When someone asks, “How is the season going for your Houston Rockets?” I generally think of something silly to say like, “Cade Cunningham looks great!” or “Those draft picks haven’t missed a shot yet!” Truth be told, tanking (whether intentional or unintentional) can take its toll. How big of a toll, you ask?
Houston had James Harden available for just eight of the ten games he was in with the Rockets before the trade… and, for a moment, the team was healthy, energized, and making a push. The Houston Rockets surged to 11-10. Roughly a third of the way through the season, the Rockets were solidly in the playoff picture. Their defense was atop the league in several analytical categories. Then, following an injury to Christian Wood…
The Rockets were 11-10 exactly two months ago. They are 2-26 since— Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane) April 5, 2021
For reference on how things are in Houston – baseball started last Thursday. The Astros have won twice as many games in less than a week than the Rockets have won in two months.
During Houston’s most recent game, at the time this article was published, Wood was back. He is the longest-tenured Rocket healthy and available. Yes, the same Wood who joined the Rockets hours before Thanksgiving has been a Rocket longer than anyone else. Silas’s lineups have been a revolving door of G League call-ups, ten-day contract signees, players young enough to have TikTok accounts, and occasionally John Wall. It doesn’t mean those guys aren’t talented, but their only consistency has been inconsistency.
So, for this week’s Rockets’ Round-Up, we’re going to look at the tank as it stands…
The Window to the John Wall
John Wall, when he’s on the floor, is a great presence in Houston. His veteran leadership is nothing short of powerful. Watching him come back from recovery is inspiring for a younger generation of Rockets who grew up watching him Dougie in Kentucky and Washington.
However, Wall has only been available in roughly two-thirds of the games thus far. He is likely done playing back-to-backs in his career. Even three road games in five days can be a tough stretch. He needs to have a knee scope at some point to clean things up, and will likely miss more time for that. It’s not that Wall hasn’t been great on the floor, and it’s not that he doesn’t want to be on the floor (for a vet in this position, who could blame him?), it’s that he physically can’t.
Houston owes John Wall $91 Million between now and 2023. His contract makes him very difficult to move unless he wants to move. This will ultimately come down to what Wall wants. If he wants to stay, make his last BIG payday, and then figure out the next steps, he will likely be a Rocket until 2023. If he wants to spend what may be two of his last few productive seasons on a contender, as opposed to a building project, then he may want to reach some agreement with management. Until then, he’s a ‘ket.
He offers a lot on the floor when he can play. Wall still has the extra gear on offense and is a strong playmaker. He’s seen the development of Bradley Beal in Washington, and he could absolutely continue to teach.
Who Else Will Stay?
The crux of this team’s future comes down to a simple question – how do you fit next to Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr.? If we’ve got a fit – you’re in! If we do not, how many draft picks can we get for you?
Wood and Porter Jr. (plus any other young star that comes along, more on that later) are the future of the Rockets. Wood will continue to grow stronger and hopefully, in turn, more durable. Porter will develop a more consistent jump shot with time. There is a very real timeline where Wood is a 27-year-old All-Star and Porter Jr. is a 22-year-old blooming Super Star.
The two of them, objectively, fit. Wood is great as a Screener and in the Dribble Hand Off. He’s shooting over 36-percent at the three-point line this year. He can roll to the midrange, where he can distribute and create. With his length and verticality, he is a roll threat that presses the drop coverage back to the rim. Conversely, Porter Jr. in many ways is the young and crafty lefty that Houston received in a trade just over eight years ago. He shoots 45-percent in the midrange. At the rim, he shoots over 80-percent on contested shots. The only option teams will have in that pairing, assuming the two grow as they should, will be to force Porter into being a three-point threat.
With how the league is shifting, Porter Jr. should be a much stronger shooter from distance. His jump shot is mechanically fine, he’s extremely young, and he’s on the Houston Rockets’ roster until he hits Restricted Free Agency in 2023. If he does not develop into a real weapon, assuming nothing wild happens off the floor, then it’s on Houston.
So what fits here? The most coveted thing in NBA basketball right now is a long, switchable defender that can spot up and shoot. Clearly, with this one-five-pick and roll, Houston is no different. The most obvious fit on the current roster is Danuel House, a six-foot-six 40-percent three-point shooter. House has one more year on the books before Unrestricted Free Agency, so his impact may be determined in the next nine to ten months.
KJ Martin and Jae’Sean Tate both appear to fit in on the Houston Rockets in their own way. Martin and Tate offer a unique role opposite to Wood. Where Wood can be a big screener and DHO threat, it takes him to the perimeter. That means that Martin and Tate can be dunker-spot offensive players while being perimeter defenders. Both are rookies and have room to grow. While Tate is a more polished defender, him being 25-years-old may ultimately mean Houston gives him less time. KJ Martin is explosive as both a rim threat on offense and a rim protector on defense. Much like his father, Martin is a walking highlight reel. While Tate makes the more day-to-day plays better and more often, he’s going to need to expand his game to be the tweener opposite Wood.
That’s not to say Houston can’t upgrade around Wood and Porter Jr. There’s a couple of options.
After March Madness, Who Should We be Looking Forward to?
Next week, we will break down who could be headed to The H in free agency. However, as we just wrapped up March Madness, the more prevalent part of the Houston Rockets tank-a-thon is a look at what NBA Draft prospects look like.
If Houston continues to be in the bottom three teams in the NBA, there is a 52-percent chance they draft in the top four. That percentage is crucial. As a part of the Russell Westbrook trade 18 months ago, Houston’s pick becomes unprotected and goes to Oklahoma City if they fall to five or worse. Houston could lose every game the rest of the season and they only have a 48-percent chance to keep their original pick.
The Houston Rockets have access to a few other picks. They have a Top-16 protected Pistons pick (feels unlikely to convey) this year and a Top-14 protected Blazers pick (feels much more likely to convey). The Rockets can swap any of their picks with Brooklyn. So, if Damian Lillard gets hot and takes the Blazers to the NBA Finals and the Nets flame out in a first-round shocker, Houston could snatch that pick this year.
Houston is hopeful to get a Top 4 draft pick, and they could end up with two later first-round picks in a worst-case scenario. Thus Houston could, conceivably, move those two later first-round picks and move into the earlier part of the draft as well.
As for the top four picks, in some order, mocks have Jalen Suggs, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, and Cade Cunningham.
Jalen Suggs is smooth. His half-court heave to take Gonzaga to the national title game is going to make his highlight reel. He is a confident ball-handler and passer with a knack for puncturing a defense. Suggs seems to understand moments, as was evident when he tried to spark a comeback against Baylor. He re-entered the game and helped cut the deficit in half before halftime with high energy and smart plays at the rim. Further, with a Baylor team moving at NBA speed, he appeared to be the lone Zag moving with them. His quickness paired with Porter Jr.’s craftiness makes for a deadly one-two punch in the backcourt.
Evan Mobley took USC on a tournament run to which they were not accustomed. USC got to the Elite 8 for the first time in 20 years, largely because of how teams had to break their defensive rules to cover Mobley. Mobley averaged 16 points and almost nine rebounds per game this season. Bigs typically struggle in college because of the dramatic difference in guard play, but Mobley’s success is because he’s an atypical big man.
He’s got a great motor, and can will his way to a double-double without needing a set run. Mobley would fit in Houston as a second screener with Wood on the double drag option, a favorite set of Silas. He would roll opposite a Porter Jr. attack with Wood popping or short rolling, creating tough quick decisions for a defense. Further, if the Rockets emphasized his development outside, his jump shot is fluid. He had limited attempts in college, but his jump-shooting numbers indicate that, with appropriate work, he could become a modern in-and-out big man.
Jalen Green may be the potential Rocket with which most Houston fans are familiar. Given the hype surrounding Porter Jr., many Houston Rockets fans watched the G League bubble for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Green, who graduated High School in 2020, was on the “G League Ignite.” He, along with a handful of other preps, chose to play in the G League instead of the NCAA. He is thus a more polished prospect. He spent a year in a more professional atmosphere, working solely on basketball, and it shows. Green is already NBA-level explosive, and very clearly understands that dunks are high percentage shots. In pairing him with Porter Jr., his raw speed would force defenses to prepare for two very different backcourt threats. He plays through contact at the rim well, and his jump shot was better as the G League tournament went on.
Cade Cunningham, even if he had a shorter March Madness experience than most, appears to be the prize of the draft this season. Cunningham is an NBA-ready three-level scorer. He’s an NBA-ready six-foot-eight, 220 lbs. perimeter player that fits several positional molds. He and Porter Jr. complement each other in the backcourt in that they both are scoring playmakers that are crafty around the rim, but Cunningham has the size, strength, and speed to take a bigger load. Even in their short run through March, Cunningham’s role changed from possession to possession. Some sets he ran as a stretch four, others he was the primary ball-handler. Cunningham appears to be, at his ceiling, the type of player whose number ends up in the rafters of an NBA stadium.
What about other March Madness Studs?
Outside of the top four, a lot less is known. However, there’s a very real chance Houston ends up with two picks post lottery. Do they move them to get into the picks 5-12 range? Do they keep them and take two mid-first-round guys instead of one? Without knowing the draft history of Rafael Stone, it’s hard to say. Here’s who could fit well in Houston:
Barnes is a six-foot-nine freshman with a seven-foot-two wingspan. He is built for the modern NBA as a combo forward with the ability to switch along the defensive end. He finishes strong around the rim at an NBA-ready level on offense and can protect the rim as well as a six-foot-nine guy. Along the perimeter, he gets after it on defense. Barnes could be a starter very soon.
After wrapping up his sophomore year in Austin, Kai Jones appears to be ready to come into an NBA franchise as an athletic center. Listed at six-foot-ten, Jones still has a strong set shot from the college three-point line. He’s not as dynamic as Wood, but the repetition is clear and would work to Houston’s benefit. Athletics, shooting, the explosive twin towers would provide a lot of issues for an opposing defense.
Mitchell did not win the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, but he had one of the greatest rises of any first-round prospect. Mitchell is just six-foot-two-inches tall, but on a floor with several pro-bound guards, he was clearly the fastest player. His cross-court vision, his pull-up jump shot, and his pick-and-roll creativity are each NBA-ready. What’s going to hurt Mitchell is he’s an elite defender. At six-foot-two, teams worry he may run into issues with bigger combo-guards. If the National Championship game is any indicator, and he falls to Houston, those wary teams’ failures may be Houston’s victory. He would make the Houston Rockets smaller in the backcourt, but his tenacity would be welcomed in a young locker room.
Josh Christopher is a scoring threat from multiple parts of the floor. At six-foot-five and over 200 lbs., Christopher is built like an NBA guard that would offer a stark contrast to the slender craftiness of Porter Jr. Christopher uses his broad shoulders and lateral quickness to be a threat at all times. While he isn’t the traditional explosive NBA guard that comes out after one year in college, he is very clearly an NBA-ready scorer that could really blossom with an NBA-level development team helping him mature physically. In Houston, he and Porter Jr. would grow and develop as two Westcoast guards. Both are between six-four and six-five, both are very crafty, and both able to score and make plays within the same scheme. The duplicity is great for an offense and a nightmare for a defense.
Kuminga is a tall, long, athletic prep who passed up on the NCAAs to join the G League Ignite. At six-foot-eight with a six-eleven wingspan, Kuminga enters the league as a wing that can switch onto most bigs. He has a lot of growing up to do, but his athleticism is too evident to pass up. He’s got the double explosiveness pro scouts dream about. He can quickly transition from bursting by a defender to bursting over the help side. If he were to fall to Houston, he becomes the dunker-spot athlete opposite of the Wood Porter Jr. pick and roll.