THE PALLILOG

Examining Rockets draft night heist: it’s time to recalibrate your expectations

The Rockets got a steal at No. 3 overall. Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images.

With the Astros absorbing their worst loss of the season Thursday night at the Yankees, here's to the Rockets! Wait, what? It's only educated guess work, but in landing Jabari Smith out of Auburn the Rockets had a spectacular night. Heaven knows they have had very few of those the last two years. After having to settle for the third pick in the NBA Draft despite being the worst team in the league again, in Smith the Rockets got the best player in the Draft. Of course Smith could be an epic flop, it’s very inexact science. But Orlando taking Paolo Banchero from Duke first then Oklahoma City selecting Gonzaga beanpole Chet Holmgren second left the "surest thing" two-way player on the board. Through most of the run-up to the draft the six-foot-10 inch Banchero was most commonly projected to the Rockets. It's not as if he would have been a bad choice as a player. Banchero certainly could turn out to be the best player in this draft class. But his game is skewed toward his offensive skills, his fit in Houston would have been quite questionable. The also 6-10 Smith has shown the vastly better outside shooting ability, and is indisputably more athletic and better equipped to defend at a higher level and with more versatility. Jabari Smith is not going to be Kevin Durant or Kevin Garnett. Let's at least call it extreeeeemely unlikely given very few in the history of the planet come close to those guys, still, envisioning Smith providing some KD and KG level moments on both ends of the floor is pretty, pretty, pretty good.

The Rockets' defense was an absolute joke last season. Little to no improvement was shown as the death march of 2021-22 dragged on and on and on to its 20-62 finish. Frankly if Head Coach Stephen Silas can't demand/develop vastly improved D this coming season he'll deserve and need to be fired. The Rockets love Alperen Sengun, and his rookie season offense showed both flair and promise. Defensively he was one of many parts of the joke. Just 20 years old late next month so some improvement should come, but Sengun is slow. Quick twitch muscles, slow. Lateral movement, slow. He’s not long, not a leaper, not thick. Sengun will be hard-pressed to become an average defender. In today's game he's the kind of big who quality small-ball opponents play off the court. Banchero would have been a lousy defensive pairing with Sengun. Smith-Sengun has a chance. Smith as a small-ball center has potential. Christian Wood was a dog, not in a good way. Smith’s character grades are very high.

The seven-foot 194 pound Holmgren has a fascinating array of skills. He could be Rudy Gobert defensively with way better offense, or a skinny guy who can’t hack it physically. Had the Thunder taken Smith at two, Holmgren to the Rockets would have been interesting. Getting Smith to pair with Jalen Green as the tent poles of the Rockets’ still long way to go reconstruction is more encouraging. With due respect to all the other first round picks added in 2021 and 2022, what Green and Smith become individually and as a tandem is what will foremost determine how long the Rockets remain horrible. It could go pretty well for the duo and the Rockets could still be awful for multiple more years. A third consecutive losing season is virtual certainty. By the end of it though at least a few meaningful rays of light at the end of the tunnel need to be peeking through.

As for the other two first rounders added Thursday night, both are interesting darts at the board. Tari Eason out of LSU brings defensive chops and size (six-foot-eight) for his position, a combo that exactly zero returning Rockets have. Jae’Sean Tate plays really hard, but he’s a six-four forward. All their Josh Christophers, Garrison Matthewses, Kenyon Martin Jrs., and David Nwabas add up to very little.

No one smart really believes in Kevin Porter Jr. as a long term winning point guard growth stock. TyTy Washington should get some rookie run at the point. He’s the only non-worthless to the team ex-Kentucky point guard on the Rockets’ roster. Yes, John Wall and his 47.3 million dollar salary are still on the roster.

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DeMeco Ryans feels like the perfect fit. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.

There’s one big difference between the Houston Texans and the Canadian Mounties.

The Mounties always get their man. The Texans not so much. That’s how second and third (and desperation) choices like David Culley, who never even was a coordinator in his nearly 30-year NFL career, and Lovie Smith, whose top credential for the job was being in the building, got to be Texans head coaches the past two years. Both of whom were one and done – summarily fired after disheartening, aimless seasons.

But that all changes with the imminent hiring of 38-year-old DeMeco Ryans as Texans head coach. An announcement could come any moment.

With one bold stroke, the Texans will be cleaning up a mess that took years to fester. Ryans is the perfect candidate for the job. He was drafted out of Alabama by the Texans in 2006 and became Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro linebacker. He played six years in Houston when, lest we forget, the Texans developed into a winning team bound for the playoffs.

After retiring in 2017, Ryans became a successful coach with the San Francisco 49ers, rising quickly from defensive quality control to inside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator the past two seasons. This year, the 49ers had the stingiest defense in the league with the fewest points and yards allowed. They allowed their opponents to score on less than 25 percent of their drives – far and away the best performance in the NFL.

The Texans want Ryans and Ryans, who was the hottest head coach candidate on several teams’ wish list, wants the Texans. He’s reportedly said no thanks to the Denver Broncos, a team which appears to have a faster track to rebuilding than the Texans. Contrary to Thomas Wolfe’s classic novel, Ryans believes that you can go home again.

Ryans will accomplish some immediate fixes for the Texans – like bringing respectability to the franchise and soothing wounds with the fan base. The team desperately needs a kick in its image. As recently as five years ago, the Texans were selling out every home game at NRG Stadium with tens of thousands of home-viewing fans wishin’ and hopin’ to buy season tickets.

Then came Bill O’Brien, criminally one-sided trades (in the wrong direction), a divisive and unpopular executive with the owner’s ear, the Deshaun Watson scandal, two head coaches plucked off the scrap heap, and losing … lots and lots of losing. The Texans finished their recent season with three wins and the undisputed crown of most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL.

The jewel of that damning crown was winning a game they needed to lose to guarantee the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft. You’d think that losing would be the easiest thing for the Texans. It’s sort of become their thing.

Not only did they win, they did it the hard way, by going for two in the last minute of their last game and winning by a single point. By winning they forfeited their unobstructed and worry-free path to drafting the quarterback of their choosing. Who thinks to do that? Now they have to wait to see what the Chicago Bears will do with the No. 1 pick.

Ryans will require time, probably a few years at least, to restore the Texans to the ranks of playoff contenders. In blunt terms, the Texans currently stink. They won three games in 2022 after back-to-back four-win seasons. On defense, they were 27th in points allowed. They were 31st in rushing yards allowed. On offense, 31st in yards per game, 31st in rushing, and 31st in third down conversions. There’s only 32 teams in the NFL.

Of course you can cherry pick stats to make a team look good or bad. With the Texans, they’re all bad.

Their returning starting quarterback won’t be starting next season. That’s the plan, anyway. The Texans are expected to draft quarterbacks Bryce Young of Alabama, C.J. Stroud of Ohio State or Will Levis of Kentucky with their No. 2 pick. The Texans may sign a free agent veteran signal caller or trade for one.

And start from scratch. Again. At least this time with a coach that brings hope back to Houston.

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