Though the Rockets are in the early stages of a promising rebuild, they could still benefit from a productive summer. From the upcoming draft to free hand to advance planning, it’s all about getting back on the road to success one day.
The Athletics Senior NBA Analyst John Hollinger and Rockets Beat Writer Kelly Iko discussed Houston’s summer from every angle.
(Editor’s note: The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Iko: John, with the recent discourse surrounding the No. 3 pick and which player from “Stage 1” of Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith will be available for Houston, we assume the Rockets are just going to should belong to the best player available, right? Now do we know who that is? Has the combine done anything to support or violate these decisions, and is there an alternative that isn’t one of these three?
Hollinger: The only conceivable alternative aside from these three is Purdue guard Jaden Ivey, who I don’t think would be a top pick in Houston due to his positional overlap with Jalen Green. So, it’s Paolo, Chet or Jabari.
Where Ivey might make things interesting is if Oklahoma City takes him second; it would give the Rockets the ability to choose between two of the three players above. Otherwise, it’s an easy night for the Rockets in many ways. Orlando and Oklahoma City will take two of those three players off the board, and Houston will draft the remaining one. No matter what, he’s a frontcourt player, so Houston’s other plans don’t depend as much on how the pick goes.
As for the NBA Draft Combine, one of the truisms of the last few years is that big lottery winners don’t even bother with it. The respective agents for these three players will put together workouts and medical info at their discretion among the top three teams, so the Rockets will need to work with them to get all of their ducks lined up before draft night. The only thing that seems to come out of the combine is a thought that if Smith and Holmgren are the top two picks, Banchero could be the guy in 3rd place.
Iko: Let’s just assume Banchero is her type at #3. I know Houston is in Best Available Player mode right now, but is he the best fit? I guess I’m coming from more of a backcourt-frontcourt synergy. We’ve only seen one season from Jalen Green in this rebuild, but you should start faintly sketching what this team hopes to look like in the near future. That starts with complementary plays, and Banchero is that — a 6-foot-10, playmaker, three-tier goalscorer.
But now let’s look at the other side of the coin. Do you see this working? What about the other frontcourt options on the list? Jae’Sean Tate plays the same position and Christian Wood is the same size, albeit with different skill sets. In theory, could Banchero play alongside such names, as could Alperen Şengün?
Hollinger: When it comes to “works,” the Rockets need to think long term rather than short term here. They lost 62 games last year so they are unlikely to turn this side into contenders right away. The best thing a team can do in their situation is to let things slide for a bit before committing themselves one way or the other. See how Banchero looks alongside Wood and Şengün, see where Tate fits into the mix (though he’s almost certainly not a starter on a playoff-caliber team), then figure out who should stay and who should carry on .
From what I can expect, I think Banchero is a natural foursome who would only play the five in some extreme small ball settings. It is not very long and is not a natural rim protection. Since he, Wood and Şengün all have some perimeter skills, I think the frontcourt pairings would probably work on offense. Things get more questionable on defense as Şengün and Wood are both suspects at the moment and Banchero is also seen as more of an offensive player.
Iko: You mentioned thinking long-term, and I recently wrote about Christian Wood, his looming agency and uncertainty about his future in a Rockets uniform. What is your attitude towards him as part of this group? Is he still young enough to fit into their current timeline? I used the NBA age/actual age analogy, basically considering his 222 career games played as comparable to a three or four year old player.
If you think he’s better served elsewhere, what are some good landing spots? One crazy idea I had was trying to envision the framework of a Wood/Eric Gordon pack for Toronto’s OG Anunoby, but there are more realistic options (Charlotte for example).
Have you also gotten to the point where you can write off Wood’s time just because of Şengün’s presence? Is it too early in the rebuild to make such a call? Are you part of the #SengunSquad?
Hollinger: I’m a founding member of #SengunSquad, but I don’t think that necessarily compels the Rockets to do anything with Wood. Just because I’m a fan doesn’t mean that Şengün has proven to be a perennial favorite. Let’s go before we run here.
More importantly, being the third big on a mid-teens contract, Wood isn’t exactly a crazy proposition, especially when he’s willing to stay in Houston and renew his contract.
The problem with Wood instead is that his contract is about to expire, so it’s up to the Rockets to determine his market value and their own alternative ways to fill his niche beforehand. When a team like Charlotte is ready to cough up a decent first-round pick, the Rockets are probably better off giving it its wings. Houston will have ample leeway once his contract comes off the books after this season to sign a potential replacement.
The alternative strategy is to extend Wood’s contract, which would limit the 2023 cap space but not enough to take meaningful opportunities off the board; In fact, he would be the team’s highest-paid player and the only one to make more than $10 million (assuming the rockets go down to guarantee Gordon’s $20.9 million).
The overriding key is not letting Wood walk out the door this summer without receiving anything in return. In the absence of an overtime or a bowl-you-over trade, it’s possible Houston could play this through to the close if injuries in other rosters could cause need and the Rockets had a better idea of Şengün’s trajectory.
Iko: You’re right: Wood’s free hand is something the Rockets need to get right no matter what the outcome.
Besides that, how aggressive should they be with their available midlevel exception? This team has needs across the board, but it looks like 2023 is the time to pounce. Could they take a similar approach to last summer and bring in a veteran (Daniel Theis) and turn him around by next season’s deadline?
Alternatively, what do they do with their own freelance prospective agents? Dennis Schröder is likely gone, Tate and Kevin Porter Jr. are eligible for extensions, and the John Wall situation is still pretty expensive.
Hollinger: I think one lesson I learned from last year is that if they add a mid-level veteran, it can’t be a four-year deal. That nearly flew in their faces when Theis struggled last year, and Boston’s familiarity with him and the general desperation for depth were the only things that saved her.
That being said, I see no reason why they couldn’t bring someone on a shorter deal to shore up some key positions, particularly at backup point guard. Even a deal going into next year won’t functionally impact Houston’s cap space (they’ll have about $70 million in space, give or take depending on where their first-round picks and Milwaukee’s fall).
As for their own free agents, I don’t think this is going to be a complicated summer for Houston. Tate’s low cap next summer favors Houston, who is waiting before signing a new deal. Wall does appear to be headed for some sort of buyout, of course, but the agreed number is unlikely to carry over into the rest of the offseason. Houston is above cap but more than $20 million off tax line; It’s hard to imagine scenarios where Wall’s buyout extends beyond its impact on Tilman Fertitta’s checkbook.
Porter will be a restricted free agent next summer, but this is one the Rockets definitely want to play. As promising as he has shown in a flash over the past two years, tales of the difficulties of dealing with him off the pitch have spread around the league. I think the Rockets need a little more confidence that this is someone they want to move on with before committing.
Iko: I wanted to raise another important design point: #17. This class has a lot of talent that couldn’t be in the lottery, and with a second first-round player, the Rockets should try again to bring in the best players available.
The combine hasn’t done much to set some of these names apart, but there are a number of guys that might be interesting: Malaki Branham, Tari Eason, and my sleeper MarJon Beauchamp, to name a few. Jalen Williams is another fast climber. Who has impressed you lately, be it Pro Days, Interviews, Tape etc.?
Hollinger: Most of the players Houston will be considering at 17 haven’t taken the field at the combine, but Williams is the exception. He’s definitely the hot name right now after a strong performance on court at the combine, having already fascinated teams with his strong analytical and size profile. He mostly played point guard in college, but he’s a huge guard and probably plays the wing at the pro level. His feet can be a little heavy on defense at times, but he has size, shooting power and ball handling. He made a few moves against Holmgren, particularly where he put him on skates. This type of multi-position, multi-talented player tends to find their way onto the court, although the upside may not be as exciting as some other one-and-done players.
Another player the Rockets should take a closer look at is Kentucky point guard TyTy Washington Jr. He had a very strong first half of the season before injuries held him back late in the year, but looking back on his work as a freshman with the SEC, he had a really good season. It’s not a great draft for point guards, but Houston could use another one in the pipeline. It’s also big enough to play the ball when needed. Washington didn’t play in the combine.
Finally, the Rockets could use some real rim protection and may need to keep a very long eye on Duke’s Mark Williams if he drops to 17. However, I suspect Charlotte, who relies on the middle, has his eye on him with the 13th pick.
(Photo by Paolo Banchero)