The Whiteboard: Rockets have nothing to lose with Kevin Porter Jr.

Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

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The Kevin Porter Jr. era in Cleveland came to an abrupt, unceremonious end Thursday night.

As reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon, the Cleveland Cavaliers agreed to send Porter — a first-round pick from the 2019 NBA Draft — to the Houston Rockets. In return, all the Cavs got was a future second-round selection … which is unlikely to ever convey, since the pick is top-55 protected.

Essentially, the Rockets are getting a free flier on the 20-year-old guard, while the Cavs are dumping him for basically nothing.

None of this is remotely surprising for anyone who’s followed this particular storyline over the last few weeks. But if you had plucked someone from March, right after Cleveland’s final game of the 2019-20 campaign, and transported them to the here and now, they might’ve been baffled how KPJ went from the most promising youngster in the Cavs’ rebuild to being outright dumped to whichever team would take him.

Porter hasn’t played yet this season, spending time away from the team due to “personal issues.” He had reportedly been ramping up his activity to rejoin the team in recent weeks, but following the arrival of Taurean Prince as part of the James Harden trade, his standing with the Cavs rapidly spiraled out of control.

According to The Athletic, the breaking point came when Porter’s locker was given to Prince. Porter reportedly got into a screaming match with team officials over his space being relegated to the wall where the end-of-rotation players reside. When general manger Koby Altman entered the locker room, Porter remained combative, and at that point, the Cavs altered course, resigning themselves to either trading him or waiving him altogether.

Cleveland found itself a trade in the end but will get essentially nothing for a player who was considered a cornerstone in this rebuild just a few months ago.

There had been worrisome signs leading up to Porter’s locker-room outburst that sealed his fate with the team. He had been suspended indefinitely for “conduct issues” during his freshman year at USC, though that lasted only two games. In November, during his first NBA offseason, KPJ was arrested after being involved in a one-car accident and admitting to drinking earlier in the night.

He was charged with improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle, failure to control the vehicle and misdemeanor possession of marijuana. The first charge was thrown out when he was able to prove he didn’t know the gun was in the car, and a judge dismissed the misdemeanor pot charge.

His social media also indicated something was wrong in recent months. Back in October, he posted a black square on Instagram with the caption, “Do you ever wish to see the end of your time?” He then deleted his Instagram account when Cavs teammates and officials reached out about the post. Later on Twitter, he posted, “I’m fine. Been thru my worse times already, can’t get worse than what I already been thru. Love & Thank you.” That tweet was also later deleted.

At this point, it’s unclear what exactly is going on with KPJ, and to be honest, it’d be irresponsible to speculate without more information. All we can say is we hope he figures things out, gets whatever help he needs if it’s necessary and finds his footing to get his career back on track.

In Houston, on a new-look Rockets team that is searching for its next identity in the wake of a franchise star’s departure, hopefully he’ll get his chance to do so.

Remember, this is a talented kid who just turned 20 in May and averaged 10.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists in just 23.2 minutes per game as a rookie. He shot 44.2 percent from the field, and many felt he was a surer thing than either Collin Sexton or Darius Garland last year.

It’s just proof of how quickly things can change in this league, since Sexton and Garland are both looking great now while Porter seems to be fighting to rehabilitate his image and keep his NBA career alive. A player of his caliber doesn’t just get dumped for a top-55 protected second-rounder unless there’s something troubling going on in the background.

But the Rockets are in as good a position to take that kind of risk as anyone. They just sent a perennial MVP candidate to Brooklyn for a heap of draft picks, salary filler and Victor Oladipo on an expiring contract. They’re playing with a finally-healthy John Wall on a bloated salary, a finally-healthy DeMarcus Cousins on a minuscule salary and a lot of pieces who made more sense on a Harden-led team.

Houston wants to build around its younger prospects like Christian Wood, Jae’Sean Tate and, hopefully, Oladipo. Porter could be another nice, young piece, whether the Rockets are trying to compete with this current makeshift bunch or looking toward the future by skewing younger.

With only one year and $1.7 million remaining on his contract, KPJ is worth the flier, and the Rockets have the kind of mentor in assistant coach John Lucas who can hopefully reach him and set him on a better path to preserve his career. It’s alarming how fast Porter’s value has plummeted, but perhaps a change of scenery to a team willing to take that risk will pay off for both him and Houston.

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