Optimism abounds for the Houston Rockets despite finishing with the NBA’s worst record for a second straight season.
“We didn’t have the season we wanted to, but we showed glimpses of what we can be,” rookie Jalen Green said. “So, I would hope that all the fans and everyone around us has hope that we’re going to be great soon.”
The Rockets went 20-62 a year after winning just 17 games. But they’re encouraged by the improvement of a rookie class headlined by Green and the fact that they’ll have another lottery pick in this year’s draft.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing what the future holds for our whole group and having all of this improvement that our group has had come together and have it be a collective improvement,” coach Stephen Silas said.
The Rockets made the playoffs in eight straight seasons before dropping into the league’s basement last year after trading James Harden and the rest of their stars. Things weren’t any better this season as the team decided veteran John Wall wouldn’t play and shifted to full rebuilding mode with a roster that had four 19-year-olds to start the season.
Houston took Green with the second overall pick after he skipped college and spent a season in the G League. Green, who didn’t turn 20 until February, struggled to adjust to NBA competition in the first two months of the season and missed most of December with an injury.
Things started to click for him in the new year and he developed into the star of this young team down the stretch, making highlight-reel dunks in seemingly every game. Green scored 30 or more points in six of his last seven games, capped by a season-high 41 on Sunday to finish second among rookies by averaging 17.3 points a game.
Green’s performance in the season finale made him the first Houston rookie with a 40-point game since Hakeem Olajuwon’s first season in 1984-85 and made him the youngest Rocket to ever score 40 points.
“He has improved so much since Day 1,” Silas said. “He has become at this point, a primary scorer on our team. He has improved every single statistic that there is. He is playing in a way that is sustainable, I believe.”
As the season wraps up, the next big day for the Rockets is May 17 when the NBA holds its draft lottery. By finishing with the league’s worst record, Houston is guaranteed a top-five pick.
They have a 14% chance of getting the first overall selection in June’s draft. But that pick won’t be their only one in the first round with the Rockets set to receive the higher of Brooklyn or Miami’s first-round picks (top-14 protected) because of the Harden trade.
Green is far from the only young player on the team to show promise this year. Fellow rookies Josh Christopher and Alperen Sengun made important contributions, and Kevin Porter Jr., who was in his third season, also improved.
Sengun was the 16th pick in the draft and he won’t turn 20 until July, and Christopher, selected 24th, moved out of his teen years in December.
Sengun averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 points in 72 games and Christopher averaged 7.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and two assists in 74 games.
Porter finished third on the team by averaging 15.6 points a game and his 6.2 assists and 1.1 steals led the Rockets.
“That’s the whole gist of this year is development for us young guys,” Porter said. “For everyone that’s part of this organization — development, that’s been the key.”
Green agreed and said the more he played, the better he started to feel.
“I think the word I can use is comfortable,” he said. “I got confidence going through the season. My teammates helped me and off the court my family helped me.”
With an eye toward the future, the Rockets could look to move the handful of the team's veterans remaining this offseason.
Houston tried to find a suitable trade destination for Wall before the deadline this season but was unable to move him. He has a $47 million player option for 2022-23 that he will certainly exercise, and the Rockets could look for a buyout agreement if they can’t work out a trade before next season.
“I think there’s a real market for John," general manager Rafael Stone said. “I think we’ll find a deal that will work for him and for us, and if one doesn’t materialize, we’ll we’ll cross that bridge if and when it occurs. But that that is not something he’s focused on, and is not something I’m focused on."
Houston could also look to deal 14-year veteran Eric Gordon this offseason. The 33-year-old Gordon has one year left on his contract with a team option for 2023-24.
Another player that could be on the move this offseason is Christian Wood. The 26-year-old started 67 games and led the Rockets in points (17.9) and rebounds (10.1). But with one year left on his contract, he could be expendable if they believe Sengun is their future at center.