The Houston Rockets are (Almost) Ready for Takeoff
For a team with an over/under of just 23.5 wins (DraftKings), the Houston Rockets’ vibes are as inspiring as Jalen Green’s hair. After making all the right moves in the offseason, the Rockets are headed in the right direction, guided by an exciting youth movement. They’ve assembled a roster of fascinating puzzle pieces: a pair of electrifying guards dripping with style and skill, the quintessential 3-and-D wing with a sniper and chip on his shoulder, a hyper-skilled big with jaw-dropping vision, and a group of promising prospects that could flourish into core players. This season, head coach Stephen Silas will have to figure out which pieces are worth keeping, how they fit together, and which don’t align with the bigger picture.
The Core Pieces
First, let’s go through the most significant core pieces, the building blocks of the next great Houston Rockets team.
Jalen Green’s rookie year got off to a shaky start. He looked more like a flashy model of scoring inefficiency than a future superstar. Before the all-star break, the game looked like it was moving too fast for him. He was struggling to create easy looks in the halfcourt against NBA-level defenses, all while stuck in the rut of a shooting slump. In time, the shots would start falling and he would find his groove. After the all-star break, he learned how to use his tight handle and endless range to bend and break the defense. To that point, he stole the show in the final moments with a string of dazzling scoring performances in April, including a streak of five 30-point games that was followed by a 40-point period to the season.
Heading into next year, he’ll have it in his bag to drop 30, sometimes 40, once 50 on any given night. Jalen Green can fly as high as he wants, as long as he’s got the space to take off. And the Rockets have so many more off-ball threats this year, who will all open up the floor for Green to take the league by storm. Just keep an eye on his development as a passer because that’s the next step for him to become an elite player. Last year, he was outshined by Scottie Barnes, Evan Mobley, and Cade Cunningham for ROY. But this year will be his chance to prove why he was drafted second overall: Jalen Green has the ability and attitude to become an NBA superstar and Houston icon.
Like Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr could put the ball in the hoop from day one. He’s got the highlight reel to prove it, and he’s caught more than enough bodies to make defenders think twice before jumping with him. However, tempers flared in Cleveland and he was dumped to Houston, a moment of darkness in his bright career. But one team’s trash is another team’s treasure. Since arriving in Houston, Kevin Porter Jr has grown as a basketball player and a person. He has matured as a playmaker and decision maker while showcasing his upside as a shot creator. He has also developed into a nice spot-up shooter, so he can share the floor with Jalen Green. To say the least, Scoot has found a home in Houston, a place where he’s wanted – confirmed by his 4-year/82.5M-dollar contract extension.
With the ball, KPJ is an assassin setting you for the kill. Without the ball, he’s a lurking sniper keeping your head on a swivel. Together, Jalen Green and KPJ could become the most electric backcourt across the league. The sight of those two running the fastbreak together will inspire fear in defenders and rims for years to come.
Let’s be honest: The Houston Rockets were ugly to watch last year, and they lost a lot of basketball games – 62 of them to be specific. But that horrifying record ultimately dominoed into Jabari Smith, the solution to many of last year’s problems. This team needed Jabari Smith’s shooting and size, and Jabari Smith needed this team’s surplus of playmaking. He is the quintessential wing, an elite shooter who can score off the ball and switch across the entire defense. Standing at 6’10 with a strong frame and imposing length, he has all the physical tools to become a good, versatile defender. Not only that: On draft night, Jabari Smith made it clear that the Rockets drafted a “hard worker” with a “chip on their shoulder” who will “compete from day one”. He has the attitude to be not just a good but an extraordinary defender because he takes pride in dominating his competition on both sides of the floor.
During the offseason, Stephen Silas and the team stressed the importance of establishing a defensive identity. Jabari Smith putting the other team’s offense in a suffocating straightjacket will be the catalyst for the Rockets’ defensive culture. On offense, playing beside the likes of Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr, and Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith will feast on a simple diet of catch-and-shoot threes and drop-off dunks. He’s in the best possible position to succeed.
The X Factors
Speaking of Alperen Sengun, this Turkish icon was lab-made to play with Jabari Smith. Last season, Sengun confounded defenders and captivated fans with his brain-breaking touch passes and his feats of passing vision. He already might be the second-best passing center in the league, only behind Jokic. With the ball in the mid-post, he’s a highlight waiting to happen. He can take the ball on the short roll and make magic happen, whether it’s a lob to Jalen/Scoot at the rim or a bullet to Jabari on the perimeter. He can also do it on his own, with his back to the basket and a clever bag of post moves to choose from. He has legitimate upside as the playmaking hub of the Rockets’ offense. But his defensive woes are holding him back. Maybe Jabari can hold it down with Sengun at the rim so that the two can link up and shine on offense.
Beyond that, the competition for playing time goes deep into the roster, particularly at the wing position. Eric Gordon is the consummate professional, the veteran sharpshooter who plays his role and makes the right plays so that the game is easier for his teammates. Jae’Sean Tate earned his minutes as a hard-nosed defender and aggressive finisher. But he’s further evolved as a scoring threat. He’s slowly become a better shooter, and he has a point-forward ability to make plays off the dribble. Another wing defender who just keeps getting better: KJ Martin has learned to channel his athletic gifts into production as a lob threat and offensive rebounder. Like Tate, his three-point shot has also gradually improved. Tari Eason is yet another versatile wing who will deserve playing time. He’s the kind of player who can score 20 points without one play being called for him. An instinctive player with a nose for the ball, he creates turnovers and battles for boards to create his own offense. Simply put, he makes sh*t happen.
Admittedly, the roster isn’t as deep for other positions as it is on the wing, but there is still plenty of intriguing talent. TyTy Washington is a natural passer who can space the floor and make smart plays. Daishin Nix is a PnR threat who is strong at getting to the rim or finding the easy look. Josh Cristopher is a skilled shot creator whose confidence could be reigned in a bit. He needs to improve his shot selection this year. Those three will be battling for backup guard minutes.
With so many roster spots to go around, the Rockets have also managed to unearth a couple of diamonds in the rough. Garrison Matthews drained enough threes to be christened by fans as Gary Bird. Floor spacing is the most valuable skill you can offer a team in the modern NBA; ask Duncan Robinson and his 5-year/90M contract from the Heat. The team is also incredibly excited about Bruno Fernando, an athletic rim runner who fights on the glass and adds a vertical lob threat in the PnR. He performed well enough in training camp and preseason to earn a longterm contract with the team, and he will continue to thrive within the Rockets’ high-octane system.
Stephen Silas has so much talent at his disposal, and so many players all deserving of minutes. With so many possibilities, how will he fit these pieces together? What will be this team’s identity? Without question, there are still questions to answer and problems to solve, but the future looks bright. Houston is heading in the right direction, and the Rockets look ready for takeoff. This season’s going to be fun to watch.