Now more than perhaps ever, the Houston Rockets needed a point guard. Whether you feel that Kevin Porter Jr. was one or not is now inconsequential due to Porter’s actions this offseason. But there’s no doubting that Houston’s offense was we’ll just say stagnant last year (and beyond).
The Rockets remedied this situation by handing former NBA Champion Fred VanVleet a three-year, $128 million contract, giving him an average annual salary of $42 million per season.
Was it an overpay? Almost certainly. But when you’re the worst (or among the worst) team in the league for three years running, that’s what it’s going to take to convince a near-prime 29-year-old legit NBA point guard to leave the team he won a title with to man the helm at what’s been the NBA doldrums since the start of the decade.
VanVleet is coming off of a season in which he averaged 19.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game on 39.3 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from deep, and while I do think those scoring numbers are going to drop, I think it’s likely those assist numbers stay stable or possibly even increase.
So far this preseason, VanVleet has averaged 8 points, 1 rebound and 4 assists over 20 minutes per game in two contests (those numbers will increase starkly when he’s playing 35 minutes per night in the regular season), and while he’s struggled with his shot, he certainly looks to have a command over the offense that the Rockets could only dream about last season.
The biggest VanVleet effect is likely to be on others. Jabari Smith Jr. has looked like a completely different player so far in terms of confidence, and while most of that is on Smith for his hard work, having a point guard who can get him the ball and involved in the offense is a game-changer for a player like ‘Bari.
It also takes pressure off of Alperen Sengun to be the team’s top playmaker. He’s much better served in a secondary playmaker strategy to help take the main responsibility off of the still-young and developing 21-year-old center.
VanVleet’s presence should have a ripple effect on down the lineup past that as well, from getting Amen Thompson under his tutelage to be the point guard of the future, to allowing Jalen Green the freedom to be at his best, which is scoring the rock, to orchestrating open three attempts to Reggie Bullock, to being a leader in the locker room for all the guys, in addition to running the show on the court.
The only real concern about VanVleet is his durability. He hasn’t played 70 games or more since 2018 and has missed anywhere from 13 to 30 games a year during that time frame. He’s going to spend some time on the injured list, that’s a virtual certainty. But even with that in mind, it’s still worth it to have VanVleet on board, even at that price range.
He represents a turning of the corner for the Rockets. The tank is over. Phase two of the rebuild is here in earnest. Houston is no longer relying on a cadre of kids. They’re trusting the next several years to a capable veteran with a championship pedigree, and along with the hiring of head coach Ime Udoka and the signing of veteran Dillon Brooks, it also represents a culture change into a team that appears much more hard-nosed, even at this incredibly infantile stage of the season and phase two as a whole.
It also represents a chance for VanVleet to cement his legacy in the NBA. He’s been very good. He has a championship ring and an All-Star appearance under his belt. Now if he can head to Houston and help lead the team back to prominence? That suddenly solidifies the narrative even more surrounding a guy who’s already pretty respected around the league.
That huge contract the Rockets gave him is also team-friendly in the capacity that Houston holds a team option for the third year. If things aren’t working out — or maybe they are and Amen Thompson is ready in two years — VanVleet and the Rockets can both move on with relative ease.
In the meantime, Houston’s new point guard will get on with helping return a proud franchise back to prominence and maybe cementing his own story in the process.