Teams that Tank Part 3: the Houston Rockets

We aren’t even to Christmas yet and it appears that 6 NBA teams are already looking forward to placing their hopes on the ping-pong balls of the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery. As of December 7, 2021 Lottery odds have the following teams in the highest order: The Detroit Pistons, The Orlando Magic, The New Orleans Pelicans, The Oklahoma City Thunder, The Houston Rockets, and the San Antonio Spurs who are all under ten wins on the season so far (Since beginning this series the Spurs have crawled out of the cellar and will no longer be considered). Unsurprisingly, all six of these teams found themselves in the lottery last year with Detroit, Orlando and Houston all securing top 5 picks, New Orleans traded out of the lottery in a bid to build around Zion Williamson who, yet again, finds himself in street clothes rehabbing and leaving the Pelicans without clear direction for the future.

The inverse of the relative sadness of teams setting themselves up for short term failure in efforts to procure better lottery odds is the myriad of young talent vying to be selected with those precious draft picks. Names like Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith Jr., and Paolo Banchero top a list of prospects who have absolutely stunned the college ranks with their skills. Lesser known names like Patrick Baldwin Jr., Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey seek to get their names into the illusive top five by playing the NCAA’s game and searching (in some cases extremely unsuccessfully) for a tournament bid and a rise to pre-draft stardom. There are also foreign prospects and those who haver forgone the college rout for the NBA G-League or other developmental programs like Serbian star Nicola Jovic, speedy point guard Jean Montero from the Overtime Elite team and the G-League Ignite’s Jaden Hardy. (The absolutely Meteoric rise of Jaden Ivey will now start to be considered moving forward.)

For the most part the goal of a team drafting this high is to draft the best player available, however some teams (specifically Houston, New Orleans, and San Antonio) already have invested in young players with all-star upsides so they may be more wary of team fit in these exercises. The goal of the next series of posts here will be to break down how each of these teams could be currently evaluating talent, both on their own rosters and the prospects of whom they could draft.

The Houston Rockets

State of the Franchise

Year 1.5 of a rebuild for Houston. Owner Tillman Firtitta Purchased a perennial title contender before the 2018 season. They stayed competitive until the bubble collapse. With he recent release of Forward Danuel House, not a single player from the Rockets’ most recent playoff appearance remains on this roster. Last years 2020-21 season began with the departures of Coach Mike D’Antoni and GM Daryl Morey. New GM Rafael Stone made major splashes by trading Russell Westbrook to Washington for John Wall, signing free agent big man Christian Wood and hiring first time head coach Stephen Silas… then disaster struck. MVP James Harden demanded a trade… Harden had been the engine of the Rockets for 9 seasons and suddenly the team went from Championship contender to rebuilding. Coupled with poor injury luck 2021 ended with Houston having the second pick in the draft.

Before we get into what they currently have on the roster let’s look at what stability the team has in leadership. Tilman Firtitta has been pretty clear that he wants to be competitive for championships but he also understands that the way to do that is to get younger cost controlled assets. Rafael Stone appears to have pretty safe job security himself and has been maybe a little too involved in the coaching if some internet rumors are to be believed. After a rocky start to the season that involved a 15 game losing streak Stephen Silas lead the team to an 8 game win streak and they’ve seemed to settle into a pace that would see them with a bottom 5 record but showing real improvement and development of their young guys.

What does the team Need?   

Currently the team has a ton of talent younger than 22 on the roster. Guys like Joshua Christopher, Usman Garuba, Kenyon Martin Jr., Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, and Alperen Sengün all provide tons of upside. Green and Sengün in particular seem to both have future all-star upside. Currently their best player is Christian Wood who is on a fantastic deal and could absolutely be moved for the right price. Eric Gordon is having one of the best years of his career on great efficiency and feels almost certain to be moved by the deadline. The elephant in the room for this team is still John Wall… the team and his camp haven’t seen eye to eye on what role he could play for the team and he hasn’t suited up at all this year. No one else on the team is on a bad contract so the Rockets seem willing to let Wall sit all of this year and play chicken with that player option.

When looking at prospects in this draft the Rockets have to ask themselves “Do they fit with the two cornerstones we have?” Jalen Green and Alperen Sengün are the true building blocks of this team and quite frankly none of these prospects in this draft warrant shifting either of these two around, in fact most of the players in this years draft are OLDER than Sengün. With that being said only a few of the top prospects in this years draft would be clunky fits with these two. Two players that the Rockets probably shouldn’t look to draft are Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Jalen Duren out of the University of Memphis. Both players would really inhibit the spacing around Sengün. Banchero absolutely doesn’t provide enough defensively to even begin to justify trying to make it work either.

A final wrinkle for Houston is Kevin Porter Jr. Houston has tried, with mixed results to convert him from wing to point guard. He’s been injured a lot this year so it isn’t really clear if Houston has seen enough to decide that they feel comfortable with him in that role moving forward. Houston has two real options if they land at the number one pick and those will plant solely on if they feel like they need more creation in the backcourt or if they’re comfortable with Porter Jr. 

If Houston likes what they see by the end of the year with Porter at the 1 they should very quickly select Jabari Smith Jr. out of Auburn if he’s available. Smith is currently averaging really solid counting stats in only 27 minutes a night with 16 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and a block on 45/45/83 splits… for a 6-10, 200 18 year old he’s really just too much to pass up and     quite frankly fills the hole at the 4 that the rockets have while keeping the spacing of going small and being tall enough to provide some extra rim protection. Houston should be looking at the Cavs with their front court of Mobley and Allen or the Grizzlies with Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr. and realize that this pairing of Smith and Sengün could be extremely dynamic for a young Rockets core.

If Houston absolutely thinks they need to move Porter back to the wing they need to pick high rising sophomore Jaden Ivey out of Perdue. Ivey is an electric guard who is quite possibly the biggest riser in recent memory. A 6-4 combo guard who has looked more and more like a bigger Donovan Mitchell who’s actually interested in playing defense. Ivey is averaging 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists on 52/44/73 splits for a scorching Perdue team. He’s providing two way impact and is an athlete that absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath of guys like Mitchell, Green, Lavine and Morant when talking about his bounce.

If both of these guys are off the board it isn’t a terrible consolation prize to target Chet Holmgren out of Gonzaga who’s absolutely on of the best shot blocking prospects that we’ve seen come through in decades. His three point stroke seems to have come alive in recent games as well. Chet is averaging nearly 4 blocks a game on only 25 minutes a night and is shooting 37% from three Kristaps Porzingis is a very likely outcome for him.

Names to watch if the Rockets fall out of that top 3 are Duke swingman AJ Griffin and his teammate Paolo Banchero as well as Alabama Guard JD Davison and Jaden Hardey out of the G-League Ignite. Houston has multiple first rounders as well depending on where Miami ends up so they’ll be looking for some post lottery sleepers that we should keep our eyes on closer to the draft as well. 

It’s unrealistic to expect Houston to have only young guys moving forward but the team currently has a glut of young exciting talent and this draft will only add to it. I expect Houston to try to package some picks around for a difference maker and this team may not be totally recognizable in a few years. Houston, like Oklahoma City (coming soon) have a plan of flexibility but right now they’re really fun to watch the kids grow up with.

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Jonathan is a former basketball coach and current mega fan. He’s the co-host of the Assisted Development Podcast and can be found on Twitter at @PastorPostUp!