Alperen Sengun and Jalen Green look to make a big impact for Houston entering the 2022-23 season.
2021-22 record: 20-62
Key additions: Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason and TyTy Washington (2022 Draft)
Key subtractions: Christian Wood (trade), John Wall (buyout)
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Last season: The signs were troubling from the jump when the Rockets lost 15 of 16 games to start the 2021-22 season, and later absorbed another 15-for-16 stumble in February. It added up to misery, just 20 wins total for the season, dead last in the NBA for a young and developing team. This was the expected plunge for a franchise still trying to recover from the James Harden fallout. The good news is the Rockets did flash signs of excitement and progress as the season ended. The young core led by Jalen Green, in particular, showed some pop.
Summer summary: Until Green went turbo after the All-Star break and finished his rookie season smashingly, the best player on the team with the fewest wins in the NBA was Wood. He was Houston’s Mr. Reliable, stayed healthy for the most part, and was a double-double threat on a nightly basis. Best of all, Wood was just 26 and touching his prime, a flexible 6-foot-9 forward who could play multiple front-line positions, exactly what the rebuilding Rockets wanted as they attempted to lay a foundation and plant some seeds.
So what do they do this summer? Trade him. Of course.
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And not in a package to land a superstar, either. They swapped him for spare parts — four expiring contracts from the Mavericks — and a first-round pick, giving them three in the 2022 Draft.
While it seemed puzzling on the surface, the dynamics of the deal were understandable given where the Rockets are and what they’re trying to accomplish. Houston wanted as much financial and roster flexibility as possible. Other than getting those cheap and expiring contracts, the Rockets weren’t willing to make a big money decision on Wood next summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Houston believes Alperen Sengun, a first-rounder from the 2021 Draft, needs those minutes at the center position vacated by Wood and could eventually be just as effective (and cheaper). Again: Houston is in the player development business right now.
The other piece in the trade was a future first-round pick. And so, once more, the Rockets will be heavy on youth and (likely) defeats next season, if only because this is the path they’ve chosen.
Incoming are Smith, Eason and Washington, three highly regarded draftees who should be rotational factors right away. Smith, who somewhat unexpectedly fell to Houston at No. 3, is the obvious prize that brings a good shooting stroke and the ability to play either forward spot.
Eason has similar front-line flexibility as well, although his game and mentality are closer to the basket and he’s not afraid to mix it up in traffic. He’s a better defensive prospect, too. As for Washington, he’s a playmaking pick-and-roll point guard, which can earn him reps in his rookie season because the Rockets are lacking that element on the roster. This is a team that kept a healthy Wall on the bench last season in favor of seeing if Kevin Porter Jr. had the instincts to play the point (he didn’t, given his abundance of turnovers).
Therefore, in sticking with the blueprint, the Rockets actually got younger by trading a 26-year-old who happened to be their leading scorer and rebounder.
In the immediate future, this might not reap any benefits in the standings. As the Rockets discovered last season, being a grooming ground for first-round picks comes with initial pain well before the gain. So if all goes right, the Rockets will be tough to beat…in 2025-26.
Meanwhile, they’re essentially staging tryouts, sifting through multiple bodies, constantly evaluating for the future, stockpiling young assets for trade or for keeps, and hoping someone among them will become a star. If the NBA held a 21-and-under tournament, Houston would be the strong favorite.
Wait, there’s more: With a low payroll, the Rockets can even entertain the thought of being a dumping ground for teams trying to unload big contracts, thereby fetching more first-round picks.
When you take that many swings at the draft plate, you increase the odds of getting that 600-foot grand slam. You might say Houston is aiming for outer space.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive hereand follow him on Twitter.
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