Houston’s situation ahead of Thursday’s draft seemed almost unthinkable at the end of the 2019-20 season.
The Rockets have emerged from the NBA bubble still as marginal contenders in the Western Conference despite a first-round loss to the Lakers, seeking to increase their roster around James Harden and Russell Westbrook during the offseason. Even with the league’s oldest roster and an imperfect superstar duo, the way forward for the Rockets was clear. They were all in on to work for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Houston had to pivot quickly as 2020-21 approached. Grunts about James Harden’s future led to commercial demand for Russell Westbrook, and the Harden Circus followed. He skipped on the first day of training camp, made his way through nine games, then requested a trade before fulfilling his wish to move to Brooklyn. The Rockets have plenty of draft capital in the coming seasons. But when exactly will they get a player close to Harden? Jalen Green is Houston’s first chance.
We’re not going to set Green such high expectations less than 12 months after Harden’s departure. Harden is arguably the second greatest player in franchise history, totaling one MVP, seven All-NBA appearances and eight straight playoff appearances with the Rockets. To expect similar achievements from any player is unfair. But the No.2 pick on Thursday night should be seen as a potential anchor for the franchise in the making. Green has been firmly in consideration for the top pick for over a year and has impressed in his only season with the G League Ignite. Green makes comparisons with Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine. He’s an elite athlete with a smooth backstop jumper. No lottery pick is a golden ticket to contend with, but Green sports everything you want in top notch talent.
So what exactly is Green joining in the post-Harden era? Closets are not necessarily bare. Kevin Porter Jr. represents the biggest reason to be optimistic outside of Green, giving Houston a pair of intriguing backcourt talent. Green and Porter have established a relationship in the G League bubble, and the Rockets have expressed optimism that the two guards serve as complementary pieces together in the backcourt. Porter is sliding into the pick-and-roll with impressive vision to boot. The green should be a threat in transition and his jumper should be reliable enough to impact the ball. Even though the Rockets are likely hovering near the Western Conference cellar in 2021-22, their pair of guards should offer some glimmers of hope for the future.
There was a silver lining in Houston’s nightmare campaign in 2020-21. The Harden accord and a wave of injuries and COVID absences created an extended showcase for young Rockets, many of whom performed well in their first year under the guidance of head coach Stephen Silas. Christian Wood continued to show his versatility as an attacking pivot. Jae’Sean Tate won All-Rookie honors, establishing himself as an elite defensive force. Silas is an inventive young coach who helped launch Luka Doncic’s rise to Dallas. He should make life easier for Green and Porter, using Houston’s crop of young pieces to create a competitive, albeit flawed, outfit.
Hitting on lottery picks is almost essential for an effective rebuild. But adding a fundamental element is not enough to put a team back in the running. Neither LaVine nor De’Aaron Fox were able to bring their teams to the playoffs despite impressive statistical campaigns. Devin Booker needed the arrival of Chris Paul to reach the playoffs. Beal has been spinning his wheels in Washington for years now. Creating a contender requires winning at the sidelines as well as landing a star, which Houston did with aplomb in its previous era. Daryl Morey found a starting cross at the end of the first round with the selection of Clint Capela. He added a defensive anchor with the signing of PJ Tucker in 2017. Harden alone has not fueled the biggest Western threat to the Warriors in the past decade. His organization has consistently built a competitor for the better part of a decade.
Morey’s successor appears to have picked up a thing or two from his predecessor if Thursday night is any indication. Stone added to Houston’s talent collection after the green pick, picking up a pair of valid flyers before the end of the first round. The first pick following Green required some maneuvering. Stone distributed a protected first round from Detroit to Oklahoma City to move up to No.16, then selected center Alperen Sengun. Is the great Turkish man a guaranteed starter? Not exactly. But he has plenty of attacking potential, sporting an advanced feel for the game and a refined interior skill set. There is enough talent on hand for a quality player to emerge with the right guidance.
Houston added another international perspective at No.23 with the selection of Spain striker Usman Garuba. There’s not the same offensive skill on hand with Garuba, but it’s easy to see him fit into NBA rotations for years to come. Garuba is arguably the best defender of the ball in this draft. It’s a long wing with a certain playful feel, and it could become Houston’s next gangly impact wing. It’s impossible to say if any of Sengun, Garuba or Arizona State Josh Christopher’s offspring – which Houston took at No.24 – will have a marked impact in 2021-2022 and beyond. What’s worth evaluating is Stone’s process in the midst of rebuilding Houston. By pairing his young backcourt with high wings and big ones, the outline of a winning team is being sketched out.
The Rockets pick up the long road back to discord as the Harden era looms in the rearview mirror. Houston opted for Brooklyn’s treasure of choice over the immediate satisfaction of adding Ben Simmons, and it’s hard to see Houston whip up a package to land Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, or any other star potentially in the commerce market. After clinching Harden in a successful deal with Oklahoma City in 2012, Houston is returning to a traditional route to the playoffs. With Green, Porter and a collection of post-lottery picks, the path to relevance becomes increasingly clear.
More NBA coverage: