Is it finally take off in Houston?
“And when you look at how they developed in their first couple years, we have four, five guys that are on pace to it looks like be All-Stars in a few years.” An early excerpt from Houston Rockets owner Tim Fertitta during newly hired head coach Ime Udoka’s introductory press conference where he was confidently elaborating about the future outlook and direction of the team. When Fertitta watched his once-promising title window evaporate in a matter of seconds after the departure of both lengthy-tenured general manager Daryl Morey and franchise superstar James Harden he knew the road back to prominence would be a little bit of a bumpy one. After a complete overhauling of the franchise, an abundance of lottery picks, and a couple of underwhelming tanking efforts there’s finally a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel in H-Town.
On April 26th, newly hired head coach Ime Udoka was introduced. Udoka, who had just endured a tumultuous exit from Boston, was looking for a fresh, new start, and what better situation to establish a foundation with than the promising young core in Houston? “Obviously the young talent has to grow and take steps, so that’s my job to help nurture these guys but with the addition of some veterans, with the free agency we had I think it’s only natural progression. But these guys have to take steps”. Udoka explained during the early stages of his introduction.
The Rockets opened up free agency with $59.8 million dollars in cap room which was the most amongst all NBA teams entering the off-season. Two of their rumored free-agent targets; Dillon Brooks and Fred VanVleet inked max deals just days apart (Brooks: four years, $80 million, VanVleet: three years, $123 million) and are looking to use their experience and grit to help accelerate the current rebuild in Houston. Both Brooks and VanVleet are aggressive, tenacious defenders who possess the awareness and intangibles to thrive in Udoka’s schemes and coverages. Last season Frank Van Vleet averaged 19.3 points, a career-high 7.2 assists, and shot 34% from the three-point line for a disappointing Toronto Raptors team that was eliminated in the play-in tournament by the Chicago Bulls. Dillon Brooks was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2022-23 as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. Brooks only trailed first-team nods Alex Caruso of the Chicago Bulls and Jrue Holiday of the Milwaukee Bucks. Brooks reached prestigious heights on the defensive end with his protruding physicality and fearless trash talk regardless of the opponent. It’s gotten to the point that his soundbites and fueling skirmishes have blinded the masses from his overall defensive reputation. Brooks is today’s ideal 3-D prototype at the guard position. His underrated physique and ability to switch seamlessly from quick ball-dominant guards to three-level scoring wings while making life harder with his brashness is what warranted his value in the free agency market. Brooks hasn’t been by many measures a solid three-point shooter, posting sub 33% 3P shooting campaigns each of the past two seasons but isn’t someone you’d like to leave open from beyond the arc either. In addition, both Brooks and VanVleet ranked in the bottom third in efficiency amongst volume jump shooters a season ago (min. 360 FGA). Nick Nurse’s former troops have been a slower, methodical offense since the departure of Kawhi Leonard back in the summer of 2019. The “elite” go to star scorer void that Leonard left in his rearview has been one of the hurdles Nurse and co. have tried to overcome the past couple of seasons.
Regardless of your opinion of VanVleet’s former teammate, All-Star swingman Pascal Siakam, and where he stands amongst the NBA’s prominent scorers the Toronto Raptors offense has still at various points been fairly stagnant even ranking fifth worst in pace. The Raptors have been mostly wing-dependent with very limited point guard play/depth outside of Van Vleet, who was amongst the league leaders in pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions last season. The Raptors also ranked 28th in the NBA in three-point percentage with VanVleet shooting over almost half his field goal attempts from three. Listed at 6 ‘1 and despite generous measures, it’s quite a tall task for an undersized point guard to consistently generate quality shots, especially with a subsistence of minimal spacing around him nor an inside-out big to help create quicker avenues into those gaps and spaces. In Houston, Van Vleet won’t be as depended on to carry playmaking burdens as he’ll share the volume with Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Amen Thompson, and even big man Alpren Sengun. Dillon Brooks may not seek the same FGA/game as he enjoyed early on in Memphis but will likely be suited to thrive in a more defined volume catch-and-shoot role amongst the regulars. Similar to former Rockets 3-D star role wings Shane Battier and Metta World Peace. Both Battier and World Peace were core pieces of those late 2000s Rockets teams led by Tracy Mcgrady and Yao Ming. They both exemplified the combination of fundamental defense and physicality while spacing the floor with their respectable three-point shooting. That specific role may be the exact calling for Brooks himself on this Rockets team. Fred VanVleet, an NBA Champion in 2019 has made 52 career playoff appearances and brings veteran leadership to a young locker room that will need leadership not only on the sidelines but on the court as well. VanVleet gives the Rockets another proven ball-handler who can run Udoka’s offense and generate easier shots for everyone.
Franchise cornerstone shooting guard Jalen Green had a very encouraging sophomore year and has continued to showcase why he was a top lottery pick. The Fresno, California native saw his averages boost in year two with new career highs in points per game (22.1), field goals made per game (7.4), free throws made per game (4.8), rebounds per game (3.7), and assists per game (3.7). The Houston Rockets the past three seasons have been at the bottom barrel of league standings under Stephen Silas who was hired back in the off-season of 2020 under the circumstances he would be establishing a culture with future first-ballots James Harden and Russell Westbrook. When their plans shifted to playing elsewhere Silas unexpectedly found himself at the helm of the early stages of a rebuild. After going 17-55 in Silas’ inaugural campaign the Rockets used both of their 2021 first-round draft picks on Jalen Green and Turkish big man Alpren Sengun, who are now the nucleus of a very young, talented Houston Rockets core.
“I was glad he [Jalen Green] was there .. hopefully down the road will be considered for something as it relates to the men’s national team. A couple of words from NBA Hall of Famer and USA Basketball director Grant Hill after Green showed some major flashes at USA minicamp as one of the headlining USA select team players during scrimmages against the current FIBA World Cup roster. “There were situations where you saw his gifts and his talents. It was very impressive.” Even with all the potential and talent under Ime Udoka, the Houston Rockets will only go as far as their star shooting guard can take them. The NBA learning curve on the offensive end for the most part is always constituted by pace, shot selection, and floor awareness. Green is very well capable of blossoming into an elite three-level scorer with his quick first step and explosive leaping ability. Through his first two seasons, Jalen Green has already earned the right as Houston’s unquestioned go-to scorer. Last season amongst all players that posted at least 150 isolation possessions Green averaged more points per possession (0.94) than the likes of Paul George, Devin Booker, and Ja Morant just to take into perspective Green’s potential ceiling as a lethal scorer. Green’s relentless aggression off the dribble is probably his greatest gift and it has already earned him a valuable whistle across the league. Last season Jalen Green attempted 463 free throw attempts. That mark was higher than fellow two guards; Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Anthony Edwards, and Jaylen Brown. Green’s first step and dynamic shot creation go hand in hand as he ranked eighth in the NBA in total drives at the rim. Everyone in the association knows Green is already a terror to stay in front of one-on-one. Once Green further adjusts to the NBA pace and knows when to exert his nuclear athleticism the game will slow down even more and we’ll start to see more flashes of the superstar he’s ascending to be.
Though listed as a shooting guard, Green was third in the NBA in pick and rolls ran as the primary ball handler. The former G-League Ignite star possesses some solid point guard qualities that reassure you he’s evolving into a well-rounded offensive player going into his third year.“We talked about him playing point for a little bit and his ability to designate and initiate the offense as well as moving without the basketball. I think he was really focused on that. Challenging him to sit down and guard defensively and he embraced that. It was good to see.” USA Select Team coach Jamahl Mosley told the Athletic’s Kelly Iko when giving his take on Jalen Green at USA minicamp as well in Las Vegas earlier this summer. Outside of Jalen Green and fellow combo guard Kevin Porter Jr. the entire Houston Rockets offense has been for the most part handicapped the past couple of seasons, leaning heavily on the shot penetration of their backcourt to keep up with their opponents. Last season the Houston Rockets posted an offensive rating of 110.8, which was fourth worst in the association. Green’s biggest hurdle going forward will be how to raise the floor for others and make them better from game to game. It’s not an equation many solve early on in their careers let alone ever but it’s the ultimate challenge for every franchise star and Ime Udoka will very much challenge Green the same way he challenged his former young franchise stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Udoka’s competitive philosophies and experience are exactly what the Houston Rocket organization desperately needed and his hiring might change the media discourse that’s labeled Green an “empty stats” player thus far in his brief career. Not only should we expect some progress from this current core but also the addition of young assets in the backcourt and on the wing should without a doubt make them one of the most intriguing teams in the league for years to come.
Not only will the addition of Fred VanVleet help alleviate some of the constant on-ball dependency on Jalen Green to be the main source of offense but also the Rockets’ lottery pick Amen Thompson. Thompson was taken with the fourth overall pick out of Overtime Elite. Standing at 6’7, 214 lbs Thompson is one of the rarest frames at the point guard position in his class. A multi-tool floor general who can score, pass, rebound, and defend at a high level amongst his peers, Thompson will have plenty of eyes on him after some strong performances in the Las Vegas G-League. For the City Reapers of Overtime Elite, Thompson averaged 16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.9 assists on 56.6% shooting from the floor. Thompson also was fairly active on the defensive end swiping 2.3 steals a game as well. The next step for Thompson is continuing to grow as a floor general and commanding the defense to respect his outside shot, especially in half-court sets once he adjusts to the tempo the NBA offers. The only question surrounding Amen Thompson entering the draft was the level of competition at Overtime Elite and if it was high enough to ensure he’s an everyday NBA player. Turns out it didn’t matter because he was that good.
Overtime Elite is indeed a professional league made up of mostly talented adolescents still figuring out their basketball destinies. The tricky part is gauging how some of these particular prospects measure up to the prospects that often go the traditional route and attend a four-year institution or even those that pursue overseas opportunities. The major difference is the foundation and infrastructure a head coach offers at a college or university. College coaches have always had the advantage in terms of rapport with the NBA since before time with some even having previous experience playing and/or coaching at that level. Surely you’re going to trust their intel over a third party. Despite the potential talent at Overtime, there is a certain level of structure that college and professional coaches overseas provide for their young players that helps a player’s transition to the NBA. Now Amen Thompson may very well possess the talent to have a perennial All-Star type of career but will he be a good locker room guy? Will he be capable of handling constructive criticism from the media? Is he coachable? Does he keep the right crowd around him? During pre-draft interviews, those are some of the questions front offices are usually asking themselves during these evaluations. That’s really the only risk at hand when contemplating the selection of a prospect outside of the traditional NCAA-NBA pathway evaluation process because there’s a trust factor that’s not as present as the strong connection with the NBA. Even if the prospect has a reported “bad character” or “off-the-court issues” the talent may be too overwhelming for a front office to pass on depending on the depth at the position in the draft class. Specifically with Amen Thompson, the extra baggage doesn’t apply to him and he’s already validated himself as a legit piece in Houston for time to come. The selection of Amen gives the Rockets one of the deepest rooms of guards in the NBA with a healthy balance of shotmaking, playmaking, defending, youth, and experience.
Kevin Porter Jr. very quietly had a career 2022-23 as the de facto starting point guard for the Rockets. Still only 23 years old, Porter Jr. averaged 19.2 points (career high) and 5.7 assists a night on 44% shooting from the floor and 36% from the three. After a desperate search for someone to take over play-calling duties after an abrupt James Harden exit and a rehabilitating John Wall, Porter Jr. was thrust into the primary playmaker role and was fairly solid given the sample size and prior experience. Last season Porter Jr. ran exactly 500 pick and rolls as the primary ball handler in the midst of the your turn, my turn-themed offense under Stephen Silas. Similar to Green, Porter Jr. possesses some solid point guard traits and will be a vital piece most likely as a volume microwave scorer/playmaking contributor off the bench very much like the former great 6th man lefty James Harden made famous during his brief stint in Oklahoma City.
For Porter Jr.’s services, the Rockets have him on a decent bargain of a deal going forward. In October of last year, the Rockets signed the former USC Trojan standout to a four-year/$82.5 million-dollar deal through 2027. Due to a questionable past of off-court behavior prior, the Rockets included trigger dates that would give the Rockets leeway to release him at any point from here on out without having to fulfill the rest of his deal. This also gives Porter Jr. a chance to further validate himself as a core piece of the Houston Rockets’ foreseeable future. “You know in my six years of having this basketball team there’s no player that I’ve enjoyed more talking off the court even during the games than Kevin Porter right there. I just want y’all to know that because I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.” A shout-out by Fertitta concluded Udoka’s opening presser praising Porter Jr. for his heartwarming professionalism since he arrived in Houston. Small gestures like attending the newly hired coaches’ press conference may not be something that is quantitative on a stat sheet but bring a strong sense of unity to an organization that wants to build something special. Because of the value-friendly contract, if there’s any circumstance where Porter Jr. shockingly becomes disgruntled with his touches, shots, or role due to the abundance of Rockets guards, he’d be an attractive trade asset. KPJ’s turnover rate amongst all players that ran at least 500 pick and rolls as the primary ball handler was 2nd highest to Detroit Pistons’ then-rookie Jaden Ivey. Now for a team that had to deliberately lean on their two young guards to provide consistent offense without any significant floor spacers or bigs the entirety of an 82-game season with a young coach, defenses are going to have an easier task keying in on along the perimeter. Inevitably there was bound to be growing pains. If Porter Jr. can evolve into a slightly less turnover-prone playmaker off the bench who can create shots consistently versus starters/second units then his value will see an immense boost. There’s without a doubt a pathway for Kevin Porter Jr. to do so and thrive in a Udoka system and build upon the unquestionable talent we all know that he has.
The Houston Rockets last season were one of the best rebounding teams, ranking fourth best in the league. Frontcourt regulars Alpren Sengun and Jabari Smith Jr. handled the majority of the glass cleaning for the Rockets and will be key contributors to the Rockets this season. “I think they need to play a little bit through him, This guy has the talent. He can pass the ball. He can post up. He has the touch around the rim. You can see some different moves that he’s made.” Quoted after a matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets in late November of last year, global superstar and this past year’s NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic expressed vast approval of center Alpren Sengun. Sengun progressed in basically every statistical category in year two and is one of the more skilled and polished bigs in the game already entering his third season. Sengun isn’t a player who commands the ball possession to possession when it’s in his hands but is someone who can affect the game in different ways with just his presence alone. It’ll be interesting to see how Udoka incorporates his very own sets for Sengun and surplus of combo guards as well as how much space will be created in the lane off of DHOs (dribble handoffs) and pick and rolls. Forward Jabari Smith Jr. is most likely going to play a similar role to Dillon Brooks as the up-and-down Swiss army knife 3-D wing that can play and guard multiple positions. Smith Jr. is in such a prime position only at 20 years old. Smith Jr. led the NBA Summer League in scoring in just a few games played and has shown nonetheless that he’s geared for the anticipated leap for this Rockets team. Dillon Brooks and Ime Udoka will be great influences on his two-way ceiling. If he takes an even step further as a spot-up shooter (Shot 29.4 3PA% on 316 Catch and Shoot 3PAs in 2022-23) the Rockets won’t be a team you want to deal with a couple of years from now. Forward Cam Whitmore was taken with the 20th pick in this year’s draft and strung together some impressive performances in the NBA Las Vegas Summer League on his way to winning MVP. Whitmore’s a 6 ‘7 power-driven wing that can get to the rim at ease and is almost always on the go. Another intriguing project under Udoka’s supervision, Whitmore is very well capable of becoming a solid 2-way wing right next to Jabari Smith Jr. Also just like Smith Jr., Whitmore will continue to work on his perimeter jumper so he can soon be a part of the up and rising foundation in Houston. Second-year forward Tari Eason was one of the most unsung young players in the league last season. Eason is another inside-out forward that’ll complement the rest of this roster in a huge way. Because of the similar age timeline, Eason will easily be a formidable plug-in wing for Udoka to utilize this season.
If someone told me that after the 2022 NBA Finals concluded that Ime Udoka was going to get suspended by the Boston Celtics, let go and never coach them again, I’d probably call you delusional. If you then continued to tell me that he’d find himself in an even more ideal situation as the head coach for the Houston Rockets I’d tell you to probably go see a doctor. Shockingly yet, with all the talent in the world at his disposal, all of these things may turn out to be just that.
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