Rome wasn’t built in a day. Incidentally, neither was an NBA dynasty.
Of course, it’s easier to destroy than it is to create. From that perspective, building an NBA team is like building a house of cards. It requires a steady, patient hand.
Unless, of course, you’re in the finals of the World House of Cards Building Championship (the WHCBC?), and it’s a speed round. Is there a clock ticking on this Houston Rockets rebuild?
In the grand scheme, little time has passed since Daryl Morey was at the helm of this organization, treating first-round picks like they were tickets at an arcade and he collected plush toys. To his credit, it almost worked.
Until James Harden demanded a trade. The rest is history. Exit Harden, enter seven first-round picks or pick swaps. Exit Morey, enter Stone. Now the Rockets resemble a former Soviet bloc: they’ve changed radically, but relics of the past remain.
Relics like the draft capital the team still owes the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Does the Rockets’ tank stop rolling after next season?
Those outgoing picks are one reason that many Rockets fans feel this rebuild operates on an expedited timeline. They owe the Thunder their 2024 pick with top-four protection, and the next year’s pick with top 10 protection.
The Rockets already cheated death once. The 2021 pick that was (blissfully) used to select Jalen Green had the same flimsy top-four protection. Had one lottery ball bounced differently, Alperen Sengun’s star potential would be an even more critical matter for this club.
Plenty of Rockets fans doesn’t want to play that game of chicken again. The logic is that the team should aim to be competitive heading into the 2023-24 season. After all, it’s preferable to toss the Thunder the 18th overall pick than potentially gift them the fifth overall pick, right?
Past next season, the Rockets’ draft fortunes are tethered to the Brooklyn Nets. There is nothing they can do to force the Nets to implode (unless you’re a firm believer in manifestation). It’s a compelling reason to start winning basketball games.
One of two compelling reasons.
Rockets readying for cap space
It’s easy to confuse coincidence with fate. The Rockets stop controlling their draft after next season. It’s the same point where they open up cap space.
It feels like a critical juncture. A moment in history where the course changes irreversibly. John Wall comes off the books, provided his situation remains unresolved to that point. Eric Gordon has a team option. It feels safe to assume that at $20,917,902, the Rockets won’t pick it up.
The facts point overwhelmingly in one direction: the tank stops after the 2022-23 season. The Rockets risk losing their picks for two consecutive seasons. They’ll be armed to the teeth with cap space. There will be no reason not to use it, right?
Not so fast.
The Rockets should stay the course
I’m not suggesting the Rockets should aim to be bad past next season, exactly. I’m only suggesting that the stakes don’t rise as dramatically as they may appear to.
Firstly, a look at the 2023 free agency class provides little inspiration. LeBron James will be on the market, but he spurned the Rockets when they were bona fide contenders. A James Harden reunion becomes possible as he hits free agency, but he’s already showing signs of decline: will he be a $40 million man by 2023-24?
Nikola Jokic headlines the class, and of course, he’d be a dream signing for the Rockets. Still, hoping to sign a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate doesn’t amount to a plan. The Rockets will be one of 30 teams who would like to acquire the Serbian big man that summer.
Otherwise, the market is pretty bare. I’m not high on a Kyrie Irving signing, and not only because I’m happy to slight Ted Cruz. Bradley Beal will be available if he doesn’t extend with Washington, but Jalen Green will (hopefully) be approaching his level of play by that point.
To attract any of those free agents, the Rockets will need to be more competitive next year. As painful as it may be to hear, there would be benefits in tanking one more season too. The 2023 draft has the potential to be historic.
Victor Wembenyama headlines the class. The French phenom looks like the endpoint of the emerging archetype of lanky, mobile bigs with guard skills. Rockets fans who still lament passing on Evan Mobley will be vindicated if the team misses out on Chet Holmgren only to find themselves in a position to draft Wembenyama.
Scoot Henderson isn’t far behind. Some Rockets fans may still feel an attachment to our current Scoot, but Henderson is already a dominant force in the G-League at 18. He looks like Russell Westbrook if he acquired Rajon Rondo’s brain in some kind of misguided science experiment.
Otherwise, quality prospects like Dariq Whitehead, Amari Bailey, and Derrick Lively all hold intrigue, not to mention whoever else emerges between now and then.
None of which is to say that the Rockets need to tank next season either. In some ways, that’s the beauty of their situation. The Rockets don’t need to do anything.
So much will be determined by lottery lock. Jabari Smith Jr. and Paolo Banchero look NBA-ready: drafting either may punch the Rockets a ticket into the play-in next season. In that event, they may start looking to scour free agency or trade for a disgruntled star.
On the other hand, Holmgren may be a longer-term project. If so, and the Rockets land him, their fans may be tracking lottery odds more than the standings again next season. The same could be true if they slip in the lottery. Players like Keegan Murray and Adrian Griffin Jr. project as quality long-term pros, but they don’t look like players who can change a franchise’s fortunes overnight.
Which is fine. The Rockets have one definitive cornerstone in Jalen Green. Conveying one lottery pick to the Thunder won’t be the end of the world if they have one or two more by the time it happens. What’s more important than the when here is the how. Specifically, how strong is the Rockets’ foundation when they’re ready to compete again?
Hopefully, strong enough that it can’t easily be destroyed.