The Houston Rockets have been stuck in zero gravity since their post-Harden rebuild began two years ago. Despite their lottery successes they still have no direction. The Rockets lit the fuse this summer expecting a controlled explosion and witnessed the creation of the NBA’s most opulent sparkler.
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Alperen Şengün is the player Houston should be playing through, but the rest of their budding supporting cast’s development has been frustrating. After all their ambitions of fielding a playoff squad as soon as 2024, no team’s moves have been more polarizing than Houston’s were this offseason.
The Rockets began the free agency period with the NBA’s most salary cap space by a considerable margin. NBA cap space is a game-changer. Possessing enough of it can lift a team from the gutter to the penthouse. The Rockets’ $59.8 million in cap space had H-Town in the mix for a James Harden reunion, had them throwing bags of money at Brook Lopez’s feet, and ignited Kyrie Irving speculation.
The Rockets moonshot fizzled out over the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of targeting flawed All-NBA vets, the Rockets went to the secondhand store and paid market value for knock-off versions of the superstars they could have targeted. Look, I was clearly on the anti-Harden, and Irving bandwagon. In signing Fred Van Vleet and Brooks for over $220 million, the Rockets sent conflicting signs about the type of culture they’re seeking to build.
Dillon Brooks was such a nuisance to a contending team last season, Memphis leaked their intention not to re-sign him before he’d even conducted exit interviews. The $80 million over four years, Houston will pay Brooks equates to more than Los Angeles is paying Austin Reaves, and only $5 less annually that Golden State will direct deposit into Draymond Green’s accounts. Last summer, the Boston Celtics signed Marcus Smart to a four-year, $77 million deal.
The Rockets negotiated against themselves to pay Brooks a lucrative amount in a long-term deal. It’s also confusing. Brooks was just jettisoned from a young team because he was a net-negative in the Grizzlies’ young locker room on the court despite his perimeter defensive contributions.
You could argue the Rockets had to bid higher because of their need for a vet, but there wasn’t a bidding war to finish. In the process, they added another shooter with a proclivity for scuffing up the front of the rim to a roster that earned the NBA’s lowest efficiency field goal percentage. In addition to overpaying Fred Van Vleet for a higher annual salary than the Dallas Mavericks paid to extend Kyrie Irving’s stay. That Van Vleet signed for as much as Irving, but wi-handling sorcery, or the 50/40/90 potential raised eyebrows, but his intangibles will be invaluable on a young roster.
However, efficient offense will be a problem even with Van Vleet. Kevin Porter Jr. is a combo guard with the skills to start at point guard, but lacking in the basketball IQ to initiate a high-quality offense. There’s a chance Van Vleet will replace him in the starting lineup, but he’s a score-first point guard with a streaky jumper. Remember how poorly Van Vleet was shooting during the 2019 playoffs before his child’s birth coincided with an increase to his 26 percent shooting percentage? Hopefully the bump in pay provides him with a similar basketball epiphany after he shot 40 percent from the field during a final season in Toronto where he reportedly expressed frustration with the neophyte teammates.
It wasn’t just free agency where Houston swung for the fences. After falling outside the top three in the NBA lottery, the Rockets drafted Amen Thompson with the fourth pick. Amen’s size and levitation made him a project worth investing in, but his broken jumper is the latest volatile addition to the Rockets’ risky portfolio. Two years ago, Jalen Green kick-started the Rockets’ availability as their No. 2 overall pick. Today, it’s not clear where he projects in their long-term plans. Green’s strength was supposed to be his scoring, yet his jump shot has been horribly erratic. His playmaking was questionable entering the 2021 Draft, but nobody expected him to have the 250th-best assist ratio in the NBA and 76th among 98 qualifying shooting guards.
Houston took advantage of the pick swap they acquired from the Clippers at the trade deadline in the Eric Gordon trade and selected Cam Whitmore with the 20th pick. Whitmore was expected to go in the top-5 before plummeting during the draft. Whitmore’s 6.4 assist rate as a freshman at Villanova was one of the lowest for a small forward prospect in the last decade and overall he’s beginning to emit Cam Reddish vibes. Whitmore’s subpar assist rate has been blamed on Villanova’s offense, his role, and a preseason injury to his shooting thumb, but under a microscope, the issues are real. Nova’s offense had an assist percentage six points higher when he was off the floor. While he’s lethal when slicing the lane, Whitmore’s rim pressure doesn’t do much good on a team that is already stacked with slashers. According to Synergy, no 2023 prospect who had at least 40 possessions in pick-and-roll situations passed less often than Whitmore.
If Whitmore and Green don’t pan out, expect heads to roll. General manager Rafael Stone has thrown together a team out of Elmer’s Glue and the project is looking a little janky as a result. In an age where floor spacing is king, Houston’s most recent second-overall pick Jabari Smith Jr. couldn’t pick a struggle, shooting 40 percent from the field, and 30 percent from beyond the arc.
H-Town needs to flash that latent upside this season for Stone’s sake. The 51-year-old has served in the Rockets’ front office for nearly 20 years but has been one of the NBA’s least distinguished active GMs since assuming the reins in 2020. Instead of beginning their ascent, Stone’s attempts to loosen the boulders tied to the Rockets’ ankles before their upcoming sink-or-swim season may have the opposite effect.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex