The townsfolk are growing antsy.
They’re polishing their pitchforks. We may be on the brink of revolt. The Houston Rockets are bad, they’ve been bad for a while, and they may be bad for a little longer.
Personally, I remain very skeptical that this is a problem for the front office. There has been an obvious roadmap in front of the Rockets since they traded James Harden for little else but draft capital. That road map always included a bottom-three finish in 2022-2023.
How long have you known the name Victor Wembanyama? It doesn’t matter. General Managers around the NBA have known it for longer. You’re free to assume utter incompetence of this front office. It’s simply more sensible to assume that when this rebuild got underway, Rafael Stone was at least cognizant of the possibility that if they were lucky, the Rockets could draft that big French kid who’s supposed to change basketball.
Let me stop you right there — I know. Yes, 14 percent odds. I run the Tankathon every day, but thanks. The broader plan was likely always to capitalize on a three-year window where the team owned its own draft capital. If it’s Cam Whitmore instead of Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson, that still gives the team a higher ceiling than Grady Dick or Arthur Kaluma.
Next year, everything changes. The Rockets owe their pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder with top-four protection. There will be no gambling on those protections. The team will have had its crack at the lottery — it’s time to flip a switch.
“You can’t just flip a switch”. Well, switches have been flipped. Let’s look at recent NBA history’s biggest single-season turnarounds and see if the Rockets can learn anything from them.
2007-2008 Boston Celtics
This is the outlier people will point to and say, “this doesn’t prove a rule”.
They’re right. The 2006-2007 Celtics won 24 games. The 2007-2008 Celtics won 66. That 42-game turnaround was the largest in NBA history. How did they do it?
Well, they just casually added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. No big deal.
Realistically, the Rockets probably can’t replicate this one. At the same time: am I crazy to think it’s a remote possibility? Is there not a world where James Harden comes back and the organization acquires a veteran co-star to go with him?
Possibly, but probably not. Is there a more realistic example for the Rockets to look to?
2004-2005 Phoenix Suns
The 2003-2004 Suns won 29 games. They added Steve Nash, and they won 62 in the following season.
This isn’t exactly complicated. Add talent: get better. The Suns’ turnaround would be the equivalent of the Rockets adding Harden without an additional veteran. Again, nobody is suggesting that will guarantee a 33-game turnaround.
It should absolutely make the Rockets better.
On the other hand, neither of those teams were explicitly tanking the way the Rockets have (probably) been. How does that tend to work out?
Do tanks tend to turn around?
The 2016-2017 Philadelphia 76ers won 26 games, and they won 52 the following season.
A lot changed in between. The first of those years was Joel Embiid’s rookie year, but he missed much of it due to injury. He was largely healthy the next season. The Sixers also drafted Ben Simmons, who basically had a career year in his rookie season, and added JJ Reddick.
The Rockets could draft a rookie as impactful as Simmons. They don’t need to.
The 2008-2009 Thunder won 23 games. They followed that up with a 50-win season. What changed?
Nothing the Rockets can’t replicate. The team drafted James Harden, but he only averaged 9.9 points per game as a rookie. They also drafted Serge Ibaka and changed coaches.
In fact, coaching changes are a mixed bag in this sample group. The Celtics and Sixers kept their coaches from the prior losing season, while the Suns and Thunder found new skippers. Without digressing too much, it’s fair to say a coaching change can be an impetus for success.
Still, there’s a more significant, and obvious, common thread between all of these examples.
A common denominator
I was going to detail more examples. As it turns out, it’s pretty pointless.
The 2001-2002 New Jersey Nets added Jason Kidd for a 26-win improvement. The 1997-1998 San Antonio Spurs drafted Tim Duncan and won 36 extra games. It’s the same story in every example:
The Rockets need to add talent.
They don’t need a gaudy 25+ win turnaround, either. The obvious goal for the 2023-2024 season has always been to engineer the biggest turnaround possible. It’s hard to know what possibilities lie ahead.
James Harden and VIctor Wembanyama could get you 20 more wins. Scoot Henderson and Myles Turner may add 15. On the other hand, Ausar Thompson and Mason Plumlee might look more like a five-win improvement — you’re welcome, Thunder.
A lot of cynical fans will tell you “this team is more than a Harden and Wembanyama away from a play-in push”. That’s an emotional response that’s devoid of logic. In all likelihood, it’s the same thing fans of the 1996-1997 Spurs and 2003-2004 Suns were saying.
Adding good basketball players to a basketball team helps them play better basketball. It’s so crazy that it just might work.
Other cynics will say that I’m cherry-picking. That’s true. There are countless examples of bad teams staying bad.
At the same time, how many teams have had this roadmap so blatantly laid out for them? The Rockets traded Harden for nothing but draft capital. The roster was stripped. They had three seasons to land lottery picks before they had to give their picks away. It just so happened that they had the most cap space in the NBA heading into the one season where they lost their incentive to lose.
The plan was always to “flip a switch”. Ergo, my intention here was only to discredit the claim that you can’t “flip a switch”. You can. Teams have.
How will the Rockets do it?
What do the Rockets need to improve?
The good news is that the Rockets have clear, discernable points of emphasis. Yes, this team has more than two problems, but it only has two outright functional limitations.
The first is point guard play. We’ve been over this. The other is a rim-protecting big man. No matter where you stand on Alperen Sengun, you should be able to agree that the Rockets could at least use a backup big who specializes in taking away dunks and layups.
Between the draft, free agency and the trade market, the Rockets will walk away with a point guard and a rim-protecting big man. It’ll be like bringing a million dollars to the world’s biggest garage sale — you’ll find what you need.
Is a historic turnaround possible? Yes.
Is it likely? No.
Regardless, the Rockets will be better next season: No matter where Wembanyama and Henderson land, they’ll suddenly have the incentive to be.