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What is Jae’Sean Tate’s future with the Rockets?

To watch Tate is to love him, but will he survive this rebuild?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Brooklyn Nets
Is Jae’Sean Tate the power forward of the Rockets’ future?
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

When you watch the bulk of a team’s games in a given season, it’s understandable to get emotionally attached to your preferred players. Realistically, you should consult a therapist if you don’t.

Jae’Sean Tate makes for a captivating protagonist. He’s got the origin story. Before last season, he was suiting up for the Sydney Kings of the NBL. At 25, the undrafted rookie signed with the Rockets and instantly started winning hearts.

He’s got the underdog appeal. At 6’4, Tate is undersized at power forward, but still plays the position at a fringe starter level. Houston Rockets fans have watched him tussle with Christian Wood’s assignment on a nightly basis in 2021-22. It’s hard to watch David battle Goliath on a nightly basis and even question his place on your team.

Yet, here we are.

Is Tate a future Rockets starter?

One thing we can confidently say about Tate is that the Rockets found a diamond in the NBL’s rough when they signed him. Oftentimes, fans want found money to be worth more than it is.

Tate is an active, aggressive, versatile defensive player. On the offensive end, he’s got a surprisingly deft handle and an array of head fakes on the low block. He is a good basketball player.

However, it’s also arguable that he already shouldn’t be starting for the Rockets. KJ Martin has been nipping at Tate’s heels all season. Looking ahead to 2022-23, there are legitimate reasons for the Rockets to consider moving Martin ahead of Tate in the rotation.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the Rockets drafted Bennedict Mathurin and Dyson Daniels in the 2022 draft. I realize that many readers are now foaming at the mouth. Please indulge in a harmless thought experiment.

Let’s also assume that Christian Wood gets moved, and the deal doesn’t return a four. In other words, Tate and Martin are the two presumptive candidates to start at the power forward position.

Alperen Sengun is most effective when directing traffic with the ball. Jalen Green can go supernova off-ball, but he still needs on-ball reps. Kevin Porter Jr. may be more effective off-ball, but we know the Rockets will continue to experiment with him running point. As a rookie, Mathurin would probably largely function as an off-ball player.

So what of the fifth starter? Would the Rockets prefer four ball-dominant offensive players or a more balanced lineup?

The answer is obvious. It so happens that Martin offers more off-ball value than Tate. From a strict floor-spacing perspective alone, Martin is shooting 36.3% from distance on 2.1 attempts per game this year, while Tate is connecting on 30.8% of his 2.6 threes per game.

That difference is significant. Neither is a sharpshooter: Martin feasts on wide-open looks, but struggles to convert contested shots. Tate, on the other hand, rarely sees contested three-pointers.

That’s because defenses don’t usually bother to guard him from range. They’d prefer to load up on the weakside or pack the paint instead. Guarding Martin from distance may not be a priority for defenses, but it’s not a non-issue either.

Martin’s advantages off the ball don’t end at the three-point line either. As the superior run-and-jump athlete, Martin is a more effective cutter. That’s vital for sets that feature Sengun as a high post passing hub. He’s also more effective in transition.

Tate, for all of his wonderful qualities, tends to get tunnel vision on offense. He likes to drive, and he’s decent at it, but with a plethora of better options in the starting lineup, the Rockets should prefer to see him do it against second units.

Ball-dominant players need connective players to thrive. Offensively, at least, it feels like Martin fits that description more aptly than Tate.

That’s before you consider the draft. Here’s the rub:

The Rockets are probably not going to draft Bennedict Mathrurin and Dyson Daniels.

Upcoming draft brings Tate’s future into question

The Rockets could use a versatile, big defensive wing or two. This draft is loaded with big, versatile defensive wings. The Rockets have two picks in this draft.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to figure out the formula here.

If the Rockets draft in the top three, they’ll almost assuredly draft one of Paolo Banchero or Jabari Smith Jr. In that event, they’ve likely drafted their power forward of the future.

They may draft Chet Holmgren. Questions about his long-term fit with Alperen Sengun will emerge instantly if so. They will at least experiment with them together in the frontcourt regardless.

Keegan Murray, another power forward, could be an option if the Rockets pick fifth. Otherwise, the most popular choices in that slot are smaller wings like Mathurin, Adrian Griffin Jr., or Shaedon Sharpe.

Even if the Rockets draft one of those three, Tate’s job security may not be safe.

If the Rockets take a small forward with their own pick, the odds of them chasing a four with the Brooklyn pick feel astronomically high. It’s a position of need, and there is a surplus of them in the draft. Jeremy Sochan out of Baylor, Tari Eason out of LSU, Nikola Jovic out of Serbia, and E.J. Liddell out of Ohio State are all potential options.

Some of those players (Sochan in particular) may be worth trading up for. The Rockets, with the NBA’s 29th ranked defense, have surely identified a desperate need for defensive wings.

Tate may be best suited as a reserve...or a trade chip

We all love Jae’Sean Tate. How could we not?

That doesn’t mean he’s suited to be the team’s starting power forward. Remove your heart from the equation and try selling any NBA fan on an undersized, non-spacing power forward as a long-term starter.

They’re probably not buying.

That doesn’t mean he can’t be a valuable reserve. In fact, that’s probably exactly what Tate will be over the next half-decade of his career. Whether it’s for the Rockets or not will depend on several factors.

It’ll depend on whichever power forward the team ends up drafting. Banchero will be ball-dominant: offensively, he projects as an (extremely) rich man’s version of Tate. He will render our beloved hero expendable.

On the other hand, Jabari Smith Jr should be primarily an off-ball weapon. The team may opt to move on from Martin, or shift him to three and keep Tate backing up the fourth spot.

Otherwise, any of the draft’s lesser forwards could see the roster shake out in any number of ways. Ultimately, Tate’s future with the team is similar to the team’s future itself:

Painfully unclear.