Expectations can alter our perception of reality. When you’re a kid, you expect a good birthday. Your birthday is supposed to be the best day of the year.
Sometimes, your dog dies on your birthday.
As an adult, you know that. Your birthday is often little more than a reminder of your own mortality. You’ll try to have a good day, for the sake of your loved ones, but you don’t expect a parade anymore.
A lot of Houston Rockets fans had higher expectations than 2022-2023 has met so far. The team is 1-5, but perhaps more importantly, it just looks bad.
What were you expecting?
The Rockets are an unfinished product
There’s been a lot of blame put on Stephen Silas’ shoulders lately. I don’t know where to land on that subject.
This offense is pedestrian. My rec league team probably uses more off-ball screens. The Rockets look like they’re playing pick-up on a nightly basis. It’s hard to watch, and it’s hard to defend (as a writer... not as an opposing NBA team).
On the other hand, Silas’ principles seem to be based on reading and reacting. The Rockets’ ball handlers aren’t doing much of either. For the most part, they’re shooting — and shooting.
Whether Silas has an actual offense or not isn’t currently relevant. He doesn’t have the guys to orchestrate it if it even does exist. Silas’ offense is the proverbial tree in the forest — we don’t know if it makes a noise or not.
There are three possibilities. The first is that Silas is a Charleton — he gained a reputation for offensive mastery that Luka Doncic earned for him. The second is that he’s got a directive from the front office to coach poorly, or at least minimally. The third is that he’s deliberately coaching minimally because he thinks it will facilitate long-term growth.
Whichever of those possibilities is true, the Rockets are a young team that isn’t being guided. This is largely why the Rockets were always going to be a bad team this year. Can you name another NBA team whose starting point guard is learning the position on the job without much in the way of instruction? You can’t. There isn’t one.
The Rockets don’t have a point guard who is worthy of starter minutes. They don’t have a rim protector. For that matter, they're largely a collection of rookies, sophomores, and reclamation projects.
What do you expect from these kids?
This was always the plan
Throughout this summer and preseason, the Rockets set certain expectations that they're not meeting. It’s still your fault if set them for yourself.
I don’t mean to be patronizing. I did. Just like you, I was seduced by the siren song of “we’re going to be hard to beat”. The Rockets selected arguably the two best defensive wings in the draft, hired Lionel Hollins and emphasized defense. Surely, we could at least expect a better product on that end of the floor?
Well, rookies are rookies. They flash upside, but they don’t tend to win games. The Rockets have a 117.07 Defensive Rating. That’s good for 23rd in the league, which, if it held, would be a significant upgrade over last year’s 29th placement. Those are the types of little victories you look for in a season like this. The Rockets were never going to go from one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA to a juggernaut. In a parallel universe where they draft Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, Chet Holmgren and Jeremy Sochan, that probably still doesn't happen.
Here’s the rub: this was always the plan. It was! The Rockets hardly even made the plan. At a certain point, it made itself.
Trading James Harden for nothing but draft capital was the catalyst. The Rockets could have landed Ben Simmons, but they opted for a path that would result in a lot of short-term pain in pursuit of significant long-term gain.
From that point onward, there’s been a singular, obvious plan. Try your luck in three straight lotteries, and then use a surplus of cap space to land the best veterans you can. Take it from there. The Rockets are bad this year because they enacted a plan that requires them to be.
Like it or not, this is the Victor Wembanyama draft. Have your principles, but know that no NBA general manager is likely to buy them. When you’re this close to this guy, you reach for him.
Yes, it feels dirty. Of course there’s an appeal in making incremental progress this season, and picking up a quality starter with the ninth pick in the process. It would be fun to watch this team get better.
Of course, it’d be more fun to draft Victor Wembanyama.
Meanwhile, if the Rockets had their own draft capital moving forward, the realities might be different. They don’t. The Thunder will own two of their selections between 2024, 2025 and 2026. This is the last kick at the can, and the Rockets have to make it count.
I recently did a piece addressing some fallacious arguments about tanking that I regularly see. I forgot one.
“Well, it’s easy for you to advocate for tanking. Your job doesn’t depend on the team’s success. You don’t own the team; you don’t need to think about attendance”.
Do you think an NBA owner would rather have a decent year in 2022-2023 or a shot at Victor Wembanyama? Can you imagine what type of revenue Wembanyama is going to generate? For that matter, the Scoot Henderson and Jalen Green show sounds pretty neat. Most athletic backcourt of all time? Understatement.
The same goes for Amen Thompson. This is a historic draft with potential stars all the way through to the top 10. Rafael Stone is surely aware. Like it or not, the Rockets aren’t behind schedule:
This was always the plan.