Sports

Expecting Greatness: Five Things to Watch For From the Young Rockets

Stephen Silas (left) and Rafael Stone will happily sacrifice wins if their team gets better throughout the year.
Stephen Silas (left) and Rafael Stone will happily sacrifice wins if their team gets better throughout the year. Screenshot
No team has changed as much as the Houston Rockets in the last two years. From jettisoning James Harden and Russell Westbrook to remaking the entire front office and coaching staff, there is little resemblance to the team that was a mainstay in the playoffs for nearly a decade.

Most teams, when rebuilding, will stretch the process over several years, acquiring young talent via trade and through the draft. The Rockets, however, have compressed that timeline significantly, adding pieces they will be a part of their rotation potentially for years in just two seasons. Last season, Christian Wood and Kevin Porter, Jr. came via trades, while K.J. Martin and Jae'Sean Tate were drafted. And Armoni Brooks emerged out of the G League. This year, Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher were all drafted in the first round.

Those are just the young guys. It doesn't account for players like David Nwaba and Danuel House, Jr., who could be part of the rotation for quite a while. The result is going to be a LOT of trial and error over the course of the next couple seasons to see who fits and how to make it all work. Second year coach Stephen Silas and GM Rafael Stone will have their hands full as they kick off the season Wednesday night in Minnesota. Here are some things to look for.

The G League express.

The NBA's developmental league is rapidly taking on the feel of training ground for young, talented players. What was once a testing ground for fringe guys is now turning into a pipeline to and from the pro teams. Green skipped college for the G League as have others. Expect the Rockets to make liberal use of the G League this year as they have in the past with players like Clint Capela, Martin, Brooks and Porter. Garuba could be the first guy down, as he adjusts to American basketball. It wouldn't be a shock to see Christopher get a little time there as well if he is unable to crack the rotation — the more game playing time at any level, the better. Being sent down should not be considered a demotion, but rather a way to get youngsters more time on the court.


click to enlarge Christian Wood could make that next step from young talent to All Star this season. - SCREENSHOT
Christian Wood could make that next step from young talent to All Star this season.
Screenshot
Eric Gordon, John Wall trade status.

No doubt the Rockets will be looking to make moves and don't be surprised if other players' names are tossed around before the trading deadline. But the most prominent among them will be Gordon, who still has solid defensive skills and a good shot, making him someone that could be targeted by a team needing such a player for a playoff run. Wall is a different situation given his high-dollar salary and the Rockets general unwillingness to buy him out. The team is hopeful that by the trading deadline, teams will be willing to deal for both or either, but until then, Gordon will get time and Wall will sit.

Watching the "middle aged" guys.

We use that term tongue firmly planted in cheek as middle age on this team is mid twenties. Specifically, Wood and House. Can Wood stay healthy and make the leap to a legitimate all-star appearance? Can House clean up his act and become the kind of solid, consistent contributor the Rockets need? If the answer is no for either, don't be surprised if trade rumors begin swirling. House is certainly the more likely to go on the block if he doesn't improve. Wood has star potential if he can integrate with all the new, slightly younger guys. If both are good, that bodes well for the team's progression and chances of early success.

click to enlarge Rookie Jalen Green will be loads of fun to watch. - SCREENSHOT
Rookie Jalen Green will be loads of fun to watch.
Screenshot
Speed, speed and more speed.

If you are going to play for this Rockets team, you better put your running shoes on. This team will likely struggle in the half court, particularly the first half of the season when they are learning both how to play in the NBA and with one another, but one thing they will have as an advantage is their athleticism. They have the ability to get out and run, and Silas will be pushing them to do that at every turn. If they don't lead the league in pace this season, something probably went very wrong. Their best hope of winning will be a frenetic pace and lots and lots of threes...assuming they can make them.

Growth from the young core will be slow, but fun to watch.

Above all, this is a season of transition and learning. Nothing is more important than nurturing young players like Green, Porter, Sengun, Tate and Martin. Wins are not as important as that, which is why this team should absolutely favor development over wins and losses. They won't purposefully sacrifice a win to teach a lesson. They brought in guys like Daniel Theiss and kept players like D.J. Augustin and Gordon so they could be competitive. But if there was any doubt what this team was about, look simply to Wall's non participation. They want minutes for the young guys. Lots of them. They need them to get better individually and as a whole. It will, at times, be frustrating to see them lose, and they will lose a ton, but the bigger picture is far more critical. And because they are young, there will be some very exciting moments as well. Think of this like a gap year in college as a fan. You don't have to feel too bad about the scoreboard as long as your team is getting better, so enjoy it while you can.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke