The Houston Rockets have got money to blow.
They shouldn’t spend it just because they have it. Sure, the team needs to hit the salary floor. There are plenty of ways to do that. The Rockets could hand out a bunch of bloated one-year deals. They could take on a couple of bad contracts with sweeteners attached.
They don’t have to hand James Harden a four-year max contract.
Or anyone else, for that matter. This is a fairly uninspiring free agency class. The Rockets could opt to kick the can and go all-in on next year’s group. With that said, there is one free agent who could fill a lot of holes for this team.
The Rockets should sign Kristaps Porzingis
Porzingis had a career year in 2022-23
Let’s start with the basics. Porzingis is really good.
I know, he’s injury-prone: more on that later. When healthy, this is an excellent player. Porzingis averaged 23.2 points per game on a 62.7 True Shooting Percentage (TS%) in 2022-23.
That is superb offensive production. Meanwhile, Porzingis is 27. He’s young enough to fit the Phase Two timeline.
We all know that the goal for next season is an improvement. So there’s a very simple justification here. Porzingis is a very good NBA player, and the Rockets need more good NBA players.
How does he fit alongside the players they have?
Porzingis’ fit with the Rockets
This gets a little bit complicated. Porzingis fits alongside any one Rocket, but he doesn't work in combination with every two potential cornerstones.
His fit with Alperen Sengun is intriguing. In theory, one might assume that the pair would struggle on defense. Porzingis is best suited to be a drop coverage rim protector. One would be right... and wrong.
It’s definitely true that Porzingis is best in the drop. Per Bball Index, he finished in the 99.1st percentile in Rim Points Saved among NBA starters this season. By contrast, he finished in the 20.3rd percentile in Ball Screen Navigation. His optimal defensive role is quite clear.
Yet, the Wizards thrived with Porzingis at the four last season. Per CleaningTheGlass, their best lineup featured him at the position alongside Daniel Gafford. When that duo shared the floor with Kyle Kuzma, Corey Kispert and Monte Morris, the Wizards were +33.2 across 160 possessions.
With that said, Alperen Sengun is not Daniel Gafford. He’s much more talented offensively, but Gafford is a solid rim protector. The Wizards doubled down on rim protection, with Gafford primarily in drop position while Porzingis functioned as a roamer who hunted weakside blocks.
So the comparison is imperfect. That doesn’t mean it’s without utility. If Ime Udoka can design a scheme that hides Sengun on the opposing team’s weakest perimeter player, with Porzingis in drop coverage, this could work.
Until, that is, you consider Jabari Smith Jr. In 2022-23, he looked the part of a four/five before he looked like a three/four. The Rockets could try to squeeze him in at the three alongside Porzingis and Sengun, but it’s unlikely to be his best position.
That’s not a reason to avoid Porzingis. Sign him, mix and match throughout the year, and determine what works. Besides, he could be a perfect fit alongside the Rockets’ presumptive fourth overall pick...
Amen Thompson needs a Porzingis
The Rockets are probably taking Amen Thompson. They might not, but as of now, that looks like the most probable outcome.
Opinions vary. Some of us are very excited about a 6’7” freak athlete with prodigious floor vision. Others fall into the “can’t shoot = can’t play” school of thought. Feel how you must: in all likelihood, this kid is a Houston Rocket.
It doesn’t take a disciple of Gregg Popovich to see that he needs to play alongside a stretch big. Porzingis fits the bill. Still, this doubles back to the same question:
What happens to Alperen Sengun and/or Jabari Smith Jr. here?
Well, it depends. If Sengun can develop a shot, the long-term lineup could be Sengun/Porzingis/Smith Jr./Jalen Green/Amen Thompson. Even if he doesn’t, Udoka could potentially design an offense around two playmaking hubs. That will require both Green and Smith Jr. to step up their three-point efficiency.
On the other hand, Porzingis/Smith Jr./Tari Eason/Green/Thompson has a ring to it as well. This lineup is lighter on playmaking, but if Green can make even minimal strides, it could be an elite defensive group. It should give Thompson the spacing he’ll need as well.
Provided, of course, that Thompson hits his ceiling. Obviously, that’s far from certain.
In fact, little is certain about the Rockets.
The Rockets can’t fear the unknown
There are at least two solid arguments against signing Porzingis. His fit with the current group in a holistic sense is questionable, and he’s injury-prone.
The first argument is easily settled. We don’t know if Jabari Smith Jr. will be a good NBA player, let alone a star. We don’t know if Udoka can find a viable NBA defender in Sengun. Simply put, there’s a lot that we don’t know about the Houston Rockets.
The idea here is to bring in talent and sort it out later. Porzingis might be able to co-exist with both Sengun and Smith Jr. He may replace one of them. It’s an occupational hazard on a rebuilding NBA team - you may get replaced.
Yes, Porzingis has gotten hurt a lot in his NBA career. That’s the only reason contenders won’t be lining up around the block to secure his services. The Rockets are in no position to be squeamish. They should be open to stomaching risks.
This is a unique opportunity. The Wizards seem likely to blow up their core this summer. A very good NBA player is on the open market coming off of one of the best seasons of his career. If he was fool-proof, he wouldn’t entertain the Rockets.
Since he isn't, he just might be willing to take their money.