Rockets

Dysfunction, Uncertainty Plague Rockets’ Rebuild in Post-Harden Era

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Did you know the Houston Rockets are on pace to finish with the worst record in the NBA for the third-straight season?

Crazy, right? It doesn’t feel like Houston ranks as that bad of a situation. To be honest, it seems like it was yesterday when James Harden kept Houston in title contention with his historic scoring output.

But now, the Rockets remain in a state of mediocrity.

As of November 25th, Houston sits at 5-15 on the season, well on its way to crowning itself as the worst team in the league (again). The Rockets never had back-to-back losing seasons since the mid-eighties (1982 and 1984).

In the last two years, Houston’s 2021 and 2022 campaigns rank as two of the franchise’s four worst seasons ever. If the trend keeps up, the Rockets will finish with three-straight losing seasons for the first time in franchise history. You read that right.

So yes, it’s safe to say Houston fans are missing the good-old days of Rockets basketball from a half decade ago.

Overall, Houston faces an unprecedented moment in the team’s history. With no clear plan, many obstacles remain as the Rockets look to move on from the James Harden era.

And for the first time in franchise history, Houston’s transition to its next great era won’t be as seamless. For now, the Rockets’ rebuild faces disappointment and an unclear future moving forward.

The uncertain ceilings of Green and Smith Jr.

At its core, the biggest challenge for the Rockets is that the team arguably doesn’t have a franchise cornerstone.

Jalen Green remains Houston’s most promising player. Taken second overall in the 2022 NBA Draft, Green flashes scoring potential across the board. He looked sometimes like a legit scorer, especially in his rookie season.

But the flashes remain just that. Through 84 career games, Green is averaging 18 points per contest on 42% shooting from the field and 34% from three. It’s still early, but there are legitimate concerns about his ceiling.

The biggest promise for Green is that the volume, especially from three, is there. Kevin Porter Jr. isn’t the greatest fit next to Green, who needs a legit playmaker that can handle more ball-handling responsibility. On paper, the Porter-Green backcourt looked great at first. In practice, it’s been a case of “my turn, your turn.”

Green doesn’t turn 21 until February. There’s still much to go for him on the development timeline, but it’s hard to believe a below-average efficiency guard with little defensive upside can be seen as a legitimate cornerstone.

In all honesty, the biggest disappointment so far is the Rockets’ most recent top-three pick. Coming out of Auburn, Jabari Smith Jr. projected to be one of the best prospects in the 2022 class.

Instead, he’s looked anything but that. He’s shooting below 33% from the field and just 30% from three. Smith Jr. was advertised as a three-point marksman, but his efficiency is horrendous. Even worse— he doesn’t excel at anything else on offense.

Similar to Green, it’s still early for Smith Jr. But for Houston, the investment in bottoming out was to cash in on a legit prospect. Through two drafts, the results are passable at best and disappointing at worst.

Too many youngsters, not enough reliability

Houston’s current rotation consists mainly of young prospects with potential, but a lack of certainty. Out of the 12 players suiting up for at least 12 minutes a game, nine are 24 or younger. Eric Gordon (34), Jae’Sean Tate (27) and Garrison Matthews (26) are the true veterans on the roster.

Because of that, the Rockets’ on-court product consists of sloppy play and undisciplined basketball.

Statistically, Porter Jr. remains Houston’s most productive player. That isn’t a good thing for the Rockets, especially with his past discipline troubles on multiple teams.

Like Green, Porter Jr. is a ball-dominant but inefficient scorer and unnatural playmaker. The counting numbers look great, per usual. But, the impact isn’t there.

Houston possesses several prospects who bring some things to the table. Kenyon Martin Jr. is the Western Conference’s version of P.J. Washington, only with way more athletic pop. Alperen Şengün is a jack-of-all-trades center who’s still 20 years old. Tari Eason projects to be a swiss-army-knife defender. There’s some promise from Houston’s youngsters.

With promise comes tons of questions, however. The lack of veterans and discipline on the team means projecting the Rockets’ younger guys becomes more of a challenge.

Additionally, all of the youngsters are far from perfect. In general, they excel at 1-2 things but lag behind in other categories. There are no legit two-way players with upside on the roster. For a team that sits in the bottom-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, that’s a critical concern moving forward.

A future with tons of questions and no guarantees

Looking away from the roster, many challenges face Houston as the team embarks on year three of its rebuild.

For starters, Houston doesn’t own its first-round pick for the 2024 draft. That will go to the Thunder after the Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook back in 2019. In other words, this is Houston’s last chance to capitalize and control its own destiny at the draft.

But even then, nothing is a certainty with the new draft-lottery odds. Despite finishing with the worst record in back-to-back seasons, the Rockets failed to land the number one pick in the draft. Victor Wembanyama is the ultimate prize. With flattened odds across the board, Houston isn’t guaranteed to pick first, even if it is statistically the worst team in the league.

The Rockets do possess some assets from trading Harden to the Nets back in the 2020-21 season. Even then, it’s hard to see Brooklyn plummeting in the standings unless the Nets’ situation really takes a turn for the worst.

On the financial front, Houston projects to have at least $35 million in cap space. Similar to the draft, however, it’s tough to see a prized free agent pick the Rockets of all places unless the team grossly overpays for a player.

At the end of the day, the Rockets sit in a difficult situation. If anything, the team sits in a spot it has never been before in franchise history.

By far, the Rockets will finish as the worst team in the NBA. Unless things magically trend in a different direction, don’t expect much to change in the next few years.

Is it too late to turn the clock back to 2018?

About Dominic Chiappone

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