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Setting expectations for the Rockets this season

Not too high, not too low.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros
How far can Ime Udoka lead the Rockets next season?
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t like New Year’s Eve.

At least, I didn’t when I used to party. It always felt like the best night of the holidays would inevitably be some random one: December 28 or something. There were just too many expectations around New Year's - it never lived up to them.

Expectations are funny that way. They can ruin a good thing. Hey, Houston Rockets fans: don’t let expectations ruin what should be a good 2022-23 season.

What’s a reasonable expectation for the Rockets next season?

Rockets need to improve on both ends

Let’s recap.

Kenyon Martin Jr., Usman Garuba, Josh Christopher, TyTy Washington and Daishen Nix are out. Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, Jock Landale, Jeff Green and Aaron Holiday are in. That’s a noticeable improvement.

The most notable improvement comes defensively. We can count on meaningful strides in that area. With that said, offense improvement may not be as bankable.

Four of the top seven players to meet these unfortunate criteria will be Houston Rockets next season. To quote one of the most ubiquitous memes of our generation:

This is fine.

Frankly, it’s a concern. It could be Brick City in Houston next season. On the other hand, they'll be forcing their share of bricks as well.

Rockets could take most significant leap on defense

Thought experiment. Let’s first assume that the Rockets’ offense doesn’t improve even one iota. Now, let’s assume that the defense improves from 29th in the NBA to 15th - middle of the pack.

Last year, the Rockets had an Offensive Rating of 110.5 (27th) and a Defensive Rating of 118.6 (29th). That gave them a Net Rating of -8.1 (29th).

So, the Denver Nuggets had the league’s 15th ranked Defensive Rating last year (113.5). Assuming Houston matched that figure precisely, and their offense stagnated, they'd have a Net Rating of -3.0. That would put them between the Orlando Magic and the Indiana Pacers, who won 34 and 35 games, respectively.

Is my methodology perfect here? Of course not. A leap from the bottom of the league to the middle of the pack in defense is certainly ambitious.

Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that the offense completely stagnates as well. Forgive the assumption, but I think most of us can agree that Ime Udoka is likely to run a better system than Stephen Silas.

Especially with a point guard at his disposal.

Rockets finally get the point

For all of his shooting inefficiency, VanVleet should have a positive impact on the offense as well. He had a sterling 7.2 to 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. By contrast, Kevin Porter Jr. finished at 5.7 to 3.2.

In other words, the Rockets now have an NBA point guard on their roster.

In fact, they’ve got two. Amen Thompson looked the part in his Summer League debut. I’m going to need someone to start getting those Apology Forms ready. This kid is going to be a star.

Is he going to be a positive impact player in year one? That’s a little harder to project. It’s more likely that Thompson flashes enormous potential, but ultimately doesn't impact winning as a rookie.

He will still need, at a minimum, 20 minutes per game. So that’s another variable to keep an eye on. The Rockets may be in win-now mode, but they can’t afford to completely neglect their most talented young players, either.

In fact, that’s why setting reasonable expectations is so important.

What should the Rockets expect?

When I set out to write this piece, the number in my head was 30 wins. Then, I ran my little statistical experiment. Now, I’m thinking 35 wins is a reasonable bar.

How about this: 30 is the bare minimum. Anything fewer than 30, and I won’t blame the Fertittas if heads start to roll. With that said, the goal should be 35.

Higher expectations than that are a fool’s errand. Is a 40-win season possible? Sure. If everything goes perfectly.

It is rare for everything to go perfectly. You shouldn’t plan for perfection. That’s how you end up paying $50 to get into a club that usually costs $10 and find yourself feeling alone in a room full of people kissing at midnight.

Why does this matter? Well, for starters, I’m just trying to mitigate the inevitably annoying online discourse. Still, it really matters for the front office and ownership to understand what’s reasonable to expect this season.

Typically, it’s difficult to make the leap from “glorified AAU team” to “playoff lock”. There’s likely to be an in-between period: a Phase 1.5, if you will.

Yes, the Rockets brought in veterans. They still need to learn to play together. Ime Udoka still needs to design a game plan that offsets what is an inordinate number of inefficient shooters on one team.

We should expect improvement - to a reasonable extent.