of Black general managers after there were only three four years ago.
“I don’t think people should take for granted that if you don’t have diversity at the very top, there will be consequences,” Stone said. “And if you do, there will be other consequences, it’s not a wonderful one. It’s not like you hire a Black GM, who’s going to hire a Black coach, but it is the case that if you don’t hire a Black GM, there’s a very good chance you’re not going to have any Black coaches. And an opportunity matters.”
Stone was left to hire a new head coach for the Rockets to replace Mike D’Antoni. But even more challenging for Stone was attempting to figure out what to do with star players Harden and Westbrook after they both requested trades.
“I would be willing to do it if it made sense for the organization. And if it didn’t, we organizationally were willing to wait and to be uncomfortable if that was what was required. And that was truly the approach we took. And for sure, that’s the right approach,” Stone said.
Two weeks after getting the job, Stone hired Silas as the Rockets’ new head coach on Oct. 30. Like Stone, the former Mavericks assistant had paid his dues working as an assistant coach for two decades before finally getting a full-time head-coaching opportunity. Stone and Silas bonded easily as two African Americans who paid their dues to get where they are today.
“He was very easy to talk to and connect with his background and my background,” Silas, the son of former NBA star and head coach Paul Silas, said. “It seemed like it would be a great fit and it has been so far.”
Silas hoped to coach Harden and Westbrook and talked to them both before taking the job. But Stone traded Westbrook to the Washington Wizards in exchange for former No. 1 overall pick John Wall and a lottery-protected first-round pick in the 2023 NBA draft on Dec. 2.
With Westbrook, D’Antoni and Morey gone, Harden asked for a trade to the Brooklyn Nets. Harden didn’t make the trade request easy either, as he said early last season that the Rockets “just aren’t good enough” and he didn’t “think it could be fixed.” Harden’s conditioning also was questioned.
On Jan. 13, Harden got his wish as he was dealt to the Nets in a four-team deal. Houston would eventually acquire All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, forward Rodions Kurucs, three first-round draft picks and four first-round pick swaps. Harden averaged 29.6 points, 7.7 assists and 6.0 rebounds over his 621 regular-season games with the Rockets.
Stone said after the trade he and Harden cleared the air during a two-hour conversation.
“Some of the things about the process bothered me. I’m sure they bothered him too, but I did feel good. For me, that conversation was very healthy,” Stone said. “I think it was for him, too.”
Silas had a hard time dealing with the struggles of losing after the departure of Harden and Westbrook and got emotional in a news conference after the Rockets’ 20th straight loss last season. But he said Stone was always available, supportive, preached patience and was transparent about the direction of the Rockets.
“He did a great job of letting me know what was going on behind the scenes and what it was going to look like moving forward,” Silas said. “ ‘We are going to do the best job that we can. These are the circumstances we are in. Are you good with it?’ Of course, I was good with it. He said, ‘We are going to be patient and do what is best for the organization …’
“He has a way of communicating things that are facts. He is not beating around the bush. ‘This is how it is. This is how we will deal with it.’ ”
Stone’s starting-from-scratch mentality includes going with young talent and future draft assets while gaining more salary-cap flexibility in the years ahead.
The Rockets’ roster includes young forward Christian Wood, 25, averaged career-highs of 21 points and 9.6 rebounds last season. Forward Jae’Sean Tate, 25, went from going undrafted in 2018 to being named to the 2021 NBA’s All-Rookie first team. Guard Kevin Porter Jr. averaged 16.6 points and 6.3 assists in 26 games after being acquired for a second-round pick by the Cavaliers.
After falling to a dismal 17-55 record, the Rockets were rewarded with the coveted second overall draft pick. The Rockets are expected to land a future NBA All-Star talent during the draft. Stone says the Rockets have a talented young roster and it’s important to develop it.
“This organization hasn’t been in a position to invest in the future like we are now. So I think it’s going to be fun for all of us as we’re kind of going into a new stage of the challenge,” Stone said.
The rebuilding of the Rockets will not be an easy undertaking for Stone. But based on what Silas has seen and heard, he has faith in his leadership.
“When he talks about the future and all the things that has happened, he always wraps it up with, ‘The goal is a championship.’ I love that. I love that about him,” Silas said.