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Are the Rockets Turning the Tide?

From Tony "Rocket Man" Perez

(Editor's Note- This was written before the game last night)

For the past couple of seasons, the Houston Rockets have been at the bottom of the barrel of the NBA. How did this happen? Well James Harden, the team’s superstar abruptly felt the need to jump ship after his running mate Russell Westbrook decided to leave town. This led to an ugly divorce from both Harden and the Rockets making a trade to end their nine-year relationship. What did the Rockets get in return? They initially received a few players back whoo were never in their long-term plans, so the trade consisted of four first round picks ans four first round pick swaps from the Brooklyn Nets.

The Rockets received backlash from this trade considering that the players they got in return for Harden were nowhere near his superstar level; let alone all-star level. General Manager, Rafael Stone made it known to the media that his goal was to accumulate as many draft picks as possible due to the last administrations’ lack of draft capital. So what happened after the trade? The Rockets plummeted to the league’s worse team in the entire association. A 20-game losing streak displayed the lack of talent and it looked as if the team was just waiting for the draft to secure their potential number one overall pick. But wait? This isn’t the NFL where the team with the worst record is automatically guaranteed the first pick. The NBA holds a draft lottery every year to determine the teams who did not qualify for the playoffs. In this special circumstance, the Rockets were at a mere 50/50 shot of even retaining their draft pick. Remember that Russell Westbrook guy? Well in the offseason of 2019, then general manager at the time, Daryl Morey traded four first round pick swaps to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The picks would be in 2021, 2024, 2025, and 2026. All of these picks are top-four protected, meaning if Rockets do not land in the top four in the lottery, then the pick would convey to the Thunder.

Many Rockets fans knew about the different scenarios and were sickened of the idea. On June 16th, 2021 everything changed. The Rockets kept their pick!!! Not only did they keep their top four pick, but they were fortunate enough to land the second pick in the NBA draft. The team also acquired two more picks with the in-season trade of P.J Tucker to Milwaukee. Jalen Green was the team’s selection. Many experts wanted Houston to draft Evan Mobley, due to his size and agility as a center, but the Rockets were certain Green would lead them back to their winning ways. The team also drafted Josh Christopher and Usman Garuba with their later picks. They alos traded with the Thunder (ironic right?) for a middle first round pick to acquire Alperen Sengun. A center out of Turkey who just won the MVP of the Turkish league.

Now it appears that after beating the odds of losing their draft pick, the future was bright. Well kinda? The coach at the time Stephen Silas was hired when the team traded Harden, his first year was just a complete mess, so it was unfair to judge him at that.

As they prepared for the 2021-2022 season the team wasn’t as ready as we all thought with another losing streak; this time at 15 games. It was okay though, right? The team has an average age of 19, this is expected right? Yes and No. We knew as fans that we would endure a lot of growing pains, but it appeared that our coach wasn’t making the adjustments he needed to make. As expected, the Rockets missed out on the playoffs with the worst record in the league and prepared themselves for another lottery to add to their nucleus. They ended up with the third pick and selecting Jabari Smith Jr. Smith was an excellent three-point shooter out of Auburn and known for his all-around defense. This time, the experts loved this pick for Houston with some comparing him to Kevin Durant.

The 2022-2023 season was a whirlwind. It was just not fun, not fun at all. Second year players Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun looked to improve heading in their sophomore season appearing as the next cornerstones of the franchise. Silas, going into his third year and potentially final year of his four-year contract with a team option, knew this season was crucial in terms of improvement. We didn’t see any improvement; in fact it looked as if some of our players had regressed. Jabari Smith was lost in the offense and Silas made it known to the media that he did not run any plays for the rookie. With a team as young as they are, there must be an emphasis on setting the tone on both ends of the floor. They ranked dead last in the league in all on defense and remained there since the Harden trade. Again, we know young teams struggle and it takes time, but with a monotone guy like Silas at the helm it was apparent a change needed to be made.

After their third straight losing season, the Rockets wasted no time and fired Silas. It didn’t take long until the team hired Ime Udoka who took the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals in 2022. This team finally had a real coach in their hands. But not so fast, the roster still needed major improvement. The Rockets were projected to have approximately 80 million in cap space and were determined to use all of it. The signings of Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks made many in the NBA world question their decisions. Alongside free agency, the team landed the fourth and 20th picks in the draft selecting a raw but high potential in Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore who was slated to be drafted as high as the fourth pick.

Fast forwarding to the 2023-2024 season, The Rockets actually look close to being a competent team. Third-year players Green and Sengun are going to go as high as they go. So far this year, Sengun is leading the team in points per game with 19 and assists with 5 a game alongside VanVleet. Right now, they stand at 2-3 with their next game against a Kings team who made the playoffs last season. If the Rockets do win, a big if, but if they do win this game they will have a .500 record through six games for the first time since 2019. A stat that many outside the fanbase won’t care about, but after enduring three straight losing seasons. It’s a major victory for Rockets fans and a sign that the team may indeed be turning the tide to a much better future.

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