As the 2021-22 NBA season comes to a close, the Houston Rockets are wrapping up a season that many would look at and assume is a forgettable one. For a franchise that wraps up its fifth losing season since drafting Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984, it would appear that 2021-22 is an aberration. In that same window, it is the only time Houston has had back-to-back losing seasons.
But if the Houston Rockets are 2026 NBA Champions, the beginning of this rebuild will be remembered with nostalgia. “Remember Jalen Green’s 30-point scoring streak to end the year?” and “remember when Stephen Silas got tossed from the Timberwolves game?” will be the conversations in sports bars as the championship parade turns onto La Branch Street, headed towards the Toyota Center.
While we could argue at The Rustic about this, the truth is that fans will look back at this season as the start. When Houston is flying majestically across the top of the league, 2021-22 will be the year the phoenix was built below the rubble. (The 2020-21 season? That was the explosion.)
In that vein, who were the end-of-season award winners from the Houston Rockets?
Most Improved Player: Kevin Porter Jr.
Kevin Porter Jr. was picked up in January of 2021 for next to nothing in a swap with the Clevland Cavaliers. After extensive time in the G League Bubble, Porter Jr.’s year was highlighted by a fifty-point and eleven-assist night against the eventual champion Bucks. While that outlier felt like a sign of what could be. Porter dominated and scored at will regardless of defender or coverage while finding his teammates for baskets en route to a big win.
This year will be defined almost entirely but his growth from a score-first perimeter player to a “point guard.” Fans argue all over #NBATwitter about what that entails, but Porter Jr. has become a primary playmaker over the course of the year.
Porter Jr. abandoned the “traditional point guard” transition roughly a third of the way into the season, and his scoring added to his playmaking in a way that is unlike guards of previous eras. Instead, Porter Jr. sought to “be himself.” He averaged 15.1 points and 6.2 assists per game but did it in a way that kept the defense on his toes. Porter Jr.’s game is smooth and crafty. His growing understanding of defenses has allowed him to get to the rim more frequently as the season has gone on
It should be noted, that as a “Most Improved Player” does not mean Porter Jr. is a finished product. Porter Jr. has a lot to prove before entering Restricted Free Agency in the 2023 off-season. Likely, Houston will be working on extension talks with the young guard… but his play will be what dictates the number on the contract.
In his first full season in Houston, the newly crowned point guard had rocky moments. Obviously none was bigger than the well-discussed half-time exodus, but Porter Jr. had moments of lackluster play along the way as well. At moments things were clearly not “right,” but the “right” Kevin Porter Jr. is worth a much larger extension than the “off” one. But future contracts aside, the development of Porter Jr. was paramount to this season and where the Rockets go in the future
Coach of the Year: John Lucas
If Kevin Porter Jr. is the Most Improved Player, that is in large part because of John Lucas. It’s not that Stephen Silas, DeSagana Diop, or Will Weaver didn’t have impactful moments throughout the year. It’s that John Lucas continues to be the most impactful assistant because of his connection to the young roster.
Lucas is known both in Houston as a city and in the NBA as a whole as a mentor for young players. His leadership is both invaluable and increased with a roster like Houston’s. The Houston Rockets have seven players born after Y2K. With John Wall included, even if he never suited up this season, the average age of the Houston Rockets is 23 ½ years old. The NCAA Champion Kansas Jayhawks have six guys over 22. We’ve been over this on previous Round-Ups, but the Houston Rockets are a collection of college-aged kids playing a professional level game against grown men.
That’s hard on anyone’s mental toughness, and surviving that falls largely on Lucas. Lucas’ name is on an elite AAU program that runs into many of these guys across the country at large AAU events. The former number one pick offers relatable experience, tough love, and brutal honesty. Does that lead to him butting heads? Yes. Once tempers die down, do players often admit he’s right? Also yes.
As Sports Illustrated reports, he was influential in creating policies around drugs, alcohol, mental health, and mentorship for young players at the league-wide level. His leadership is what attracted the likes of James Harden, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and others. Now? It’s the reason he’s the perfect man for this job.
Sixth Man of the Year: KJ Martin
Admittedly, in an “I perspective” moment, I thoroughly believe the Sixth Man is a vital part of a successful NBA team. A Sixth Man is often used as a term for a guy who “can’t start,” or someone who is good but not great. But a Sixth Man’s impact can be influential in the outcome of a game or the direction of a season. If a Sixth Man comes into a game that is awry? He can right the ship. If he comes into a game with a big lead? Put your foot on their throats and end it. When opponents have to account for your sixth man’s energy, it implies a relentlessness found in only elite teams.
For the Houston Rockets, Kenyon Martin Jr. (KJ) was the Sixth Man of the Year because he was that Energizer Bunny. He enters games and leaps tall buildings to block shots of seven-footers. He sprints past other forwards on fast breaks with elite guard speed to catch lobs eleven feet in the air. And in the second half of the season? He shot the lights out. He went over a month shooting 50+ percent from three.
Martin wins this award over Alperen Şengün, Daishen Nix, and others because of his consistency. Many of #RocketsTwitter clamored for Martin to start because of his efforts; in many ways, he was more consistent than starting forwards on the team.
Frankly, Martin’s style of play is that of a Sixth Man. He goes for the home run, high-energy play. He makes highlight-reel plays with regularity. Does he miss a rotation on defense when playing with and against starters? Sure. Is his explosive nature enough to land him on the closing lineup in close games? Absolutely. Martin’s got plenty of growth ahead of him, and after just turning 21 in January he has a ton of time to do it. But as it stands, the Houston Rockets are better for the spark he provides off of the bench. In a year where there were few bright spots, Martin leaning into being an energy guy was one.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jae’Sean Tate
Jae’Sean Tate wins Houston’s Defensive Player of the Year, even after a dip in production, because of continued versatility. Tate was able to successfully guard all five positions at some point this season. As Houston’s lineups have skewed younger, the 26-year-old has seen his time on the floor decline… but that move has been more about the future of the Rockets than their present.
In the present, if Houston had to win a game to secure the number one overall pick that they so covet, Tate would get the most challenging defensive assignment regardless of position. He stoutly cuts off perimeter players from the lane and he holds his base firm in the paint with bigs.
Tate’s defensive versatility lands him in an interesting spot in the Rockets’ future. He is their best defender, qualitatively. But with how many minutes he racks up in so many big-time losses? His analytical data doesn’t really match up. Tate forces two-point shots from outside the paint, but he also only gets to cover one person. Houston being bad, and him playing over 26 minutes a night on the season, makes for a bad statistical comparison.
In the future, Houston may continue to move away from Tate despite his defensive prowess. His backup, KJ Martin, has flourished. The top of the draft features three “start now” caliber forwards. On the whole, a young Houston may take the development of a young, great offensive weapon over waiting for Tate to develop a consistent three-point jump shot. Tate is just a second-year pro, but at 6’4” and 26 years old he will have to get much better than his 30.8-percent from beyond the arc very fast.
Rookie of the Year: Alperen Şengün
At some point this season, the Houston Rockets played six different rookies. Of the six, two played in the NBA’s G League a year ago, two played internationally, and two were playing college basketball in the southwest. While the G League Ignite operates in an interesting in-between, of the traditional rookies Alperen Şengün had the best year.
Şengün entered the season, like a “normal” rookie, with no idea what he was getting into. As the Turkish league MVP a year ago, Şengün knew he could play. He scored 11 points on opening night. But in his first 36 appearances, he broke the 20-minute mark just 12 times. But in the last 20 games of the season, he’s been over 21 minutes each night he has been healthy enough to play.
On the floor, Şengün is an interesting combination of old-school and new-school. He’s a back-to-the-basket big but would operates well from beyond the perimeter. On isolations, he takes two dribbles and fluidly flips his hips and backside into the defender. As the teenager becomes a better three-point shooter, the duality of his game will be an asset to himself. But now? It opens up the floor for his teammates.
This is key because Şengün’s at his best as a passer. He pinpoints where the defense is broken and accurately flips the ball there, often without even looking. Şengün is just six-foot-nine and change, but his game has drawn comparisons to MVP Nikola Jokic because (aside from being awkward-looking, goofy, white Europeans) they’re both tremendous passers.
Jalen Green is the only immovable player on the Houston Rockets, but Şengün? He’s as close as anyone else on the roster. There’s not a great archetype for a six-foot-nine traditional big, but there’s a very high success rate of centers who pass the ball as well as a point guard. Back-to-the-basket bigs are fading away, but bigs that are comfortable beyond the arc are the way of the future.
Şengün’s fancy passing, powerful dunks, and eye-popping blocks all indicate he will be a Rocket for a long time. As a “true” Rookie, a first-year American pro, Şengün looks to be a key part of the Rockets’ future and one of the few bright spots from the season
MVP: Jalen Green
The thunderous dunks. High-arching threes. Defense bending dimes. After the way he finished the season, there’s an argument that Jalen Green was the most talented player on the Houston Rockets at just 20 years old. The self-described bucket found his footing in late February and never looked back.
Green’s first few months were overwhelmingly tentative. He had a 20-point night here and there, and then a hamstring injury that sidelines him from before Thanksgiving until after Christmas. In January, as Green got his “sea legs” back, he was earning his minutes up until a tough night, individually, in Utah. Down the stretch of that game, Silas elected to sit the youth, play the vets, and won. Green had just 22 minutes and 7 points.
Jalen Green clearly got the message: play aggressively because nothing will be given to you.
Green pushed the envelope heading into the All-Star break, and came out after a recovery week and exploded. He scored more than 20 points in six of the Rockets’ seven games following All-Star, including his first 30-point outing in a win over the Lakers.
Green’s the only immovable player on the Houston Rockets roster because he’s the only player whose ceiling is beyond anyone’s rational sights. With his explosion and athleticism, he appears to be the kind fo athlete that will be able to turn the corner on any defender at any point. As it stands, Green has somewhat already begun figuring that out. The biggest jump in watching film of Green in October and watching film of him now is that when he sees an open lane, he attacks one of his defenders’ feet, gets hip to hip, and bursts. He’s always been able to do that, but he’s done it more as the year has continued.
Admittedly, Green was probably “snubbed” from Houston’s Rookie of the Year award in this exercise. But for the Houston Rockets, he was functionally more than a normal rookie. Green was the discussion pre-and post-game. He was the emphasis of set pieces, and his usage is how fans felt about Coach Silas all year long.
Green wins the Team 2021-22 MVP award not just because he’s the best player in the present tense. He also is the franchise in the future tense. The “value” of Green as a player is more than any game he played, any stat thrown out, or any end-of-season award given.
As mentioned earlier, Houston has just had five losing seasons since drafting Olajuwon. Each of those seasons, Houston had some rookie turn the franchise around quickly. Houston traded for rookie Steve Francis in August of 1999, had a losing season while he grew, and won 45 games in his second year. Francis’ third year, 2001-2002, he suffered a foot injury, Houston had a losing season and drafted future Hall of Famer Yao Ming. In 2006, after Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming both missed extensive time with injury, and Houston traded draftee Rudy Gay for Shane Battier. In 2011-12, Houston had a losing season amidst a slower-paced rebuild and traded for James Harden. Across the board, young players have come in to turn around the losing in Houston and done so quickly. Jalen Green is charged with that for Houston now, and the return to relevance appears imminent.