While basking in the glow of winning the 2021 NBA Draft, the Houston Rockets entered free agency with a lot of their roster already filled. Much of the Houston Rockets roster is either 21-years-old and younger or 31-years-old and older but it is not empty. The Rockets’ issues stem from an unknown direction. Last season, the Houston Rockets began a rebuild mid-year by sending James Harden to Brooklyn for a record amount of draft capital. They followed that up by swapping a pick that will never convey for Kevin Porter Jr., PJ Tucker for DJ Wilson, DJ Augustin, and a pick swap, and watching their roster suffer enough injuries to end up with the worst record in the league and the number two overall pick.
Now, Houston finds itself at a crossroads. Down one path, the 25-year-old tandem of Jae’Sean Tate and Christian Wood with John Wall and Eric Gordon is a scrappy and competitive team with a chip on their shoulder. With the exception of iron man Jae’Sean Tate, all players 25 or older on the Rockets’ roster missed 30 or more games. So Houston is rebuilding, but how quickly? Do they let their college-aged kids play and learn through mistakes? Or have them learn in spots while the vets take the reins?
In the draft, Houston clearly built for the former. In Free Agency, teams typically build for the latter. The Rockets are no different, but they also didn’t go all in on the next two seasons. Houston signed good role players for the near future, while simultaneously not over-extending themselves. Houston added defensive-minded players in their late 20’s: the Rockets re-signed Wing David Nwaba and signed Center Daniel Theis. This rounds out a full 15-man roster for the Rockets and indicates a shift towards defensive basketball in the near future.
David Nwaba played in just 30 games for Houston last season before suffering a wrist injury and subsequent setbacks. Nwaba is a tough-minded, six-foot-five 220-pound defender that can guard multiple positions. In the Stephen Silas switching defense, players like Nwaba are valuable because they have the lateral quickness to stay in front of perimeter players with the strong base to push back on big defenders.
Nwaba is the classic long rangy defender. He uses his length well to contest shots and does a really great job of altering shots along the perimeter. Nwaba fit into the strong defense in the infamous stretch of games, post-Harden trade, where the Houston Rockets led the NBA in multiple defensive categories. His injury, much like Christian Wood’s, also coincided with the last successful basketball of the season.
Nwaba re-signed for $15 million over three years. This means the Rockets see him as an immediate piece of a strong defense, so Nwaba should be in the rotation this year regardless of which plan they go with.
Offensively, for Nwaba to really earn his spot in the rotation he’s going to need to develop as a shooter. He shot 27-percent from three last season, which makes him a liability in rotation. Defenses are slower to close out to a guy like Nwaba, meaning they’re helping defend other drivers and are able to cut him off on his way to the lane. Nwaba is a crafty finisher, but to really exploit a defense (and punish defenders playing the drive) he’s going to need to grow in the catch and shoot. Further, in both Silas’ double-drag and “horns” actions, Nwaba will need to either be a corner spot or a pop spot. While Nwaba can attack from those places, defenses will likely slide from helping the ball to creating a wall… forcing him to shoot over the top to beat it.
Nwaba’s defensive pressure makes him a great energy guy for the Rockets, and re-signing him is, in a word, “fun.” He will undoubtedly have the cliche hustle plays down the stretch of games that spark runs, as he did against Washington and Dallas last season. The question for Nwaba will be his long-term viability for an increasingly young basketball team.
Theis Man Paul Wall
Not shiny like a disco ball; Daniel Theis enters the Houston Rockets locker room aiming to bring toughness and physicality. In 25 minutes per game, Theis is guaranteed to give you five or more rebounds and a pair of eye-opening assists. At six-foot-nine and 245-pounds, Theis is a true “goon” in the modern NBA sense.
Where Theis fits in with the Rockets is in two very important places. In lineups with Wood as the “four,” Theis is a tough rim defender that can bump and bang with traditional “bigs.” He is a rim protector from the opposite dunker spot, and he uses length and varied approaches to throw off drivers and mid-range shooters.
His fit on offense is much more surprising. While Theis is not a shooter or a driver, Theis is surprisingly effective as an offensive big along the perimeter. He distributes the ball well and is great at finding the “hockey” assist. Further, he passes and cuts to the rim beautifully. His size and burst punctures the defense and brings it with him as he attacks the cup.
What fits best about Theis is he is a 25-ish minute per game big man. This looks like a sign that Houston will play traditionally “big” for half the game, and use Wood as a center to play “small” for half. In diversifying their attack, the Houston Rockets really are looking to put defenses in a bind. In the film room, opponents now have to prepare for both types of attack.
Theis is comfortable from the outside, but he is a limited big offensively. He isn’t a deep shooter, and he isn’t someone who can put the ball on the ground more than once. But his defensive strengths outweigh his flaws. Further, if he can be a perimeter distributor and a dunker spot hustle man, Houston has other initiators and creators. Whether it’s John Wall, Jalen Green, or Christian Wood- others can puncture a defense and allow Theis to take advantage of the missteps.
No More Olynyk Clinic?!
Offensively, Kelly Olynyk was a perfect fit for the Houston Rockets and head coach Stephen Silas. He was a willing passer, a capable shooter, and just crafty enough off of the dribble for the spacing in five-out offenses. Olynyk averaged 19 points per game, the most in his career, while on the Rockets last year. He would pop opposite Chrisitan Wood’s roll, and vice versa, in a way that left defenses wondering what to take away.
The issue was that Olynyk, for his offensive strengths, was a liability on the defensive end. He was too flat-footed for the perimeter-oriented players but wasn’t explosive enough to protect the rim as an interior defender.
Houston opted to sign Daniel Theis, 29-years-old, for four seasons and $36 Million. Detroit got Olynyk, 30 for three years and $37 Million. The Houston Rockets, after a season of Olynyk Clinics, clearly opted for a slightly cheaper, defensive-minded option.
And that makes a ton of sense. Houston plans to develop Christian Wood into a featured player and hopes he can shoulder a franchise, they drafted Turkish MVP Alperen Sengun, and they have young “tweeners” in Jae’Sean Tate, and KJ Martin, as well as veterans Danuel House, and now David Nwaba. They have the offense covered, but the lone defensive specialist they had in the frontcourt was 19-year-old draft pick Usman Garuba. Olynyk was a great Rocket individually, but it’s hard to argue he’d make them great. Rafael Stone had to make the decision to let him walk.
So… What’s the Depth Chart?
Houston now has a wide range of talented basketball players. In the backcourt, they have John Wall (31-years-old), DJ Augustin (33), Eric Gordon (32), Khyri Thomas (25), Kevin Porter Jr. (21), Joshua Christopher (19), and Jalen Green (19). They have Daniel Theis (29), Christian Wood (25), Alperen Sengun (19), and Garuba (19) as posts. Houston also has Danuel House (28), David Nwaba (28) Jae’Sean Tate (25), and KJ Martin (20). Yes, eleven of Houston’s 15-man roster are guards, and another four are not bigs. For now.
In just rattling off the 15-man roster, several things stick out. If Wall, Augustin, Gordon, and House don’t want to be mentors for a younger roster, they need to explicitly say so and begin to work with the franchise to get out. Yes, Wall can offer life lessons from a long career to Porter Jr. and yes, Gordon can teach Green about watching film as a defender. But truthfully, no one could fault the more veteran players for wanting to be a part of an older team that is playing their best basketball. The Houston Rockets have talent, but their best days are in the future tense, not the present.
Houston’s depth chart will come down to one deciding factor that did not work in their favor a year ago: their health. In the 72-game regular season, only one rocket (Tate) played more than 51 games last season. KJ Martin played the third-most games for last year’s Rockets, and he spent six weeks playing in the G League Bubble.
If Houston is healthy, the franchise could see a very quick turnaround in their rebuild. If history repeats itself, and they are not, Houston can rest assured their young talent, and the bulk of their team values the game experience and is building for the future.