With the Feb. 9 trade deadline inching closer, the Houston Rockets are in an interesting position. They are 12-38, last in the Western Conference, but still have intrigue with a veteran capable of helping a playoff team in Eric Gordon, a bunch of young players and solid draft capital at their disposal.
The season hasn’t gone according to plan but that doesn’t mean all is lost. It’s about figuring out the next steps and righting the ship.
But what is that direction? What needs to be done between now and the end of the regular season? To answer this and other Rockets-related inquiries, beat writer Kelly Iko sat down with senior writer John Hollinger — former Memphis Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations — to get valuable insight.
Iko: John, you’ve seen both sides of the coin as it pertains to front office tenure — there were some really good and bad Grizzlies teams between 2012 and 2019.
Put yourself in Houston’s shoes for a second. What’s your primary objective for the second half of the season? Do lean more towards strengthening your potential lottery position given the team’s standing, or do you make an effort to get these young players to play smart, efficient basketball? Is there a world where Houston can do a bit of both?
Hollinger: We won 20 games in 2017-18, and did some work to get there (we went 4-29 in our last 33 games). The good news is that Houston’s “work” on this front is already done. The Rockets are 12-38, seven games behind the Orlando Magic for the fifth-best lottery odds. There is no reasonable scenario in which they will not have at least a 12.5 percent chance of getting the top pick in the draft.
There is still “work” to be done in terms of securing the best possible positioning — the league’s worst record guarantees them no worse than the fifth pick, and a bottom three record guarantees 14.0 percent odds of the top pick. Nonetheless, at this point the Rockets can safely go forward without being overly worried about the standings. They might need to resort to some shenanigans in the second-to-last game against Charlotte, but they might already have the league’s worst record locked up by that point.
Iko: You’re right. Conventional thinking says the Rockets will get the opportunity to add another top prospect in the coming months.
But what can you say about the current core? Alperen Şengün has been trending up with his strong offensive showings and has been getting noticed by folks around the league, but what about Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr.? Where do you stand on them?
Hollinger: All three are long-term keepers, but I also think each has some player development challenges that could prevent them from being elite players.
In Şengün’s case, it’s probably obvious — he has to figure out the cat-and-mouse game of defending the pick-and-roll, and he needs to figure it out better than most because he doesn’t have overwhelming size or shot-blocking ability to make up a lost half-step. I’m a long-time Şengün fan (had him higher on my draft board than Green!) and think his passing and post play will make him a valuable offensive player for a long time. He just can’t be a target for every opposing offense.
Green is vexing because of his obvious scoring talent, but now he has to add some polish to his superior explosiveness. He tends to only play at one speed and go guns blazing into crowds, and for such a great athlete has an unusual amount of trouble finishing in traffic. Adding a Eurostep and concentrating on adding more variety to his finishing package could go a long way toward making him a more efficient scorer. Obviously, he also needs to develop as a passer and pound the ball less, but that type of thing likely comes more easily with more on-ball reps.
As for Smith, he’s made the most progress of the three since the start of the season. He couldn’t do anything off the bounce the first month, and now he busts something out almost every game. My biggest item for him is developing his body so he can post up against mismatches and handle playing minutes at the 5.
Iko: OK let’s assume they finish the season with one of the four worst records. If they’re confident in that outcome, should that affect how they operate with the upcoming trade deadline?
The increasing parity has turned this season into a seller’s market in a lot of ways, but Houston’s year has been a mess. There’s a need for veterans around that core. Should the Rockets be looking to facilitate deals for other teams, looking to bring in some older players or is standing pat best?
Hollinger: If you’re asking me whether the Rockets could use some stabilizing vets, the answer is yes, but the time to address that was six months ago. This is the time of year when teams like the Rockets send vets out for draft capital, not when they try to bring them in.
Most obviously, the Rockets need to try to parlay Eric Gordon into whatever draft capital they can; the dude asked the waiter for the check a long time ago and is impatiently playing with the salt and pepper shakers. They should also be doing the same with Boban Marjanović if only to clear the roster spot; I don’t think they could get any picks back for him.
A more interesting debate is whether they should take on a veteran contract that goes beyond this season as part of a Gordon deal, which would cut into their surfeit of cap space for the coming offseason but could also jump-start them to having less of an AAU squad and more of a real basketball team in 2023-24.
Iko: The last thing you bring up is intriguing and that’s the sense I’ve gotten over the last month or so. Someone who comes to mind is forward Robert Covington, a 3-and-D veteran making $12 million this season and next. Now, I’m not saying the Rockets are after him (and I’m done playing with the trade machine for a while). I’m saying he fits the mold of something they would do in the kickstart process — adding a two-way, team-first, win-now guy who’s not on an expiring contract isn’t making a huge dent in their cap structure. And I agree with you that if there is a deal involving Gordon (or anyone else) that brought back more than one player, Marjanović would have to make way.
But let’s stay on this topic for a second. Can you think of any veterans who fit and would make sense right now? I reported last week that the Hawks’ calls regarding John Collins have reached the Rockets, but that’s a $25 million chunk out of Houston’s cap space that would require some serious thought. I also keep thinking about their obvious point guard need.
Hollinger: I think if they could bring a veteran point guard who was good enough to help them next year, they would have to look hard at that. This team is fairly screaming for an on-court organizer, and I’m sorry but Kevin Porter ain’t it. That’s a tight needle to thread — the Clippers, for one example, are likely to be willing to pay more than the Rockets are right now, and there will be other contenders circling – and they also need to make sure the player has something left in the tank and it’s not another D.J. Augustin deal.
Ironically, one guy who might check these boxes is John Wall.
Iko: Wall makes sense in a vacuum but he also made sense last season, and we saw how that played out. In any case, his recent podcast appearance ruined any chances of that happening! I think that ship has sailed.
But it’s true this team needs a makeover, and as much as we talk about the lack of playmaking, Houston badly needs to shore up its frontcourt as well — which brings me to two separate lines of thinking.
Myles Turner would have been a strong target in free agency but he just signed an extension with an interesting twist. Does that take Houston out of the running? Or is there a wrinkle to his new deal that still gives them a chance?
Hollinger: Turner is still trade-eligible, it appears (smart cap people are debating this but it seems the answer is yes), but I don’t see that one happening now. The thing about free agency is the ‘free” part — Houston is much better off using its huge trove of cap space to sign a player rather than punting away future draft picks to trade for one. Or, perhaps, to be induced to take one from another team with draft picks attached. (May I interest you in a Daniel Theis reunion?)
Additionally, if Şengün is the long-term starter at the 5, then the Rockets are probably better off making their biggest investments in point guard and small forward. One caveat to that — if a certain French center ends up on the roster as a result of the Rockets winning the draft lottery, all other previous plans are immediately trashed.
Iko: It feels like everything that has transpired this season is leading up to the lottery. If Houston winds up with Victor Wembanyama, all sins are forgiven. Heck, if they end up drafting Scoot Henderson, they would be in a good spot.
But what happens next? If you call this part of the rebuild phase one, what’s coming in phase two? Have you seen enough this season to give you confidence the future is bright with financial flexibility on the horizon? Or do you still have questions about this team?
Hollinger: What’s coming in phase two had better come quickly, because they owe a top-4 protected pick to the Thunder next season from the Chris Paul–Russell Westbrook trade. In other words, tanking is more likely to benefit Oklahoma City than the Rockets.
The Rockets have young talent, they have enough financial flexibility to add players this summer, and they likely have a high pick coming in.
Now they gotta try to play real basketball. Look, we gotta talk about the elephant in the room. Ask anyone in the league who is the worst-organized, least-sound team in the NBA, and they will tell you it’s the Rockets. They’re selfish with the ball, they don’t run back on defense, and Gordon wasn’t lying: Most of their key players’ worst habits haven’t improved. Even the Rockets’ good moments are mostly a triumph of energy and athleticism over solid fundamentals. They play like an AAU team, except they’re in the NBA.
Look, this wasn’t the job Stephen Silas signed up for, but it’s hard to say he’s done much with it. It’s his third year and he’s won 24 percent of his games, which is an average of 19.7 wins per season, and they’re on track to have the league’s worst record for a third straight season. To put this in context: No other NBA team failed to win 20 games in either of the previous two seasons, even when they only played 72 in 2020-21, and no other team is on track to fall short of 20 this year.
People will tell you he’s not the right personality to rein in wild players, on or off the court (I’ve heard him compared to a substitute teacher) … and, to be fair, others will tell you the organization never empowered him to do so and has looked the other way when it comes to player discipline, especially regarding Porter.
For the moment, a coaching change might not be in the Rockets’ interests, especially if they don’t know who they want to hire. I just don’t see any way they can come back to training camp next year with Silas at the helm and expect anything to be different. Again, the organization probably needs to look a lot deeper than just Silas. But the Rockets can’t be anything more than the league’s most exciting bad team until they clean up some of the very glaring fundamental failures on both sides of the ball.
Iko: Is it possible that internal uncertainty with the current structure affects how aggressively they do business this summer, or how other potential targets view them? I look at a young team that has the chance (and the money) to reverse some mistakes. But it also comes with a delicate balancing act. You’ve overseen teams with a mixture of youth and experience — is there an optimal route?
Can they also afford to settle for base hits this offseason and go for an in-season or 2024 summer home run?
Hollinger: I presume they’ll have a new coach in place long before they begin courting free agents. The bigger question is whether they can bring in one truly significant player to be the lead dog. That situation resolves itself to an extent if they land one of the top two picks, but if not, they have to use their cap space on an offensive organizer and some tough veterans.
Again, point guard is just such a glaring need. They’re going to keep being the 30th-ranked offense if it’s just Porter and Green taking turns pounding the ball on every play. Fred VanVleet would be ideal, but after him it is a paper-thin point guard market and they might need to look at making trades into their cap space. One lower-level guy who might be really good for them is San Antonio’s Tre Jones, but he’s restricted and the Spurs can match any offer (and have even more cap room than Houston). I’d also take a long look at Cory Joseph on a one-year deal.
(While we’re here: I’d also give TyTy Washington more of a chance. He’s struggled in his rare minutes but he was also good in three G League games. They’ve already given Daishen Nix 800 NBA minutes to prove he isn’t the answer.)
The good news is the Rockets do have the space to sign multiple players, assuming Gordon’s lightly guaranteed $20 million for next year is off the books. Even with cap holds for a high lottery pick of their own and a late first from Milwaukee, they should have around $60 million in room. Drop $30 million on VanVleet, let’s say, and that still leaves enough to go after two or three solid mid-tier vets to round out the roster, with emphasis on a defensive big man and a big wing shooter.
(Top photo of coach Stephen Silas and Eric Gorden: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)