After the Denver Nuggets championship parade, it will be the Rockets time to shine. The Houston Rockets’ ‘Light the fuse” mantra has encapsulated their offseason machinations since Jalen Green’s bold IG Live set the tone for the summer by vowing to reach the postseason in 2024. That’s easier said than done for a squad that was last in nearly every offensive and defensive metric. The Rockets tanked the season without actually trying to tank and only came away with the fourth pick in a three-player draft. There was no resting on their laurels.
Coupled with their inauspicious draft lottery fortunes, general manager Rafael Stone has been the patriarch of the NBA’s most ambitious offseason move and shaker. In contrast to the organically grown champions of recent, the Rockets have been hell-bent on infusing their whippersnappers with a blend of veteran mercenary talent to usher them into the future. Stone lit the fuse by scooping Ime Udoka off the unemployment line, but their hopes, and dreams reside in the free agency market where the NBA’s thirstiest offseason team is expected to throw their weight around.
For months, reports have circulated that reciprocal interest was brewing between the Rockets and James Harden. If true, it would mean the last two years have wiped away the memories of his pitiful effort to bait the Rockets to trade him before the deadline.
If the Rockets can’t pull off basketball’s Bennifer reboot with Harden though, their backup dalliance relies on putting all their chips in on Kyrie Irving. Buoyed by a league-high $59 million in cap space and extensions to dole out, the Rockets are getting reckless in their impatient attempt to accelerate their rebuild. In his latest Substack newsletter, Marc Stein identified the Rockets as a sleeper team with interest in Irving; they’re unsuccessful in reuniting with Harden this summer.
“I have also heard that the Rockets, in the event that they are unable to lure Harden away from Philadelphia, and back to Houston, plan to weigh a run at Dallas’ Kyrie Irving. The Mavericks remain the league’s only known team with definitive interest in signing the mercurial Irving next month, but league sources say that the Rockets have been increasingly cited as a team that could (stress: could) join the bidding if Harden elects to stay with the 76ers.”
Historically, Irving’s version of lighting the fuse is the antithesis of what the Rockets aspire to. In each of his last three stops from Boston to Brooklyn and Dallas, he’s detonated a dead man’s switch and left a demolition site in his wake.
Houston is especially vulnerable to Irving’s self-sabotage. If Irving left a mushroom cloud in Houston, their roster of lottery stars may not be able to survive the fallout. Jalen Green, their second overall pick in 2021 has been a vexing player. It’s not a coincidence that Amen Thompson, the player Houston is projected to take with their fourth overall pick, is a clone of Green. Green’s inability to create for others and a penchant for poor shot selection was emblematic of the discord on and off the court in Houston. Jabari Smith never entered the Rookie of the Year conversation. Everyone is expendable on the Rockets for the right price.
Udoka was tasked with cooking the Rockets’ raw sushi bar of talent as efficiently as he did in Boston. The Rockets core is years away from reaching the 2022 Celtics’ level of maturity, but Udoka will have an early start molding this group. Pursuing point guards is understandable. Houston’s attempts to turn Kevin Porter Jr. into a full-time lead guard has produced mixed results. It turns out, being the steward of an offense isn’t as easy as casually running a dozen sloppy pick and rolls and taking 20 YOLO shots a night.
This team should be constructed around the unique skills of Alperen Şengün. Şengün is one of a handful of Jokic carbon copies who are the next generation of slick passing big men. It goes without saying that Jokic is the pièce de résistance from this emerging archetype, but within the Rockets nucleus, Şengün is the best they’ve got.
Irving has his own gravity field. Much of it is occupied by debris and distractions. If not him, then who? The Rockets have been connected to Jaylen Brown, but he doesn’t offer as much of an upside, and is a questionable playmaker. Tinkering around the edges with a gritty low-risk, high-reward player is the savvy route for Houston to take. Hawks point guard Dejounte Murray could be available for the price of a No. 4 pick. Stone may also be capable of talking his way into John Collins’ contract, but Murray would be the centerpiece of any deal.
There’s more than one way to flesh a roster out. Signing a veteran locker room leader who plays winning basketball and won’t infuse their young players with bad habits is a start. Harden, while being three years older than Irving, is still the lesser of two evils. His decade-long stint with the Rockets ended with him moping around the court, but the highs vastly outweighed the low moments.
Harden’s effort will evaporate at the worst possible moments, but he is much more open to tough coaching than Irving. Harden is a pro at having responsible fun, but his weight gain has robbed him of the closing quickness. Unlike Irving, he’s also evolved into a pass-first creator, an area Houston is sorely lacking in after accumulating the league’s worst assist-to-turnover ratio and 31st-ranked assist percentage.
The Knicks kickstarted their renaissance by snatching Jalen Brunson away from the Dallas Mavericks. His reliability and instincts revitalized the Knicks. Try counting on stability from Irving. A backcourt consisting of Irving-KPJ-Green doesn’t even make this a viable playoff team. Instead of swinging for the fences with every free agency, heady franchises take the wise approach. The Rockets’ prescription should be to follow Oklahoma City’s ascent.
Sam Presti’s Thunder rebuild has thrived by surrounding Shai-Gilgeous Alexander with corresponding talents who play off his strengths. Josh Giddey is a natural distributor which allows SGA to lock in as a scorer. Jalen Williams is the long-armed floor stretcher who can guard four positions and balances the floor. Chet Holmgren is destined to unlock their defense.
The Houston Rockets rebuild is turning into a sprint to 2024 instead of a marathon. H-Town better hope they don’t overexert themselves too soon during the opening stretch.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex