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Are the Rockets tanking, rebuilding or just losing?

The Rockets have taken an unconventional approach to rebuilding. Will it pay dividends?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Houston Rockets
The Rockets roster an odd mix of veterans and prospects. What is their long-term vision?
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

With one possession left in the game, Jalen Green missed a game-tying shot against the Los Angeles Clippers. The rest is history: the shot rimmed out, and the Clippers walked away with a victory.

Rockets fans rejoiced. After all, they root for one of the worst teams in the NBA. Losses, as we know, maximize lottery odds. More importantly, Stephen Silas finally did the unthinkable. He drew up a play for Jalen Green in the clutch.

Didn’t he?

In some ways, this one play was a microcosm of the Rockets’ entire season. The rookie was the second option, right after the veteran.

It’s not how other rebuilding teams are approaching the 2021-22 season. Cade Cunningham has the keys in Motor City. Derrick Favors routinely watches rookies and sophomores from the bench in Oklahoma City. Franz Wagner, widely regarded as a future role player heading into the 2021 draft, has a higher usage rate than Jalen Green.

Fans don’t like it. Spend five minutes on Rockets Twitter and you’ll find a complaint. Why has Dennis Schroder phased Josh Christopher out of the rotation? Isn’t Alperen Sengun already distinctly better than Christian Wood?

What are we doing here?

What are the Houston Rockets doing?

The answer may simply be “something different”.

I’ll note that Rahat Huq already published an excellent piece on this subject. It came out while I already had these ideas floating around in my head. Hopefully, mine are unique enough to publish as well.

Sam Hinkie’s “Process” in Philadelphia revolutionized modern notions of team building in the NBA. It was really a matter of simplification: you lose, aggregate enough talent, and then you win. Concerns about building a team culture, establishing winning habits, and creating accountability became secondary. Those became matters to address after you had the talent.

Rafael Stone missed that memo.

The Houston Rockets are rebuilding, but they aren’t tanking

It seems as if Stone intends to establish that winning team culture, perhaps paradoxically, as the team is losing. Josh Christopher doesn’t get a place in the rotation ahead of Gordon until he develops into a better player than Gordon. Sengun may already be the best center on this team, but with the 2020-21 data the Rockets have on Wood, he’s going to have to prove it.

The Rockets, simply put, are not tanking. To tank would mean to play the rookies over the veterans to ensure losses. It would mean maximizing Green’s usage, not just knowing that he’s not ready, but because he isn’t.

The outcome would be similar. The Rockets would be the worst team in the Western Conference. The process would be very different.

As it stands, the Rockets hold that magnanimous distinction because Christian Wood and Eric Gordon, simply, are not good enough veterans to structure an NBA offense around. They’re both carry-overs from a team that was intended to operate around James Harden (and Chris Paul, or Russell Westbrook, or John Wall). They are both strong complementary offensive pieces, but neither is a viable featured option.

That’s just not the point. Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun aren’t ready for featured roles either. It seems likely that this organization hopes to motivate them to grow into them.

All of which is speculation. As of today’s date, I’ve never had a conversation with Rafael (or even Felicia). It’s hard to find another reasonable explanation for this team’s distribution of minutes and usage. It appears that the philosophy is that making the kids earn their stripes will pay off in the long run.

Is that realistic?

Are the Houston Rockets taking a road less traveled?

The reality is, there is no time-tested, surefire path to NBA title contention. If every past champion had been built by tanking until they rostered two or three top-five picks, this article doesn’t get written. Rest assured, Stone would be doing the same.

A look at recent champions suggests that life in the NBA is not so simple.

The Milwaukee Bucks struck gold when they drafted perennial MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft. During his rookie season, they were horrible, but they didn’t exactly tank either.

Brandon Knight (22 years old) did lead the team in usage. However, after Knight came 29-year-old Gary Neal, 33-year-old Caron Butler, and 26-year-old O.J. Mayo. Antetokounmpo himself was 18th on the team with a 15 percent usage rate. Were Bucks fans clamoring for him to see more action? Does it matter now?

The Los Angeles Lakers are not instructive. They’re the league’s ultimate exception. They don’t have to earn success: it’s handed to them.

Do I sound bitter?

The Toronto Raptors never actively bottomed out to win their 2019 NBA title. Granted, they were the benefactors of remarkable luck. They needed the dynastic Warriors to implode, and the Spurs to make an extremely unlikely trade to acquire Kawhi Leonard.

Speaking of those Warriors, they didn’t tank to build their dynasty either. Their last losing season was 2011-12. That season saw a third-year Steph Curry finish fourth on the team in usage, behind veterans like Monta Ellis and David Lee (as well as a 21-year-old Klay Thompson).

Don’t bother digging through NBA history to find a team that tanked its way to an NBA championship. You won’t find one.

That’s not necessarily an indictment of the strategy. It’s relatively new. If the Sixers come away with an NBA title this season, it alters the discourse. Still, a look at the league’s recent history makes one thing clear: building a title contender does not require a team to tank.

The common denominator between the league’s recent champions, in fact, is dumb luck. The Bucks drafted Giannis and the Warriors drafted Draymond. The Raptors fleeced the Spurs before the Warriors fell apart. The Lakers play in L.A. and purple-and-yellow is an iconic color scheme.

If recent history tells us anything, the Rockets are right on track.

Rockets fans may be seeing their wants unfulfilled and mistaking them for their needs. We’re jealous when Josh Giddey gets a triple-double. We want to see Jalen on the rookie boards. We know Alperen is talented enough to be there too.

More than anything, we want to see the development. What’s required of us, however, is the same thing that’s required of anybody who believes in anything that isn’t tangible: