It is a new era in Houston. The rebuild is officially on, and the Rockets can finally look ahead to a brighter future after last season’s disaster.
Free Agency opens up tonight, Summer League is right around the corner, and the 2021-22 season starts in just a few short months. As for us Rockets fans? We’re still recovering from the wildly successful NBA Draft, in which the team ended up with four first-round picks:
The Rockets are entering Year 1 of the rebuild ahead of pace. The major draft haul from the James Harden trade – as well as the other savvy moves from rookie GM Rafael Stone – has put the Rockets in a great position moving forward.
To put all of this into context, I have listed below my 4 Key Aspects of a Successful Rebuild, and have given the Rockets a grade for each one. Remember, this is a long process; these grades are subject to change over time as players progress and different circumstances emerge.
Let’s get into it!
#1: A Young Core…UNDER CONTRACT
At the end of last season, Rafael Stone referred to a group of four Rockets players as his “young core.” Let me list the names and ages of those four players:
This doesn’t even include Jalen Green and the rest of the first round draft picks, or the plethora of other exciting prospects already on the roster.
For now, let’s focus on the four players listed above. To have a successful rebuild, it is paramount to have a group of young players that can grow together over time. This is not just individual development, but team development. Eventually, more pieces will be added to the team, but this core group will be there to build a culture and a system.
Each of them are on contracts that range from very reasonable to straight up steals, and each of them are committed to the Rockets for at least two more seasons. In an ideal world, these players will agree to longer term deals in the future.
The best part? It’s been less than a season, but they clearly already love playing together:
The Rockets are extremely fortunate to be in this situation. Teams don’t typically luck into late second round picks like KJ Martin or high-level prospects like KPJ for pennies on the dollar. Jae’Sean Tate already has years of professional experience in Australia, and Christian Wood played at an All-Star level last season when healthy.
On that front, the Rockets are set. These are four fantastic players brimming with potential. When talking about contracts, though, it gets a bit dicier.
Without question, each one of these players is more deserving than the amount they currently make. It remains to be seen what the Rockets’ roster looks like two years from now, but it will be difficult to pay all of these guys a fair salary. And, even more pressing, will someone like Christian Wood even want to stay in Houston if the Rockets aren’t competitive the next two seasons?
Right now, though, the Rockets should be more than thrilled with the young group that they have put together.
#2: Rookies and Draft Capital
Rafael Stone once again worked his wizardry in last Thursday’s draft. After picking Jalen Green at #2, the Rockets traded for the 16th pick in addition to their selections at 23 and 24.
Ultimately, the Rockets came away with quite the haul:
- Pick 2: Jalen Green (G-League Ignite)
- Pick 16: Alperen Sengun (Turkey)
- Pick 23: Usman Garuba (Spain)
- Pick 24: Josh Christopher (Arizona State)
This was the first time the Rockets picked in the first round since 2015. At the very least, it is nice to finally see an injection of youth back on to a Rockets team.
Rafael Stone and the Rockets came away with more than just youth, though. Each of their selections have the potential to become highly impactful NBA players in multiple different ways. And Jalen Green, for his part, has obvious star potential. In most other drafts, he could have been the first overall pick.
Realistically, it is unlikely that all four of the draft picks hit. At the end of the day, though, that’s OK. There’s strength in numbers, and the Rockets will be able to give multiple rookies an opportunity.
Perhaps even more promising, though, is the future draft capital. Rafael Stone has done a fantastic job of stockpiling picks. This is key on two fronts: first, it will give the team an opportunity to draft more players; and second, it will give them more assets to trade in the event a star player becomes available somewhere.
Many graded the James Harden trade on a shot-term basis. The Rockets traded James Harden and the Rockets got worse. End of story. Really, though, the whole point of the trade was the abundance of picks in return. The Rockets will own unprotected Nets picks up through 2027. This is an unprecedented amount of draft capital, and there’s no telling how valuable those picks will end up being.
2027 is a long way away, giving the Nets plenty of time to eventually implode. The Rockets will be right there waiting when they do.
#3: A Star to Build Around
Let’s be clear. This isn’t going to be an LA-LeBron situation. The Rockets aren’t in a realistic position to go out and sign a big-name free agent and immediately compete.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it’s an opportunity for the Rockets to engage in a more natural rebuild, in which the eventual stars are homegrown. Think the Hawks with Trae Young or the Warriors with Stephen Curry in the B.D. (Before Durant) Era.
Let’s look at the Hawks for a second, because I feel that they can be a pretty good comp. They drafted Trae Young in 2018, built around him with other young players, and grew into a Western Conference Finals berth three years later. That will be the best case scenario for the Rockets, and something that can be possible if things go their way.
First, though, they need to identify their Trae Young. And right now, while there are a lot of promising players, there isn’t that one guy that stands out as a surefire superstar in this league. Yet.
The way I see it, here are the three likeliest candidates – in order:
- Jalen Green
- Kevin Porter Jr.
- Christian Wood
I want to make this clear – I am not saying Jalen Green isn’t a superstar; I am saying that we just don’t know yet. He hasn’t played a second of NBA basketball. He certainly can become one of the best players in the league, but at this point in the rebuild, the Rockets cannot identify with 100% certainty his future impact.
Kevin Porter Jr. averaged nearly 17 ppg for the Rockets last season and showed major strides as a distributor. He still has a lot to accomplish, though, including learning an entirely new position.
Christian Wood is probably the best player on the Rockets right now, but he is an oft-injured big man in a guard-driven league. It is hard to see the Rockets really building around him.
Of course, the Rockets would like for all of their players to turn in to stars. In most of the more recent, successful rebuilds, though, the rebuilding team in question needs that one guy to really build around. The Hawks have Trae Young; The Grizzlies have Ja Morant; the Hornets now have LaMelo Ball.
Hopefully, Jalen Green will be that guy for the Rockets. At this point, though, we just don’t know. And remember, this is all just a progress report, not a final report card.
#4: Veteran Leadership
With the exception of Christian Wood, every single player I have mentioned so far has been in the league for under two seasons. And Christian Wood bounced around the league for most of his career, so he’s really only had a few full years as an NBA rotation player.
This isn’t necessarily an issue, but it’s important to recognize.
Most of these Rockets players aren’t used to the grind of an NBA season, and most of them especially aren’t used to losing. The Rockets experienced the losing part last year and seemed to adjust fairly well, but who knows what another season will bring. Rebuilds are a long process, and losing game after game again this season may leave a few players on the roster feeling disgruntled. Having veteran players in the locker room will go a long way toward keeping things in perspective and boosting team morale.
As it currently stands, this might run a little bit thin. The longest tenured Rocket, Eric Gordon, is likely to be traded; Avery Bradley and the Rockets have already mutually agreed to part ways; Kelly Olynyk is a free agent and it is unclear whether or not the Rockets will be able to resign him. This really just leaves John Wall and DJ Augustin.
John Wall doesn’t really fit with the timeline of the Rockets with what he still has left in the tank as a player. Whether or not the Rockets can trade him remains to be seen, but I don’t see him meshing with this young team as he competes for minutes. Augustin is a good presence to have, as the 33-year-old has seen his fair share of losing over his 13-year career. With the number of guards the Rockets have right now, though, there isn’t a great path for Augustin to carve out minutes. Yes, it’s great to have veterans on the bench loudly cheering and meme-ing. But it’d be a lot better to have these players on the court, actually using their experience to help the team win games. Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams were great examples of this for the Hawks last year.
However, no one said anything about the veteran leadership only coming from the players.
The Rockets are extremely fortunate to have someone like John Lucas on their coaching staff. Lucas has spent an entire lifetime around basketball. Over the years, he has proven adept at working with and helping develop younger players. There were mindset with questions with KPJ after his time with Cleveland, but Lucas took it upon himself to work with him and make him feel at home in Houston. Since the trade, there have been no issues reported.
Similarly, the Rockets have unique access to one of the best basketball players of all time: Hakeem Olajuwon. Olajuwon works with a number of players around the league, but is mainly tied to the Rockets. He represented the team at the lottery in June, and is an amazing resource for the young Rockets players to have by their side.
Lastly, Stephen Silas may be a first-time head coach, but he is the definition of an NBA veteran. His father Paul coached for 32 years, and Stephen himself worked as an assistant coach for over a decade before getting the Rockets’ job. Silas knows the NBA better than anyone; last season was just as tough – if not tougher – on him than it was for the players.
With all of this being said, the Rockets are in a great place to begin their rebuild. They have no real reason to tank, because all tanking will do is delay the process another year; yes, you’ll get another top-level prospect, but you’ll also push players like Christian Wood one year forward in their contracts. It’s almost a wash.
Instead, in a weaker-than-typical Western Conference this year, the Rockets have a realistic chance at a push for a play-in spot. Barring health, they are more than capable of winning games. Whatever happens, though, this is shaping up to be one of the most exciting seasons in recent Rockets memory.
Going from James Harden to where the team is at now should typically take years to accomplish. The Rockets did it in less than one season. So buckle up; let’s see how far we can keep going from here.