The Rockets fell to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday as the season ended with a quiet but sickening thud. With franchise-shaping trades, unprecedented injury issues and a mixture of young, promising talent (nevermind a rookie season for both coach and GM), the Rockets enter the 2021 offseason after one of the most tumultuous years in the history of the organization.
This summer has the potential to completely reboot a team that went from one of the perennial best to the literal worst in the span of a few months.
Don't expect the "advertised" big four to be the permanent big four.
The team has lauded the ascendance of Christian Wood, Jae'Sean Take, K.J. Martin and Kevin Porter, Jr., and with good reason. Not only did all have flashes of brilliance, but they were all acquired for next to nothing. Wood has an incredibly team-friendly contract after a deal that also got them multiple picks. Tate and Martin are rookies. Porter, a first round pick, is in his second year, landed for a second round draft pick. But don't be surprised if those names change. Wood seems to be a young star on the rise, but Tate and Martin, while potentially outstanding role players, don't seem poised for a ton beyond that. KPJ? Who knows?
They all should have roles to play in this new team and it is quite a haul of talent considering where they could have been after the trade of James Harden, but draft picks and trades have a way of altering future plans. Don't get too used to the way things are. They are bound to change.
GM Rafael Stone has been good so far. Now, it's time for him to be great.
Stone, the protege of former GM Daryl Morey, has already earned respect around the league for his savvy moves and the way he has treated players. He handled the incredibly complicated deals to trade away names like Harden and Russell Westbrook in the first days of his tenure. He also maneuvered for Wood and Porter in addition to bringing in some young, promising talent as the season rolled along. But, now he faces perhaps an even more complex challenge.
The team will need to figure out how to move forward with (or without) John Wall and Eric Gordon. Wall is coming off a solid season cut short by injury. Gordon had his worst season as a pro and missed much of it. Both are on pricey contracts and will be tough to move, but in order to get any kind of cap flexibility, they may need to move them anyway. Then there was the surprising performance of Kelly Olynyk. The team owns his Bird rights, but how much will they shell out for someone who isn't likely to be a starter?
Then there is the draft, with three picks in the first round, one that might be in the top five. If Stone thought last offseason was tough, he better be ready for 2021.
This will not be a rapid turnaround.
Even with the young talent on the roster and the draft upcoming, don't expect the team to go from the worst in the league to the playoffs. They will not only need time to build a winning team, something that often takes several seasons, but they have to find out which guys will be here for the long term. Youth is exciting but inconsistent and it's reasonable to assume that will continue to be an issue for the Rockets over the next couple seasons.
The goal this year will not be to swing for the fences, but to gradually build around what they have and hopefully add a young budding superstar in the draft (or through a trade). Patience will be a virtue for fans going forward.
A lot, if not everything, is riding on the draft lottery in June.
It's unfair to say that the draft lottery could make or break the Rockets' future. It's also very likely not true. The NBA changes so quickly and with often seismic shifts, there is no reason to think if the Rockets were to miss out on a top five pick in the draft (it's about a 50/50 proposition right now) they would toil in obscurity for years. Likewise, picking at the top doesn't guarantee future success.
In the worst case scenario, were they to fall all the way to pick 18, they would still have three picks bunched together in a relatively deep draft. That will give them options for choices or trades. There is no doubt the Rockets would love to add a legit superstar like Cade Cunningham or any of a small handful of top tier talent with one of the first picks, but no matter where they choose, they will have a real shot to improve.
But, if they did land one of the top two or three choices, it does have the potential to be a game changer. Stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed for the ping pong balls to bounce their way on June 22.