The Houston Rockets have been the worst team in the NBA for two straight years. Something feels different this offseason —- all the same, doesn’t something feel different every offseason?
After all, the offseason is a time for unbridled optimism. Every contender is a favorite, and every young core is the best young core in the NBA. Still, the Rockets have given us reason to hope.
There is palpable excitement surrounding this team. Squint hard enough, and you can see a vision. Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason could be the best defensive wing duo in the NBA in a few seasons. The inside/outside dynamic between Smith Jr. and Alperen Sengun holds great offensive potential. Jalen Green exists.
Of course, the 9’7” (standing reach) shadow of Victor Wembanyama looms over the Rockets’ 2022-2023 season. Does this team really want to win games?
Best-case scenario for the Rockets
For what it’s worth, the Rockets are playing with house money this season. No matter how it unfolds, there will be a silver lining. Wins mean progress is being made, and losses mean talent is incoming.
The best-case (realistic) scenario for the Rockets is that they show improvement while retaining decent lottery odds. In an ideal season, Jalen Green establishes himself as a viable first offensive option, Jabari Smith Jr. is already a high-end three-and-D wing, and Tari Eason proves that he was the steal of the draft.
Meanwhile, Alperen Sengun needs to make strides on the defensive end, and Kevin Porter Jr. needs to make quicker reads as a primary ball-handler. If we see all those things happen, and the Rockets finish ahead of two or three teams, that’s an optimal season.
Worst-case scenario for the Rockets
This may be a hot take, but the worst-case scenario for the Rockets would be finishing as the worst team in the NBA for a third consecutive season.
Wembanyama diehards will disagree. I understand. Still, in NBA history, no team has finished with the worst record in the league for three years in a row. It would be a black eye on the organization and damaging to the team’s overall confidence.
Still, I’m going to hedge a little here. A second-worst scenario has the Rockets winning 35 or so games by feasting on tanking teams later in the season. There’s not much of a moral victory in beating a bunch of teams that want to lose. If the tankathon is really as competitive as some analysts expect it will be, the Rockets need to pivot and join it, even if they’re making progress.
Most likely scenario for the Rockets
Call me an optimist, but I actually think the most likely scenario here is the same as the best-case scenario I outlined above.
The Rockets won’t be the worst team in the NBA this season. The San Antonio Spurs have a stranglehold on the position. We may not see all of the progress I identified, but it’s safe to assume we’ll see some. Expect the Rockets to look like a team on the rise by the conclusion of 2022-2023.
Most exciting aspect of 2022-2023 for the Rockets
In the modern NBA, a platoon of defensive-minded wings is an essential component of every championship team. With that in mind, the most exciting part of the upcoming season for the Rockets is to watch the progress of the Bari/Tari duo.
In particular, their contrasting approaches to defense make them an interesting combination. Smith Jr. is a disciplined, lockdown point-of-attack defender, whereas Eason is an agent of chaos with the potential to be an elite defensive playmaker. This is a real fire-and-ice duo, and Rockets fans should be thrilled to watch it.
I’m expecting the Rockets to finish the season around 27-55. That should land them around 12th in the Western Conference, ahead of the Spurs, Jazz, and Thunder.
The Jazz have to move Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, right? This is year one of a rebuild — why keep useful veterans on the roster? Meanwhile, if Rafael Stone is able to outtank Sam Presti, I won’t know whether to love or hate what that says about him.
Additions: Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, TyTy Washington, Boban Marjanovic, Derrick Favors, Trevor Hudgins, Darius Days
Subtractions: Christian Wood, Dennis Schroder, David Nwaba, Anthony Lamb
Conference Seeding: 15th
Offensive Rating: 109.28 (26th)
Defensive Rating: 117.77 (29th)