NBA 2022 Offseason Guide: Houston Rockets
It feels like an eternity ago, but just 24 months back the Rockets played at a 50 win pace in the shortened 2020 season. Since then, some stuff has happened….
James Harden? Gone. Russell Westbrook? Bye. PJ Tucker? Arrivederci. Robert Covington? See ya. Coach Mike D’Antoni? Gonski. Front office maestro Daryl Morey? Ta-ta. In their place is a raft of talented though unproven youngsters, a coach who is very much not getting what he signed up for and a General Manager in his first lead role.
Also gone are the perennial 50 win seasons, replaced by long losing streaks punctuated by occasional flashes of brilliance from a young, talented, but extremely raw roster.
What might the Rockets do this offseason to continue their rebuild?
As is to be expected in the early stages of a rebuild, Houston’s roster is threadbare and exceptionally green.
There are capable veterans in John Wall and Eric Gordon, though the latter is a prime trade chip and the former played his last game for the club 14 months ago. Neither will be long term factors for the team.
Since the Rockets are focusing on their youth, let’s do the same.
As currently constructed, the Rockets are built around the precocious talent of rookie Jalen Green. Green’s rookie campaign was a roller coaster. At his worst, he was a horridly inefficient, high volume chucker who actively harmed the Rockets offense. At his best, though? Wow! Green can absolutely light it up. In an early season episode of That’s Some Cheese, this writer stated that of all the brilliant rookie’s in this class, Green was the one most likely to lead the NBA in scoring one day. He showed just what he was capable of in March and April, finishing the season with 22.6 points on 48/40/76 shooting splits over his closing 22 games.
Alongside Green in the Rockets youth kick is Kevin Porter Jr, a super talented 21 year old combo guard who could do with a teaspoon of maturity, the delightful Turk Alperen Sengun, the super raw Usman Garuba and the exciting wing Josh Christopher. Garuba aside, each made their impact throughout the season. Porter, in particular, showed what he’s capable of with 15.6 points, 6.2 assists and just over a steal a night, whilst shooting 37.5% from deep. He’s no point guard – though he has improved his ball security – but as a highly explosive scorer he’s proving his worth. Whether he sticks in Houston in the long run is another question, but he’s at least shown he has a future in the league.
Then there’s the relative old men of the team in Jae’Sean Tate, Garrison ‘Garry Bird’ Mathews and leading scorer Christian Wood, all aged 26. Each have experienced their own unique journey to reach this point of their careers. Tate played internationally, making his mark in Australia before sticking with the Rockets. Mathews couldn’t quite carve out a role in Washington, though his sharp shooting is appreciated by the Rockets slashing scorers. Wood’s is a tale that has been much told. Whilst his effort and focus still waxes and wanes, he’s proven an effective, modern NBA big man, able to stretch the floor on offense and protect the rim on defense.
Whilst it’s tempting to say that the Rockets have their centre and backcourt of the future, the reality is that nothing is set in stone in Houston; nor should it be.
Green and Porter are certainly elite talents, Wood is the very model of a modern pivot. At this stage of the rebuild, though, nothing and nobody are off limits. The Rockets simply have to make plays for talent and work out the fit later.
For the sake of the argument, though, let’s take a look at where the Rockets could improve in the short term.
Between Green, Porter, Gordon and Mathews, the team have a solid backcourt rotation. Christopher and Mathews also moonlight on the wing.
Tate is the height of a wing with the build of a centre and the game of a natural four man. In another era he’d be called a ‘tweener’. In today’s positionless game, he’s simply a baller.
Wood and Sengun could dovetail well as the younger man develops, especially on offense where Wood’s outside-in game allows Sengun and his dancing feet to operate on the low block. Defensively they’re a tougher fit, though there is time to make it work.
Positionally, the team need a genuine wing, though as stated, the Rockets are simply on the hunt for talent at this point.
The Cap Sheet
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and John Wall opting into his $47.1 million player option. The 31 year old could play until he’s 40 and not earn anywhere near that money over the rest of his career. His deal, along with team options that will be picked up for Tate and Porter, leave the Rockets paying $115 million for 13 players, with their two first round picks adding around $12 million to that total.
It’s unlikely that the team will look to move Wall if they have to attach too much draft capital to his deal, given that the upcoming season is the last of his deal. For a rebuilding team, holding onto draft picks is more important than shedding salary. Unless he takes a significant – somewhere in the vicinity of $15-$20 million – discount on a buyout, he’s likely to again spend the year earning a pretty penny to not play basketball.
Gordon is valued by the team as a leader both on and off the court. His $19 million expiring deal isn’t too much of an overpay considering what he offers as a player and person to a young list. That said, he will surely be highly coveted by contenders as a rental. The team will have to weigh up Gordon’s value to the team against the value of what he might bring in a trade.
The team will also be weighing up extensions to Wood, Porter and Tate, each on the last season of his contract.
Wood is eligible for a 4-year $77 million extension that falls right into line with his production. Given Sengun is still just 19 years old, expect them to make an offer somewhere close to that number and look to trade him once Sengun is ready to step into a leading role.
Porter was a low risk investment that has paid off. Now it’s time to pay the piper. Porter realises that the Rockets have saved his NBA career and though he’s still prone to the occasional outburst, he’s improved mightily at both ends of the floor in his two years as a Rocket. Expect a deal that comes in at between $15-$20 million per year for the explosive guard.
Tate’s situation is interesting in that as a player he’s entirely unique, yet his role is replaceable. Given his long road to the NBA and the fact that he hasn’t made any real money through his career, the Rockets may be able to get away with a longer term deal that pays him around $10 million a season.
All of those extensions will be offset by the eventual shedding of Wall’s deal as well as the likely trading of Gordon.
The Rockets will pick 3rd overall in the upcoming NBA draft as well as at 17 via a pick that came from Brooklyn in the Harden trade.
In a sense, the team are in the perfect spot at pick three: they simply take whichever of the big three (Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith Jr, Paolo Banchero) is left after Orlando and Oklahoma City make their selections. This writer expects Banchero to be the man wearing Rockets red come draft day.
The Dukie is the most complete offensive player at the top of end of the board. His 6’10” frame holds a wonderful balance of power and agility. Aligned with outstanding footwork, those physical gifts make him a potent post scorer. He flashed a solid jumper at college that should project well as a pro. His mechanics are tight and his release smooth. He and Green could in time form the best scoring duo in the league, a new age Durant and Westbrook.
At pick 17, look for Houston to attempt to address it’s weakness on the wings. Tari Eason, Jeremy Sochan or Jalen Williams could be in play when the Rockets make their pick, as could a project player like Ousmane Dieng. Despite the intrigue of Dieng’s potential, look for Eason to be nabbed should he be available. The LSU forward could be an elite defender at NBA level, able to capably guard all over the court. Given the defensive deficiencies of Green and Banchero, having their own version of OG Anunoby could be too much to pass on for the Rockets front office.