When you have the worst record for two straight years, you will likely be at the bottom of the rankings in critical categories. Two categories that stick out the most for the Houston Rockets from last year were shooting (20th in three-point percentage) and team defense (30th in points allowed per game).
In today's NBA, you have to be able to stretch the floor, and in any era of basketball, you have to get stops. Unfortunately, the Rockets haven't done either very well the last couple of years, and in the case of their defense, they have been going the wrong way for three straight years. The Rockets have gone from 21st in points allowed in 2019-20 to dead last the past season, allowing over 118 points a game. That was almost three points more than the 29th-ranked team.
The one benefit in having the worst record two years running (unless you're the Brooklyn Nets) is drafting in the top five for two consecutive drafts. That is exactly what the Rockets have done. In last year's draft, they got two potential offensive superstars in Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun, and in this year's draft, two potential All-NBA Defense players in Jabari Smith and Tari Eason.
How Jabari Smith can help turn these trends around
Smith not only has the potential to be a defensive superstar, but he has the chance to be one of the best shooters in Rockets history. The Rockets made their share of shots from downtown last year, but more times than not, it was on a poor percentage, which generally led to the opposing teams getting out on the break. As you guessed, the Rockets were last in fast break points allowed last year, and long rebounds off Rockets’ three-point misses were a big part of that.
Jabari Smith got off to a slow start in his first two summer league games. He shot 9-for-29 from the field and only 3-for-13 from beyond the arc. However, the Rockets and Jabari were not concerned, because coming into the draft, Smith was one of, if not the best shooters. Smith shot 42 percent from three-point range in his one year in college, and last game, he showed why the Rockets were ecstatic that he dropped to them at third overall.
In his best game of the Summer League, Smith scored 19 points and shot 50 percent from the field and 3-of-5 from deep. That is the shooting the Rockets need desperately, considering they were bottom of the league in shooting last year. Last year, teams consistently backed off of Jae’Sean Tate, which left little to no room in the paint.
With Smith at power forward, teams will not be able to pack the paint, opening up driving lanes for Green and Kevin Porter Jr.
The one area that had not been a struggle for Smith was on the defensive end.
As you see in the clip, Smith's ability to completely shut down a part of the court is similar to an elite cornerback in football shutting down one side of the field. Smith can not only guard his own position, but he can switch and guard every position on the court.
Last game, Smith made multiple defensive impactful plays. From switching onto multiple players in one defensive stop to switching on to a guard and stopping his initial dribble move and poking the ball away, which led to a fast break on the other end, Smith is the defensive anchor the Rockets have sorely missed the last few years and the type of player that can completely turn around a bad defensive team.
Having a 6'10”, possibly 6'11” (he’s 19 and might not be done growing) power forward who can switch onto Steph Curry or Damian Lillard and hold his own is a luxury most teams couldn't dream of, and now the Rockets have that in Jabari Smith.
As I stated earlier, the fact that the Rockets could have the two best offensive players and the two best defensive players in the last two drafts is something most Rockets fans couldn't have imagined just two years ago. In Smith, they have a player who could help turn around two critical areas in which every team has to succeed to become a good team.
If Smith can continue to improve and fulfill his potential, the Rockets shouldn't be at the bottom looking up for too much longer.