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How We Doin’ Houston?

It’s been a little over a quarter into the NBA season. Teams who went on a hot start in the early going are slowly coming back down to earth, while other teams who started slowly are finally hitting their stride. By this time, it’s exciting to see how new teams who have been mediocre in the past improve and receive some media recognition, with a possible return to the playoffs. For the young Houston Rockets, it’s about what you’d expect, with some respectable improvements.

Rebuilding Improvments

Rockets are happy to be playing together

Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. enjoying themselves on the court

Last year, it was a rough going for the young Rockets. It wasn’t all bad. Drafting 2nd overall pick Jalen Green and the improved play of forward Jae’Sean Tate were promising moments for the team. Unfortunately, this didn’t outweigh problems due to chemistry issues, questionable minutes distribution, and trade rumors. Long story short, this was a very bad team. In fact, Houston was the worst team in the NBA.

In the offseason, they immediately went to work on improving the chemistry on the roster. Disgruntled teammate Christian Wood was traded in order to prioritize Alperen Sengun and Bruno Fernando. Potential franchise cornerstone Jabari Smith Jr., was drafted 3rd overall, and they retained key players such Kevin Porter Jr. and Jae’Sean Tate with long-term contract extensions. They were also able to mend the problems surrounding KJ Martin by giving him more minutes on the court.

Did these moves improve the overall problems on the team?

Yes and no. While KJ Martin is certainly given more minutes than season’s past, it’s still not enough. Martin has immense potential to be a starting small forward. For some reason, they keep prioritizing veteran Eric Gordon starting at the three. While there is an incentive to do this in order to increase trade options, this isn’t without it’s faults.

Starting Eric Gordon takes minutes away from young players who surely deserve it. Don’t get me wrong, Gordon is a great player to have on a team. His three point game and slashing ability is impeccable. But the Rockets aren’t contenders. There’s really no need for his services. It slows the development of this young team and prolongs Gordon’s journey to win an NBA title. It’s why he joined the team back in 2016. However, that was six years ago. Houston isn’t that team anymore.

Tate’s Absence

Houston Rockets Jae'Sean Tate

Since signing that 21 million dollar extension, Tate has only played three NBA games due to an ankle injury. While he is improving and participated in workouts this week, where will Houston be able to slot him? Houston has gelled extremely well as a young team without Tate’s involvement, even when he was playing those three games. Additionally, KJ Martin’s increased productivity has improved the Rockets defense and transition offense. When Tate returns, it’ll be interesting to see how Coach Stephen Silas inserts him in the rotation.

The Kevin Porter Jr. Experiment

It’s fair to say that Rocket’s Kevin Porter Jr. is not a pure point guard. He has a score first mentality and finds it difficult facilitating his teammates. This is precisely a reason why Houston turns the ball over the most in the league. At many times when Porter brings up the ball to run a play, it’s often stagnant and there’s hardly any ball movement. Rafael Stone promised to change Porter’s playstyle but there’s been hardly any improvements. In several games, Green even has more assists than Porter.

Consider running the offense through Alperen Sengun. The Turkish born player has impressive potential as a facilitator. Sengun’s got decent  court vision and plays ran through him create more ball movement and heightened energy. He sets screens well and is capable of shooting it behind the arc. His idol is two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who is an excellent facilitator and the culprit for why the Denver Nuggets are a playoff team. It’s clear Sengun aims to master his skills in facilitating to become like Jokic.

Impactful Wins

Jalen Green driving against Bucks Khris Middleton

Houston is 14th in the Western Conference Standings with a 9-18 overall record. They lead the league in turnovers, 28th in effective field goal percentage, 28th in field goals made per game, and last in assist/turnover ratio. While this isn’t great, that’s not the point. Consider the improvement in their defense this season.

Houston is 8th in steals per game and 4rd in rebounds, with a 58.8% rebound rate. That’s also 3rd in the league, which allows for more stops on defense and second chance points on offense. With Jabari Smith Jr.  and Alperen Sengun in the starting lineup, there’s been more prioritization for rebounds. This impacts momentum, which is a significant to winning basketball games.

Over the last month, the Rockets have put up formidable wins against contending teams such as the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, and Philadelphia Sixers. It’s exciting to see their progress from last season, when good teams yawned at the sight of facing the Houston Rockets.

They’ve Gotten Better

Regardless of their record this season and ailing offense, they’ve made considerable strides on defense, which is half the battle. The more experience they add to their progress, the better the offense will become. Rebuilding teams is a long a grueling process. The best way to evaluate each season is to see if the team has improved season to season. It’s safe to say that after 27 games, H0uston so far has eliminated half of it’s problems.

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