Full Rebuild In Effect
The 2021-22 NBA season marked the beginning of a complete tear-down for the Houston Rockets. Having jettisoned the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, any pretense of contending (or even competing) went out the window and the team went all-in on a promising youth movement. Spearheaded by Jalen Green, Kevin Porter, Jr. and Alperen Sengun, the Rockets were fun to watch, but lost all the games they needed to lose to land back in the 2022 NBA Lottery. Now, with the highly-coveted Jabari Smith, Jr. in the mix, it’s time for the Rockets to at least achieve liftoff.
To start the season Houston’s point guard will be Kevin Porter, Jr., but there are some lingering doubts about whether or not he’s a true floor leader. It’s hard to put aside the score-first mentality, and if Porter can’t do that we might see some movement mid-season. It’s even possible that TyTy Washington, the 29th pick in this summer’s draft who was then acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves. This position is anything but settled.
While there are plenty of questions at point guard, there is absolutely no question as to who will be running the other wing for the foreseeable future in Houston. It took Jalen Green a while to get his NBA legs, and a midseason injury didn’t help, but by the end of his rookie campaign Green was starting to look like the elite talent the Rockets were banking on him being when they drafted him. In Green the Rockets have one of the foundations of their rebuild. Eric Gordon will be doing some mentoring at this position and Josh Christopher has nice potential, but make no mistake – this is Green’s spot.
Let’s give fill props where they are due. Eric Gordon could have demanded a trade and moved onto a playoff situation, perhaps even a contending situation. Instead, he seems content to play the role of veteran mentor, a role that is critically important for young, developing teams. The word is that he will start at the three, but expect to see Jae’Sean Tate play significant minutes with Garrison Matthews also spending some time at the three. The long-term solution at small forward does not appear to be settled.
If the Rockets had received the top pick in the NBA Draft, they would likely have picked Jabari Smith, Jr. As it happened, he was available when they picked third and they got their first choice. After being named an All-American as an Auburn Tiger, Smith did not stand out during summer league play, though that is not always a significant indicator of NBA success. Tate will get some minutes at the four, as will Kenyon Martin, Jr., but the Rockets have bet the future on Smith being the answer at the four and developing him is absolutely the most important thing the team can do in 2022-23.
Oft-maligned center Christian Wood will now suit up for the blue of the Dallas Mavericks, as the Rockets have placed all of their faith in Alperen Sengun going forward. Sengun has worked with Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, but he is about as far from being “The Dream” as he could possibly be. Fortunately, the NBA has changed and Houston doesn’t need him to be “unbeatable.” If Sengun can rebound, block a few shots and distribute the ball along the lines of Yao Ming, he could be the piece Houston needs in the middle. Behind him are a platoon of guys who might eat up some minutes, but the Rockets are banking on Sengun taking a big leap forward in 2022-23.
A rebuilding team like Houston has more than one critical question, but the biggest critical question for the Rockets is whether or not Jabari Smith, Jr. turns out to be the franchise cornerstone they drafted him to be. Rather than trying to trade their way into contention, a path that rarely works out for Houston, the Rockets are looking to build a champion from the ground up. If Green, Sengun and Porter all take quantum leaps forward and Smith justifies his draft position, the Rockets could be out of the lottery and on their way to relevance at this time next year.
Written by Bill Ingram. (@TheRocketGuy on Twitter)