After eight seasons with winning records and trips to the postseason including the franchise record for wins in a season and two visits to the Western Conference Finals, everything came tumbling down on the Houston Rockets in 2021. After a COVID-shortened season with Russell Westbrook in the backcourt with James Harden came one of the most tumultuous offseasons in team history. The entire coaching staff, including head coach Mike D'Antoni, and GM Daryl Morey left. Harden and Westbrook were traded. Eventually, so was P.J. Tucker and even Harden's replacement, Victor Oladipo.
Today, the Rockets are one of the worst teams in the NBA with a team made up of mostly young players, interspersed with a handful of veterans like John Wall and D.J. Augustin. And it has become clear that the team is focused on building for the future and taking the lumps that come with those growing pains.
That's the bad news and it is really bad news. It is tough for a fan base to take bottoming out, particularly when they were so good so recently and when their signature star is continuing to look like an MVP in a different uniform. No one wants to see the Rockets lose over and over.
But, this is how young teams do. They struggle and, hopefully, learn. The centerpieces to the team's future fortunes appear to be Christian Wood and Kevin Porter, Jr.
The former is a 25-year-old forward in his fifth season, relegated mostly to role playing status until injuries gave him an opportunity in Detroit last year. With the Rockets, he is averaging 20 points and 9 rebounds while shooting nearly 37 percent from three and nearly 80 percent in the paint. The latter is a second-year guard who was released by Cleveland after some personal issues. Since joining the Rockets after a stint in the G League, he has averaged 15 points, 6 assists and 3 rebounds with a lefty style that is reminiscent of Harden. And he's only 20.
Both are getting all the playing time they can handle, learning on the fly and showing flashes of the kind of greatness the Rockets hope they will develop under head coach Stephen Silas.
Not far behind are forwards Jae'Sean Tate and K.J. Martin. Tate played in Australia after college before the joining the Rockets and it shows. He has a veteran presence on the floor even at just 25. Averaging 10 points and 5 boards, Tate is not a guy who fills up stat sheets, but he makes big shots, plays good defense and hustles all over the floor. It is what made trading Tucker make sense. They already have a younger version.
Martin, the son of former All-Star Kenyon Martin, is probably the team's most athletic player. At only 6-6, he's a bit undersized for the forward spot, but his athleticism and already advanced defensive skills despite being a rookie keep him on the floor. He's shooting 36 percent from three and that will likely improve a bit.
These four youngsters form the core of what the Rockets believe (hope) will be the immediate future of the franchise. The provide not only length and athleticism, but all are good passers and better-than-average defenders. If they can grow together as a team, they have a chance to improve quickly.
That doesn't even account for the draft picks held by the team over the next couple seasons. With their record, they have a decent shot at one of the top three picks in the draft, which could net them another young superstar to match with the talent they have.
The Rockets have said for years that they did not want to rebuild. They did not want to suffer through a horrible losing season only to pin their hopes on the draft. But, with some rather deft moves this year and a stockpile of picks in the next two years, the rebuild is proceeding in earnest. The growing pains will most certainly sting, but the rewards have the potential to be significant, and perhaps sooner than we expect.