The Houston Rockets started the season with James Harden on the roster and somehow managed to finish with the league’s worst winning percentage at 23.6% (17-55 record), the 3rd worst mark in franchise history and the worst one since 1983, even though they tried to make the playoffs after trading The Beard. Their season was filled with disappointments, lowered expectations and heartbreak, featuring a 20 game losing streak and an endless amount of injuries.
There were, however, multiple positive developments to happen during the season, five of which we are going to cover in this article.
1. The Rockets’ ability to produce good offense and good defense, though in separate occasions.
The Rockets finished the season with the 27th best offense and defense in the league, which isn’t exactly a sign they’re any close to figuring out how to score or defend at a consistent level, but they are not your typical “worst record in the league” team.
Before Christian Wood sprained his ankle and the Rockets went on an embarrassing 20 game losing streak, they fielded the league’s 2nd best defense and were coming off a six game winning streak. Led by defensive stalwarts Jae’Sean Tate and David Nwaba, they locked down the perimeter, ranking top-6 in the league at forcing turnovers, limiting 3s, and at forcing misses from downtown, in addition to allowing the 3rd worst shooting percentage at the restricted area — a deadly combination.
It showed a glimpse of their potential when healthy, but unfortunately, a glimpse is all we got, as they ended up as the only team in NBA history to finish on pace for 20 wins or less in a full, 82 game season despite the aforementioned winning streak. Without Wood’s presence, they could not defend the paint at nearly the same level, which forced them to overhelp and leave the perimeter way too open at times.
They had similar success on the offensive end over a small stretch of games to end the season, recording a 118.3 ORTG over six games, which would rank first in the NBA over the course of the season. While a hot week means very little in this league, especially when it only resulted in one win, it provided something to build off of. Considering the Rockets were struggling to find even just eight healthy bodies to play in each of those game, it deserves mention.
That is not to say the Rockets could be competitive next year if they’ll just stay healthy. While their coaching staff did a great job in the final two weeks or so of the season, it is very noticeable veteran point guard John Wall wasn’t playing, since his ball-dominant, ISO and mid-range heavy style of play tend to put a cap on his team’s ceiling, and the vast majority of Rockets players who are effective on one side of the floor are sufficient on the other.
But Houston isn’t as far away from becoming a respectable team, at least on one end of the floor, as some think.
2. Kevin Porter Jr.’s play and potential
Acquired in late January for the very small price of a highly protected 2024 second-round pick, Kevin Porter Jr. has found himself a new home. He was labeled by many analysts as the “most intriguing player of the Cavs’ young core” after a strong rookie season, but off-court issues and a particularly rough exchange with Cavs GM David Griffin led to the Cavs’ decision to give up on him, perhaps pre-maturely before his 2nd season even began.
The Rockets wisely sent him to the G League before he even played a game for them to get Porter Jr. back in game shape after a year of not playing professional basketball, allowing him to get comfortable with the initiator role, which is what they envisioned him playing with the main team after mainly playing small forward for Cleveland.
Scoot was a little inconsistent at the start of the G League season before closing on a very high note and finishing 2nd in the MVP race in a true Harden fashion. His scoring flashes were highly intriguing, but his passing, interestingly a skillset he was never able to showcase before getting traded to Houston, is what makes his potential endless.
After averaging 1.4 assists per game playing for USC in college and 2.2 for the Cavs in his rookie year, he averaged 6.3 dimes as a Rocket, which presents the 2nd highest jump between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons for players who played at a minimum of 100 minutes in both seasons, only behind former Rocket Russell Westbrook. He has a real knack for hitting the roller in pick-and-roll situations, and is capable of making some passes that would have both the defender and the fans at home shook.
KPJ is still extremely raw, which is what makes him so exciting as a prospect. He is ridiculously good at creating space, and his handle, touch, passing and athleticism combo just screams star potential. We saw what could happen when he puts it all together; he exploded for 50 points and 10 assists against the Bucks, and the way he has handled the point guard role so far for the first time in his career is way above any realistic expectations.
Development is not a linear curve, it’s very important Rockets fans remember that before placing star expectations on him way too early, but the sky is the limit with Kevin Porter Jr., and that should inject some hope to the heart of every Rockets fan in regards to the future outlook of this team.
3. Everything about Jae’Sean Tate
When the Rockets signed rugged swingman Jae’Sean Tate in the off-season, it was mostly swept under the rug, and for a good reason. Tate played four years in Ohio State before going undrafted, then played overseas, winning First-Team All-NBL honors before coming over. Joe Ingles is the only player who has ever managed to transform a good NBL season into a good NBA career, and even the optimists who watched Tate ball-out in Australia didn’t expect him provide such immediate, positive impact in the NBA.
But the 25-year-old Tate has been the Rockets’ most pleasant surprise this season, contributing as a “role player All-Star” despite his lack of experience at the NBA level. His relentlessness and restless motor is a joy to watch on a nightly basis and although he could explode for a nice dunk or two, his success derives from his effort, strength, smarts and elite footwork.
Saying a player plays bigger than his size is an annoying NBA cliche at this point, but you only need one hand to count the number of players who fit that description more than the 6’4″ wing. He’s shooting a splendid 68.5% at the rim this season on 4.1 attempts a game, which ranks 3rd in the entire NBA for players 6’4″ or shorter (3 attempts a game or more), and helps powerhouse his impressive 11.3 PPG on 57.6 TS%. He has a variety of ways to score at the rim, using his tremendous footwork, elite strength and a multitude of pump fakes to always find an opening.
Playing bigger than his size applies for the defensive end as well. Jae’Sean Tate ranks 3rd this season at The Bball Index matchup versatility ranking, meaning he’s spent a fair share of his time guarding every position and archetype you can think of, being deployed as the small-ball center at times.
His linebacker-like build allows him to match up with players taller than him by several inches, and as a 6’4″ workhorse, he’ll gladly lock up opposing guards if they’re foolish enough to attack him. He has a tendency to “attack” players on the defensive end, dictating their next move and quickly shutting down any opening that may seemingly present itself. Tate is also one of the most active help defenders in the league, and that combination has turned him into a near All-NBA-level defender in year one. A quick compilation to show off his defensive versatility and impact:
The fact that he’s 6’4″ does hamper some of his defensive effectiveness around the basket and his aggressive defense causes him to occasionally be in foul trouble (3.9 fouls per 36 minutes, which ranks 22nd in the NBA for players with at least 1,000 minutes played), but it’s very hard to have any more gripes with this defense, especially considering it’s his first season playing at the NBA level.
Jae’Sean Tate’s versatility carries onto the offensive end, and although, just like Porter Jr, he had rarely shown his passing chops in earlier stages of his basketball-playing career; Tate has legitimate upside as a playmaker. He finished the season averaging 2.5 assists per game and 4.4 over his last 17 games despite a clear lack of plays that are being called for him. He has a legit passing vision, and his quick decision-making, paired with his slashing and willingness to take 3 point jumpers, has made him a slight positive on offense when healthy, which was very unexpected coming into the season.
Tate is a grinder, who clearly played through injuries at the end of the season, regardless of the Rockets already being eliminated from the playoffs. He grew up playing as a guard due to his height, then as a forward due to his playstyle, and then as a center in his final year at Ohio State due to injuries. The experience of playing so many different positions has made him into the versatile player he is today, and one of the three best rookies in the NBA. As an older rookie, he’s unlikely to take a significant leap, but even if he only stays as good as he is now, the Rockets got themselves an elite role player for years to come.
4. Kenyon Martin Jr., Khyri Thomas, Armoni Brooks and the Rockets’ eye for talent
None of the players mentioned above were expected to be contributors in the 2020-2021 season. Hell, Khyri Thomas and Armoni Brooks weren’t even on an NBA roster at the beginning of the season. Nevertheless, all three managed to give the Rockets valuable minutes, and you couldn’t blame anyone for considering them a part of Houston’s future.
Kenyon Martin Jr.’s path to the Rockets is different than the other two, seeing as he was drafted by Houston in the 2020 draft with the 52nd pick, which the Rockets bought from the Sacramento Kings, and immediately signed to a 4-year deal. He was someone the Rockets decided to invest in before the season had even started, but it’s safe to say he surpassed all expectations after choosing not to partake in college, instead training for the NBA draft all year long at IMG Academy.
KJ averaged 14 points and 8 rebounds per 36 minutes this season, playing over 1,000 minutes. He was efficient, shooting 50.9% from the floor and a surprising 36.5% from 3 on over 2 attempts a game, and his true shooting percentage of 59% ranked 4th for all rookies who played at least 700 minutes. Martin’s out-of-this-world athleticism is what got him drafted, and it has made him into a walking highlight reel. Here are some of his most insane plays from this season, featuring plenty of blocks and dunks:
Aside from that, the intrigue with KJ is that he possesses some real skills. He has a baby hook which he loves using to score in the paint, a good passing feel, particularly in drive & kick situations, and he shot the ball well from beyond the arc, especially as the season was coming to a close. It remains to be seen if he can keep on being a 3-point shooting threat, but the Rockets should be very happy with the developments KJ Martin made during this season, particularly as a passer and as a help defender from the weakside.
Armoni Brooks was teammates with Porter Jr. and Martin Jr. on the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets’ G League affiliate, but he wasn’t called up until Ben McLemore was waived in early April. Just like his predecessor, Armoni Brooks specializes in one particular skill on the basketball court: 3-point shooting. He’s been a sniper his entire career, and he shot 38.2% from distance on eight attempts per game as a Rocket.
His first five games went remarkably well, making sure teams add him to the scouting report as an elite shooter. Unfortunately, afterward, he went on a slump before seemingly figuring it out and scoring 15+ points in each of his last seven games of the season. Brooks has shown some flashes of on-ball creation as the season went on, and as a guy who played for Kelvin Sampson for 3 years in college you’d bet the Houston-native knows how to defend, but to ever play a significant role on a decent team, he’ll need to expand his game a bit.
Regardless, his shooting alone attributes him enough value that the Rockets should re-sign him in free agency, and bet on the 22-year-old to continue developing after finishing off the season strongly.
Khyri Thomas was signed by the Rockets in early May, with six games left on the Rockets’ schedule. With such little time left in the season, Thomas had to stand out in his minutes to leave a mark — and he did just that. Thomas was so impressive in his first 3 games as a Rocket that he managed to earn himself a 3-year contract extension. He was drafted in the 2nd round 3 years ago and never really found his footing, repeatedly battling injuries, until he managed to string together a good stretch of games playing for the San Antonio Spurs’ G League affiliate in the bubble.
Thomas has the reputation of a good shooter with a very quick trigger, but his calling card is his defense. Winning the big 12 Defensive Player Of the Year award in Creighton with his enormous 6’10 wingspan, Thomas is a tremendous on-ball defender against guards and forwards. He’s so strong and long that it feels like he catches the offensive player by surprise at times, and companied with his activity off the ball, Thomas might have the potential to make a significant defensive impact in this league:
Aside from being a willing and effective shooter on offense Thomas showcased some decent passing chops, playing guard-by-committee for the short-handed Houston Rockets, to go along with highly intriguing driving skills. Remember how Jae’Sean Tate ranked 3rd this season at FG% in the restricted area for players 6’4 or under? Well, Khyri Thomas ranked 2nd. Averaging 16 points on above-average efficiency, even if just for a 6 game stretch, is no easy feat.
Truly, Thomas was so good in his minutes as a Rocket, that he somehow managed to have a +7.3 net rating playing in games the Rockets lost by a combined 22 points. Advanced stats view him as a good starting-level player already, and while it’s likely largely due to the small sample size, I expect Thomas to be a valuable contributor next season.
Those 3 guys were either acquired for cash considerations, or for flat out nothing. You could add Jae’Sean Tate and Kevin Porter Jr to the list of players who’ve shown a good amount of promise, yet the Rockets didn’t need to trade anything of value to add them to the roster. Rafael Stone and Co. have done a fantastic job finding talent on the low and investing in it, and the Rockets fans should feel comfortable having them in charge for the foreseeable future.
5. The Olynyk Klynyk
The Rockets were clowned after trading Victor Oladipo to the Heat for Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and a measly pick swap by Heat fans and national writers alike. The Rockets were very high on Victor Oladipo coming in, yet his play was so disappointing and after Oladipo made it clear he was unwilling to stay, Houston felt like they had to move him and none of the offers were any good.
At the time, Kelly Olynyk was seen as a stretch big having the worst shooting year of his career while also being overpaid and set to be a free agent. A worse version of Ryan Anderson, if you will. Most fans, including yours truly, argued that the most valuable return the Rockets got in the trade was actually Avery Bradley since his contract runs a year longer, meaning you could trade him in the off-season.
Kelly Olynyk, however, started playing like a completely different player the moment he put on a Rockets jersey. He has always been considered a skilled and smart big man on the offensive end, and it turns out he just never had the offensive freedom to show how good he could be.
Playing for Houston, Kelly Olynyk averaged 19 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 4.1 APG, which seems very impressive until you realize he did it while shooting 54.5% from the floor, 39.2% from 3 and 84% from the line for a ludicrous TS% of 67.4, which would rank 3rd in the NBA this season among qualified players and 1st for 15 PPG scorers. His strong play helped stabilize the Rockets’ offense and kick-start the strong stretch to end the season.
He may not be able to replicate those numbers playing next to high-usage offensive stars, but every team could use a center as versatile and proficient as Olynyk. He managed to contribute on the offensive end in every way possible- slipping screens and popping for 3s, dominating mismatches in the post, sealing off his man for easy buckets and even attacking from the perimeter, including operating as the pick and roll ball-handler at times and making impressive reads to create good shots for teammates.
Kelly Olynyk earned himself a lot of money with his final 27 games of the season, and re-signing him should be a priority for the Rockets in free agency. His ability to make his teammates better on the offensive end and accelerate their development helps make him an asset worth keeping. We’ve also seen plenty of young players lean on him for advice, and every rebuilding team needs a couple of good vets to help stabilize the ship and guide the young players through.
It will likely require paying him above market value in order to retain his services, but the Rockets are unlikely to be real players in free agency with John Wall’s massive contract still on the books, and there’s significant value in having good players other teams want to help facilitate trades.