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The great Rockets tank debate

The Houston Rockets have been awful for two seasons. Is now really the time to improve?

NBA: G League-Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans at Ignite
Should the Rockets sacrifice the season for a shot at one of these stars in the making?
Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to remember a time when more eyes were on basketball outside of the NBA than they were last week. The Victor Wembanyama/Scoot Henderson showdown was truly a spectacle.

That should come as no surprise. Fans of any NBA team that projects to be under .500 (that owns their own draft pick) are thinking about these two. Why wouldn’t they?

It’s impossible to describe Wembanyama without sounding like a crazy person. He could change basketball. He looks like a created player from a video game: not NBA 2K23, but NBA Jam. Wembanyama might be the product of a secret government experiment. It’s possible that he was supposed to be a supersoldier, but he fell in love with basketball and nobody could stop him from playing it.

Meanwhile, Henderson just looks like Russell Westbrook with a better feel for the game. Boring!

It shouldn’t be a shock that the followers of a team that’s been the worst in the NBA for two consecutive seasons is already looking ahead toward the draft. It’s sparked quite a debate within the fanbase:

Should the Rockets be tanking?

In some ways, it’s a question of semantics. What is tanking? Is there a meaningful difference between “organic tanking” and regular tanking?

After all, if the Rockets were strictly prioritizing winning games in 2022-2023, there are roster moves they could make. For example, why not trade Derrick Favors, Jae’Sean Tate, and a first-round pick for Mike Conley? That would make the team better next season.

Yet, some fans are already polishing the pitchforks at the mere mention of such a move. Rightfully so - it wouldn’t square with the team’s long-term plan. Still, if the front office is prioritizing the future over the current season, then they're tanking, right?

Perhaps. Still, that’s not what everyone necessarily pictures when they hear “tanking”. They’re thinking of shady DNPs, and questionable lineups (do they need Theis back?): moves that are directly designed to facilitate losing. That’s different than running a bunch of rookies and sophomores and assuming they'll lose. So the question isn't “should the Rockets” tank - instead, it’s “to what extent should the Rockets tank?”

Full disclosure: I’m not sure. With that said, I see a lot of flawed arguments against tanking, and maybe a good one against it as well.

The slippery slope

In my opinion, this is the single worst anti-tanking argument.

“How long will we tank? Eventually, we need to improve”.

No team in NBA history has set out to tank indefinitely. This is such a textbook example of a slippery slope fallacy that if I was writing a textbook about slippery slope fallacies, I’d use it.

As a general rule, you tank until you think you have enough talent to win, and then you stop tanking. There is always an endpoint. Yet, for the Rockets, there's a specific and ultimate endpoint: this season.

The Rockets owe their first-round picks, with rolling protections, to the Thunder through to 2026, depending on how the protections convey. In other words, the most optimal situation for the Rockets would be to land the number one pick in 2023, and the 30th pick in 2024. How long will we tank?

One more season at the most. Don’t worry about that.

A ‘generational’ overstatement

This is a closely linked argument.

“Doesn’t every draft have a ‘generational superstar’?”.


Remember when nobody knew the order of the top three in the 2022 draft until the night of? That was because there wasn’t a generational prospect in the draft. If there had been, we all would have known the Magic were taking them.

Cade Cunningham was the consensus number-one pick in 2021, but it was a narrow consensus — people were making credible cases for Jalen Green and Evan Mobley. In 2020, any one of Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, or LaMelo Ball could have been selected first.

The 2019 draft featured a generational prospect in Zion Williamson. So far, only injuries have stopped him from making good on his potential. When he’s healthy, Williamson is a more efficient paint scorer than Shaq. Since nobody can predict injuries, it’s fair to say the experts got it right.

Otherwise, the last prospect to get strapped with that label was Anthony Davis in 2012, and even he didn’t have Wembenyama’s hype. Before him, it was LeBron James in 2003. In between, some drafts had a consensus first-overall pick, and some didn't — but none had a prospect like Wembenyama.

‘Flatten’ your enthusiasm

“We’re going to throw our whole season away for a 14 percent chance at Victor Wembenyama?”

Absolutely not. We’d be throwing away our whole season for a 100 percent chance to draft one of Victor Wembenyama, Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson, Cam Whitmore or Nick Smith. If the Rockets were the second or third-worst team in the NBA, you could expand that list to include Dariq Whitehead, Ausar Thompson, Keyonte George or whoever you like. The point is this:

This draft is deep. This is a “shoot for the moon” situation — the teams with the top lottery odds will be among the stars either way.

Tanking is rotten to the core

“This team is talented enough. We already have our core!”

I commend the optimism. Truly. Moreover, it’s entirely possible. I love this young core. At the same time, the bar for winning an NBA championship is awfully high.

It’s entirely possible that Jalen Green is going to be the defining scoring guard of his generation. It’s perhaps even more likely that Jabari Smith is going to redefine how we think about three-and-D wings. Alperen Sengun, Tari Eason, and Kevin Porter Jr. each have varying degrees of star potential as well. It’s an exciting time to be a Rockets fan.

At the same time, suppose Green is roughly Zach LaVine, and Smith Jr. is roughly Mikal Bridges. Neither of those outcomes would be especially disappointing — it would clear each player of “bust” territory. Yet, even if they are, and Sengun is Domantas Sabonis, Eason is Gerald Wallace, and Porter Jr. is Jamal Crawford, that’s still not a championship core.

Tanking for one more potential superstar would be a matter of insurance. You wouldn’t drive without insurance, even if you’re a great driver, would you? If so:


Do it for the culture

Here, I’ve landed on the anti-tanking argument I actually do find persuasive. Lately, I can almost be talked into buying it (shoutout to Frank, Space, Mike and Rock for their commitment to this cause).

I will say that I do believe talent begets culture. First, you get winning players — a winning culture will follow. At the same time, there is real value in proper development. Team chemistry counts. Allowing the young guys we currently have to play to the utmost of their ability now will help them later. It may even be beneficial enough to outweigh the downside of drafting Whitehead instead of Whitmore.

Victor Wembenyama is not going to come into the NBA, play for 15 years, win 15 championships and retire. There are other ways to build a champion besides drafting the best player. Historically speaking, it’s done by hitting on every draft pick, developing them properly and building chemistry.

History vindicates that position. Steph Curry was the seventh overall pick. Giannis Antetokounmpo was picked 15th. It may be that there is simply too much chaos and too many undetermined variables to try to control your fate so rigidly.

As such, I’m in favor of a “soft tank”. Let the young guys play. It’s almost assured that the Rockets will still land in the lottery — if they do so with decreased odds, that only means the guys we already have are showing potential.

Can the Rockets avoid tanking?

Surveying the league’s landscape, it’s hard to identify a lot of teams the Rockets will even be favored to beat. The San Antonio Spurs, to my eye, are the only obvious choice. The Utah Jazz are debatable, but there are still several impact veterans on this squad — if they want to secure top lottery odds, they’ll likely need to move Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson.

The same holds true for the Indiana Pacers and Myles Turner/Buddy Hield and the Washington Wizards and Bradley Beal. Meanwhile, the Portland Trail Blazers don’t own their upcoming selection — they'll be going down with their ship, as usual. Otherwise, I’d venture the Rockets are on the same tier as the Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons and Oklahoma City Thunder.

For the Rockets to rise above them, Green will have to look like a future All-NBA lock, Smith Jr. will have to look like a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Eason will have to look like the steal of the 2022 draft.

In other words, the Rockets won’t have to worry about Wembanyama in the first place.