21–22 NBA Previews: The Houston Rockets (#27)

When I sat down to write about the 2021–22 Houston Rockets—a team now focused on developing their draft picks into potential star talent—I found myself thinking back over their previous few drafts. I looked it up, and saw this. As you can see, the Rockets haven’t drafted anybody since 2018. 

Somewhere in me, I already knew this. I knew that Daryl Morey had been trading away picks for years for marginal improvements in trying to break through and win a title. I knew this was a team steadfastly living by the doctrines of a particular philosophy, and that the tenets of this philosophy included trading away picks in this exact manner.

Still, it’s pretty shocking to see a full two year gap in a team’s draft record. It’s even more intense than it seems though: until this year, the Rockets hadn’t drafted a player in the first round since Sam Dekker in 2015. When they traded for James Harden almost a decade ago, the Rockets shifted into a process of going all-in to surround him with a system that made sense for him. They were largely successful in this, depending on what you imagine the parameters of success to be. They racked up regular season wins, and once or twice they had a pretty good shot at winning the whole damn thing.

On the other hand, winning the whole thing never happened. The rundown of heartbreaks is too extensive to spend time on here, but suffice to say that The Rockets have now shifted into a different phase of the NBA franchise lifecycle. They are going to suck this season, and they’re going to do so mostly by design. Their best player last season—at least by win shares—was Jae’Shan Tate, an undrafted rookie power forward who happens to be 6’4”. Congrats to Jae’Shan for carving out a career for himself here, but this isn’t exactly what you want to have going on as an NBA franchise. 

But that was last season. This season, the rebuild has officially begun. The Rockets have a whopping four promising rookies who were first round picks under contract heading into this season. One of them, Jalen Green, is a potential superstar. The others—Alperen Şengün, Usman Garuba, and Josh Christopher—are oozing talent. Each boasts an honest-to-god NBA skillset. Each will have moments this season. 

Meanwhile, they also are stocked with a weird cache of veterans. Beyond the end-is-near misery of John Wall and Eric Gordon, the Rockets will be able to run out a lineup of DJ Augustin, David Nwaba, Danuel House, Christian Wood, and Daniel Theis. I realize that’s not an inspiring group, but it’s a group that will be able to manufacture some buckets and play some defense. More importantly, it’s a group that can provide a baseline of competence in the kitchen in order to let the rookies cook a little. 

And so, ultimately, it will all come down to Jalen Green. He’s the centerpiece of everything moving forward for this team. The weird thing about rebuilds and the vagaries of the NBA Draft Lottery system is that you don’t really get to plan the pace of things. Suddenly, you luck into a top 2 pick, and the next decade of your franchise comes down to whether or not Jalen Green is what he seems to be or not. Rockets fans had probably never heard of Jalen Green a year ago. Now he’s all that matters. 

Fortunately for them, Green seems to be electric. I had some questions about him as a prospect, but his performance in Summer League—though a little uneven here and there—left no doubt whatsoever about his potential. He’s got incredible feel for the game, a flare for shot-making, a dogged grip on the moment. It is fair to wonder whether he’ll put it all together in a way that impacts winning, but there’s no question it’s all there for him. 

That makes this season a particularly fun one in Houston. As a rookie, one is allowed to be a mess. This season can be all about flashes. Green could be terrible for 47 minutes a game and great for one, and we’d still come away with the feeling that something special might be brewing. It’s a happy time. The baby is cooing in the early morning light, and we are sitting with our coffee, basking in the glow of new life. Given the joyless math problem the Rockets have been over the past decade, that’s a wild shift. I think it’s a better place to be.