NBA Training Camps tip off in approximately two months, but before we even get to the start of the regular season, let’s take a moment to fast-forward to the end of it. Let’s talk some playoffs! More specifically, Houston Rockets playoffs!
In the three seasons that have elapsed since the Rockets last felt that postseason atmosphere, the team has won a combined 59 games, overhauled the roster and hired, fired and then hired another new coach.
Enter Phase Two.
Level-headed spectators of this team shouldn’t expect them to go from duds to studs overnight. However, it is reasonable to expect that the additions made to the franchise should put them in a position to make a run at postseason play, even as soon as the 2023-24 season.
With that in mind, let’s rank the top seven reasons why the Rockets WILL make the playoffs in 2023-24.
Ime Udoka is a great coach
It goes without saying that this was an improvement of astronomical proportions. Nabbing a coach that led his previous team to the NBA Finals figures to bring a sense of legitimacy to the helm. It will go a long way if Udoka can keep his players accountable and push them towards being their best selves. A playoff berth starts first and foremost with the man pulling the strings.
Either Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün or Jabari Smith Jr. takes a leap towards stardom
It’s imperative that one (hopefully all) of these guys turns the corner and establishes himself as a perennial All-Star level of performer. My money would be on Green as he has the highest ceiling among the three. It bodes well that Smith Jr. looked more like the heralded player coming out of Auburn in his short-lived Las Vegas Summer League stint. And if Şengün is to fulfill the prophecy of becoming “Baby Jokic”, then anything is possible. Establishing a go-to player will clarify the hierarchy of building blocks on this team.
The defense improves
Many expect this to be Udoka’s calling card as improving the defense has clearly been a priority for this regime. With a bevy of versatile and active wing defenders, the Rockets should look much better on that side of the ball and it will help keep more games competitive. Between Fred VanVleet, Tari Eason, Dillon Brooks, Smith Jr., and projecting Cam Whitmore and Amen Thompson to become plus defenders, it could start looking a lot like lockdown szn.
The shooting/decision-making improves
These are tied together because duh, better decision-making often leads to better shots. VanVleet and Thompson alone figure to improve the decision-making category. This will allow Green and Kevin Porter Jr. to move more off-ball and thrive in what they do best: scoring. Now it will still be upon them to take the right shots and distribute when appropriate, but expect to see them work better within the offense going forward.
We’ve been hearing for years about how immature the Rockets’ locker room is and now we get to see how true that really was. Everyone will be a year older and now with VanVleet, Brooks, Jeff Green and Aaron Holiday in the fold, there’s more “adults” in the room. Even with Brooks’ antics in Memphis, I’ll note that those always came at the expense of the opposition, and his former teammates still speak highly of him.
A dominant bench
Do you remember that 2019-20 Los Angeles Clippers team that battled the Golden State Warriors in the first round? This was before the star-laden trade that brought them Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. That team featured two former Rockets and Super Sixth Men of the Year, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams.
What if I told you that Houston had multiple Sixth Man of the Year candidates on this roster? Would you believe me? KPJ is certainly a candidate given that he may put up numbers on the second unit with free rein. I’ll present Tari Eason too! He’s my dark horse candidate. He may not start, but don’t be surprised if he claws his way to nearly 30 minutes a night as he provides winning plays night in and night out.
The rookies are just that good
This is the least realistic reason that Houston makes the postseason in my view, not because I don’t think Thompson and Whitmore will be good, but more so because it’s really difficult for a rookie to make that much of an impact in terms of getting to the playoffs. My one caveat is, what if Cam Whitmore is just that awesome? What if he just exceeds all expectations and looks like a player with a physical profile that most closely resembles Anthony Edwards? Let me settle down.
Now let’s take a look at the top seven reasons why the Rockets WON’T make the playoffs in 2023-24. A lot of these may look like the inverse of why they will make it, but that’s why we have to hear both sides.
The West is too deep
Among all of the circumstances listed in this blog, this is the most likely occurrence. Even if the Rockets look significantly better, tempering expectations off this reason alone has me leaning towards the playoff drought extending one more year.
Just about every team in the West has taken approaches to feed their playoff aspirations for 2023-24. Once the inevitable Damian Lillard-less era of the Portland Trail Blazers begins, they can officially be crossed off the list. I can be talked into the San Antonio Spurs running the long con this year as well, but other than that, there will be 12 other teams making that playoff push.
The Oklahoma City Thunder made the Play-In Tournament as the 10th seed with 40 wins last season. Expecting the Rockets to jump from 22 to 40 wins in the course of one off-season remains a lofty desire. I will acknowledge that OKC improved by 16 games last year, but even then the margins were so thin.
The young players don’t take a leap
Although I don’t think it’s the top reason for this season, I think this would be the most damning development. An adjustment period is certainly in the cards, especially with so many new faces in the building, but it sure would be a bummer if Jalen or Jabari don’t show any signs of growth by the end of the first season under Udoka. The same goes for Şengün, but I mostly say this for the guys taken at the very top of the draft. It can be a very humbling feeling when you realize that the guy you took in the top five is “just another guy” and not “the guy”. Any uptick in production would be welcome, but there’s no more room for taking steps back.
This is a given for any team in any sport ever. Injuries suck. They can mess up development and screw with chemistry. They will ultimately derail your season. Let’s just hope there is good health across the board.
The interior defense isn’t good enough
I considered putting this one higher, but we’ll address it here. The truth is that Şengün will have to prove he’s an adequate defender more times than not for him to be able to stay on the court long enough to do what he does best on the other side of the court. Jock Landale and Green are fine as reserves, but I’d prefer not to overextend them. Jabari could fill some time at Center, but ultimately Alpy is the big that will need to show up.
The offseason signings were not enough
This point works in conjunction with the previous one. Obviously the Brook Lopez signing went kaput and that left the “big man who can defend” market very thin. Lamenting over Lopez will do us no favors at this point.
Now do I think the Rockets did enough to address their concerns in free agency? I’m not completely thrilled with how they allocated resources, but I’d still give them a B minus. Perimeter defense and playmaking were taken care of so there’s a thumbs up for that. And if Şengün’s rim defense proves to be competent, then it’s Brook Lopez WHO?!
Given the available free agents, I’m not sure how much more the Rockets could have done without overspending. Perhaps one more piece will be needed, but the tape will tell the tale.
Still not sharing the ball
I don’t think this will be the case, but I’ll always leave the smallest margin for error. Again, VanVleet is a pro and I love the way Amen Thompson approaches the game. I think they’ll do wonders for ball movement. If that’s enough, moves will need to be made...
There’s too many players and not enough minutes
Is there such a thing as having too much depth? I don’t foresee it at this point because everyone seems to have bought into the bigger picture, but crazier things have happened. If you callback to the 2018-19 Boston Celtics that had just come off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in Jayson Tatum’s rookie season, you’ll remember that his second season did not go as hoped. The 2018 team featured a young cast with the likes of Tatum, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown taking them within minutes of toppling LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Flash forward to 2019 when proven stars such as Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward rejoined the lineup and the team struggled with a minutes crunch. The team was loaded, but there was frustration from within as the guys who helped them the year prior had to take a step back. All that to say, I don't think Houston will face that specific predicament, but sometimes less is more.
What else do you think will propel the Rockets to the playoffs this year? What other deterrents do you believe can halt them from making it? Let us know in the comments below.