Last Word On Basketball

The Houston Rockets Are at a Crossroads

INGLEWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 19: Houston Rockets player John Wall in attendance during an NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Chargers on September 19, 2021, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Fans of the Houston Rockets have gotten used to winning over the past decade or so. From the moment this club acquired James Harden until last year, they’d been playoff locks on an annual basis and occasional NBA title contenders.

Life, as they say, comes at you quickly. The Rockets remain built around a divisive off-guard. Only now he’s a 19-year-old rookie and perhaps not ready to contribute to winning basketball games. As a result, this team is 10-21, sitting 13th in the Western Conference. The Rockets have every appearance of a team one season removed from expecting to retool their roster around a pair of former MVPs sharing a backcourt. Their roster is a hodgepodge of enticing prospects and leftovers from the Harden Era, which has resulted in historically uneven play. Rattling off a seven-game winning streak on the heels of a 15-game losing skid wasn’t just unprecedented in NBA history. It’s never happened in any of the major professional sports leagues, period. That raises a concern: these Houston Rockets may not know who they are.

The Houston Rockets are at a Crossroads

Fans of any team who don’t stand a genuine chance at competing for the NBA championship can be forgiven for looking ahead to the draft. In the midst of that 15-game skid, Rockets fans may have kept themselves engaged by watching college basketball stars like Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren, and Jabari Smith Jr.

That was before this team won 7 consecutive games. By now, the Rockets may be looking towards lesser draft targets, like Bennedict Mathurin, Kennedy Chandler, and Patrick Baldwin Jr.

Opinions are divided between two possible paths. Some feel that it’s imperative that the Houston Rockets find trade suitors for win-now players like Christian Wood and Eric Gordon. That camp would argue that this group needs to prioritize the development of a talented young core. The opposing side would deride “tanking” as a strategy best left for more desperate, smaller market clubs. They’d prefer to see the Rockets remain as competitive as possible, emphasize the development of a winning culture, and eventually attract their next star player(s) through free agency or the trade market.

The difficulty with crossroads is that neither path is ever certain. The Rockets can justify taking either direction.

The Case for Rebuilding

In questioning what direction the Rockets should take, it’s easy to reframe the question in less broad terms: who should be the starting center on this team?

Currently, that spot is occupied by Wood. He’s probably the best player on this team. Wood is largely ineffective as a primary shot creator, but he thrives alongside a talented pick-and-roll ball handler. His averages of 18.3 points and 11.9 rebounds per game over the Rockets’ 7-game winning streak point to the chemistry he developed with Kevin Porter Jr in those sets. Wood is an equally devastating threat to either roll or pop after setting a pick, which makes him a unique threat as a finisher.

On the other hand, 19-year-old rookie Alperen Sengun hasn’t shown a particular knack as a roll man. He has, however, flashed the potential to be a genuine offensive hub. His passing ability borders on prodigious, and he’s a gifted low post scorer with footwork fans in the Toyota Center haven’t witnessed since The Dream himself. He’s averaging 24.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 5.25 assists per 75 possessions. Those numbers put him on par with any rookie in 2021-22.

Choosing a starting center may mean choosing a future

The center spot illustrates the two divergent paths the Rockets face. Keeping Wood and developing Sengun in a reserve role is likely to add more wins to this season’s ledger. Throwing Sengun into the fire gives the team a better idea of how to best use his gifts moving forward.

Some have suggested that the two can play together, but there’s ample reason for skepticism on that front. In a league increasingly trending towards perimeter-oriented 4s, it seems unlikely that this twin tower formation could survive defensively. In the long term, Sengun would be best paired with a more versatile defensive 4 who also spaces the floor.

Somebody like, for example, Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr.

Building through the draft

This is why the Houston Rockets would lean further into a rebuild. If the front office is as enamored with Sengun’s skill set as a large portion of the fanbase, it would make sense to move Wood for rebuilding assets. Then, they can begin conceptualizing a team with the Turkish big man starting in the middle. While “tanking” may be a dirty word in many NBA circles, it’s undeniable that losing games to garner a top 3 selection in the 2022 NBA Draft would give the Rockets the safest shot at adding a future third star to this young core.

Speaking of this young core, we haven’t even touched on its presumptive centerpiece in Jalen Green. That 7-game winning streak coincided with an unfortunate hamstring injury for the recent #2 overall pick. Although a lineup change that saw Coach Silas ditch dual big lineups in favor of Jae’Sean Tate at the 4 improved this team’s pace and space, it’s fair to question whether losing a starting guard with a True Shooting % (TS%) of 49.8% might have improved the team’s short term outlook as well.

It just doesn’t particularly matter. This team’s future ceiling will go as high as Green is able to take it. The eye test says that his ability to create separation from defenders will eventually let Green compete for scoring titles. He’s just not ready yet: which is all the more reason to part with veterans in exchange for future-focused assets.

Isn’t it?

The Case for Remaining Competitive

Many have pointed to the Oklahoma City Thunder as a model for the Rockets to emulate. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti has done an impressive job of stockpiling future First Round Picks, to a point where it feels almost inevitable that he’ll use one to select a future MVP.

Counterpoint: the Houston Rockets are not the Oklahoma City Thunder. More to the point, Houston is not Oklahoma City. The Rockets play in one of the biggest markets in the entire league: they may not need to bottom out to land top-end talent. They could bank on disgruntled stars demanding trades or free agents being attracted to the club. If that’s the route they wish to take, it may be more beneficial to stay the course and field middling teams until they’re in a position to take a big swing.

There are recent precedents for that course of action in Houston. In 2013, the club secured the services of Dwight Howard, one of the biggest free agents on the market. Four years later, Chris Paul effectively forced his way onto the team via a sign-and-trade with the Los Angeles Clippers.

If the Houston Rockets have their eyes on potential future flight risks like Zion Williamson, Jaylen Brown, and Karl-Anthony Towns rather than prospects like Smith Jr, Victory Wembenyama, and Scoot Henderson, it may suit them to compete now. After all, Space City is a more attractive destination if the club is already in playoff contention. Star players may see themselves as the piece the team needs to get over the hump towards championship contention.

The Rockets need to pick a path

Whichever direction this front office wishes to take, they need to commit to it. If this is a rebuilding team, Christian Wood and Eric Gordon need to be gone by this year’s trade deadline at the latest. If not, it becomes harder to imagine why John Wall isn’t in the rotation. For that matter, Eric Gordon should probably start over Jalen Green for the remainder of 2021-22.

Whichever direction they’re choosing, we’ll have a clearer understanding once the trade deadline passes.


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