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NBA AM: Now What? – Houston Rockets Edition

As the season comes down to an end, it’s time for the Rockets to look back and evaluate their situation. Where will their rebuild take them next? It all remains to be seen, but time is on their side.

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There comes a time where an organization has to take a step back and analyze the things they’ve done right and wrong while keeping outside factors in mind. For this series of Now What? for Basketball Insiders, the Houston Rockets will be broken down to see what they have going for them heading into the final few weeks of the season, and what has held them back as an organization. While the Rockets have been a perennial contender for some time now, the departure of their franchise player, James Harden, has sparked a complete rebuild in Houston. What do the Rockets have to do to get back into contender form?

Strengths

The Rockets already have a budding star on their team in Christian Wood. Wood has been having a breakout season for the Rockets averaging 21 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in his first season as a full-time starter. His breakout didn’t come as much of a surprise to those who have watched his games before as he showed many glimpses at his potential with the Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Pelicans in limited minutes. Wood can serve as the leader of the group as the team rebuilds and looks to add more youth to the roster.

Along with Wood, the team has rookies Jae’ Sean Tate and Kenyon Martin Jr. who have both shown they have the potential to be great NBA players. Tate has been very impressive, to say the least, as he has been one of the top rookies across the NBA this year. To put his season into perspective, take a look at this statistic put out by Alykhan Bijani, an NBA Insider for the Athletic: “Tate has 672 points, 324 rebounds, 141 assists, 78 steals, 34 blocks, and 48 3-pointers made this season…the only other rookie to have posted those numbers through the first 61 games of a season was LeBron James in 2003-04.” To be compared to one of the best players of all time is pretty good for a rookie. While he may be an older rookie at 25 years old, he has shown that he can be a great NBA player soon.

Time is the Rockets’ best friend as there is no reason for the organization to try to rush itself back to its winning ways. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s best teams for years with James Harden, and while they may not have been able to get that elusive NBA Finals Appearance and Championship, that shouldn’t downplay just how good they were. They were one game away from defeating the Golden State Warriors juggernaut if it weren’t for one very bad shooting night from three-point range. With the past success in mind, the team needs to take this time to use its high draft picks on the right players and devoting time to developing them. If the season were to end today, the Rockets would be the odds-on favorite to win the NBA Draft lottery and the chance to get a franchise-changing player in Cade Cunningham. Along with their pick, the Rockets will likely have the Milwaukee Bucks pick via a swap, and the TrailBlazers first-rounder as well. It will be up to management and the scouting department to see how where they go with these picks, but they will have multiple opportunities to pick high-upside players in this year’s draft.

Weaknesses

The city of Houston has lost all of its firepower in the sports world and has been desecrated as a desired destination for free agents. The Houston Texans have almost effectively killed the city of Houston as a sports city with the mismanagement of their team and its best players. Then add in the huge cheating scandal that transpired in the MLB led by the Houston Astros This doesn’t necessarily apply to the Rockets, but it does affect how they are viewed nationwide as people have begun to question Houston’s authenticity as a city known for its sports teams. 

While head coach Stephen Silas has been a highly thought of name in NBA circles, his track record as a head coach doesn’t reflect him very well. In his first season as a head coach, he had to deal with all of the drama surrounding James Harden and had to attempt to coach a team to winning basketball without much firepower. Silas may be a great head coach, but the numbers just aren’t there for him. Will the Rockets give him time to develop and implement a culture with the team? Or will they send him packing after finishing the season with a horrible record? It remains to be seen, but it is possible.

Opportunities

The biggest opportunity available to the Rockets shortly is the lottery pick they possess in this year’s draft. While they are the favorite to obtain the #1 overall pick, the ping pong balls can change things up, but with the way the draft is shaping up this year, any of the top four or five guys could be franchise-altering talents. Any pick of the group of Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green, and even Jonathan Kuminga could turn out to be an NBA superstar. All of these players have All-Star potentials and higher floors than the average player, so the Rockets must make the best pick. Since the team already has Wood and Tate at the four and five spots, it would make sense for them to look for a guard or small forward in the draft. Cunningham would be the homerun pick for sure, but an electric scorer like Jalen Green would be a great pick as well. The only way for the Rockets to fumble this situation would be due to an unfortunate bounce of some ping pong balls. Yeah, it’s not an ideal way to depend on the future of your billion-dollar franchise. 

In a rebuild, acquiring assets and loading the team up with youth is a great strategy as a team attempts to bring itself back to prominence. For the Rockets, they have some young players who will contribute even more in the future, but they also have the tradeable veterans to acquire even more assets. The Danny Ainge philosophy. According to Spotrac, the Rockets have John Wall under contract through the 2021-22 season with a player option for 2022-23, with Eric Gordon also under contract until 2024. Both of these veterans still have great basketball left in the tank, but they aren’t ideal fits with a team that is trying to rebuild and find its identity. It shouldn’t be hard to find a team looking to add either of the two to their roster, but the money owed to both players, specifically Wall could make it difficult to swing a trade. Anyways, the opportunity is arising for the Rockets to part ways with these vets and go into a full-blown rebuild around a younger nucleus.

Threats

A toxic culture was evident in the Rockets organization when James Harden so desperately wanted out. While there hasn’t been any evidence that this will carry over into the new regime, it should still be a focal point for the team to avoid moving forward. A winning team is built on a positive culture where expectations are clear and everyone’s role is understood. Without a known core of untouchable players on the team, this could be a bit difficult for them to achieve, but if they wish to ace the rebuild, it should be something they work on improving. 

Getting too greedy is another threat to the team’s future success. A complete rebuild takes time to accomplish and if it’s rushed, it could lead to very bad results. The Rockets don’t want to be a mediocre franchise, they want to be a contender again. With a lost season in the wind, they have the opportunity to change the direction of their franchise in this year’s draft. If they for some reason didn’t trust the draft lottery they have the most valuable asset for trades in the league outside of a player like Zion Williamson, so if they mess this up, it would be an astronomical fail, but it’s possible. 

The Rockets aren’t the team they were heading into the last offseason. The trades of Russell Westbrook and James Harden along with the departure of legendary executive Daryl Morey made this evident pretty quickly. Even though the team has lost its once irreplaceable pieces, there’s always a way to get back to prominence, but it is going to take time. Don’t expect the Rockets to be a great team anytime soon. If they can ace this offseason and the one after it though, they might once again be a well-respected team around the league. For now, sit back and enjoy the rebuild as things continue to unfold in Houston.

 

Dylan Thayer is a Contributing Writer for Basketball Insiders, and a Sport Management student in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

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