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Are the Nets playing the Rockets out of the lottery?

This Nets team looks a little too good for a Rockets fan’s liking.

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets
Ben Simmons’ return to form is a problem for the Rockets.
Photo by David L. Nemec/NBAE via Getty Images

Whoop, whoop!

That’s the sound of the beast!

Whoop, whoop!

That’s the sound of the small sample size police!

We know. The 2023-24 NBA season is young. Nothing means anything. Yet...we have to write. The advertisers aren’t going to pay for a bunch of articles that read “It’s too early in the season to draw meaningful conclusions. Please check back with us in 25 games”.

Rockets fans should be pleased with the early returns. This team is .500. Sure, they beat the De’Aaron Fox-less Kings twice and the Hornets. We’re going to take the wins that we get around here.

Moreover, the Rockets are doing (mostly) sustainable stuff. The ball movement is fantastic. Jalen Green’s shot selection is improved. Jabari Smith Jr. is starting to look like more of a player than an abstract theory. Alperen Sengun is much better at defending at the level. He’s using his quick hands and strong instincts to create turnovers and wall-off drivers before they even get to the rim.

Dillon Brooks probably won’t continue to shoot 110 percent from long-range. That’s the unsustainable part. Still, the frustrating iso-hunting that became a trademark of his game doesn’t exist in Houston. He’s playing exactly how he’s supposed to - when the shooting regresses, he’ll still be a positive impact player.

Yet, everything isn’t optimistic. Is it ever? The Rockets look like they’ll be able to justify the money that they spent in free agency this summer. Unfortunately, they’re not the only team whose success or failure impacts their own destiny.

The Brooklyn Nets look half-decent in their own right.

That’s a problem. The jury is still out on the James Harden return. So far, he’s netted the team Tari Eason. I love Eason like the earth loves the rain, but the Rockets need more in exchange for an in-prime MVP.

The Nets look determined to give them as little as possible.

Nets’ offense has been problematic for Rockets

The Nets are 3-4 as of this writing. That’s good for eighth in the Eastern Conference. That’s not the worst part - there’s reason to assume this team will improve.

Currently, they’re failing where they’re supposed to succeed, and succeeding where they’re supposed to fail. The Nets have an Offensive Rating of 116.1 - seventh in the league. They’ve got a Defensive Rating of 117.2 - that’s 25th. This makes for a Net Rating of -1.1 (16th).

There’s an easy explanation for this inversion. Nicolas Claxton is probably the best switch big man in the NBA, and he’s played a grand total of one game. He’s nursing an ankle injury.

In his absence, the Nets’ best lineups have come with Dorrian Finney-Smith as a small ball five. That’s another issue - the Nets best lineup has been their most-used lineup as well. This team is optimizing. Finney-Smith, Mikal Bridges, Cam Thomas, Spencer Dinwiddie and Ben Simmons have a +26.0 differential over 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.

If you love love, stop reading. It only gets worse. Simmons is back. He probably won’t make an All-NBA team again in his career, but he’s productive and impactful. He’s benefitted from the spacing that the rest of that lineup affords him.

Cam Thomas looks like a star. This is bleak. The Nets are pretty good, and they’re missing a key player. Yet, if the Rockets have any hope of landing a lottery pick from the Nets, it rests with that key player.

Can the Nets incorporate Claxton back into their system?

Will the Nets suffer from bad spacing?

Sure, Simmons is thriving with Finney-Smith at the five. That’s precisely how you maximize Ben Simmons. It’s not necessarily how the Nets maximize their entire roster. As two absolute non-shooters, Claxton and Simmons don’t feel like a good fit.

That’s a reason for some optimism. The Nets may lose some games just trying to figure out how to work Claxton back into their gameplan. On the other hand, trying to work an excellent player into a system that’s already working is a rich man’s problem. The Nets now know that they’ve got Finney-Smith-at-the-five with Simmons running point in their back pocket. This roster has remarkable positional versatility. The Nets might just be good this year.

Does that spell doom for the Rockets?

Rockets can still make the most out of their pick

An unprotected first-round pick is an asset, no matter who it’s coming from. The Rockets can still make hay here, but they’ll have to be thoughtful if this pick lands outside of the lottery.

Given that the team is trying to be competitive moving forward, drafting for fit becomes more tenable. With that in mind, the Rockets should target either a shooter, or a reserve combo big: at least, based on how the roster is currently constructed.

That’s a large caveat. The Rockets feel primed to make a trade for an impact player this year. Yet, they probably can’t fill both of this roster’s clear holes by the season’s end. Rafael Stone is likely going to have to choose between adding a shooter or adding a good backup big.

Full disclosure: I’m not as familiar with this class as I’d like to be yet. Look - the 2023-24 season just got underway. Like most Rockets fans, I’m enjoying a reprieve from living or dying by the draft.

Yet, here we are.

If the Rockets are targeting a shooter, Riley Kugal out of Florida feels like a good option. He’s a 6’5” off-guard who can get his shot off in a variety of ways. Nikola Durisic of the European club Mega MIS is intriguing as well, although he’s a wing, and the Rockets have a lot of wings.

Otherwise...yikes. This draft is light on shooters. Luckily, it’s heavy on versatile defensive bigs.

(Disclaimer: this is not an attempt to replace Alperen Sengun. It’s an attempt to help him. We’re talking about reserves here. Ideally, we’re looking for a player who can both be Sengun’s primary backup and play alongside him for stretches as well).

If the Alexandre Sarr dreams are dead, the Rockets still have options. Kel’el Ware out of Indiana is a strange prospect. He was almost in the last draft - heck, he was almost a lottery pick in the last draft. Some poor play down the stretch of the college basketball season caused him to enter the transfer portal and punt on his NBA career.

That’s not necessarily a good start. Still, Ware should be a quality reserve at the NBA level. He’s flashed some floor spacing. He looked miscast as a four on the Oregon Ducks last year, but if he can handle just a few NBA minutes per night at the position, he could serve the Rockets’ purposes. It may be that he struggled to take his job seriously on a team called the Ducks.

Perhaps the Rockets could take a quack at him.

Yes, I did. Anyway, Ware is likely to land in the range that the Nets’ pick currently projects to land in. On the other hand, Aaron Bradshaw out of Kentucky has seen his stock slip recently. He’s injured. When healthy, he looks intriguing. Bradshaw should have the mobility to spend time a the four. He’s a talented weakside shot blocker and help defender. From a rotation perspective, he’d be a perfect fit.

There are more options, too. Consider this a brief overview before the inevitable deep dive heading into the 2024-25 season. Who knows? The Rockets may be looking at Sarr after all by then.

We’re not working with much of a sample size here.