Rockets offseason outlook

Improving this team won't be easy, but they'll still be hard to beat

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Last Friday the Rockets had their chance.

There was blood in the water, and Houston whiffed.

The Golden State Warriors were up 3 games to 2 on the Rockets, but lost their star forward Kevin Durant in the process. Seemingly wounded, the Warriors arrived on the Rockets home court as 7.5 point dogs. Houston was healthy, Houston was motivated.

Houston was eliminated.

Now, instead of forcing a game seven and potentially discussing matchups and strategy for a Western Conference Final round against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, we're left discussing one topic:

What now?

As heartbreaking as last season's game 7 loss was, Rockets fans could at least console themselves with the fact that they had gone down swinging with their second best player sidelined with a hamstring injury. They weren't healthy. They had a historically fluky shooting slump. Rockets fans had valid excuses.

This year they don't. This year everyone was healthy. This year they shot 17-39 from 3-point range. No James Harden slump, no Chris Paul clunker. This year they just weren't good enough.

Houston now finds itself in an unenviable predicament. Paul still has three years left on his deal roughly $40M/yr deal and, while still good, his game play took a drastic step back this season compared to 2017-2018. Between Paul, Harden, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon the Rockets have zero cap space to work with.

Once again the Rockets will watch difference makers leave. It will be hard to imagine guys like Austin Rivers, and Kenneth Faried returning. They were signed after they were bought out midseason, so playing with the Rockets was essentially a showcase for their next team. Bench guys like Gerald Green, Iman Shumpert, and Danuel House could likely be headed out as well.

Chris Paul is 34. Defensive star P.J. Tucker is 34. Nene is 36, with no guarantee of returning. Eric Gordon is 31, and Harden will be 30 when next season tips off. There is an understandable sense of urgency, but there are no clear ways to improve.

Trading will be difficult. Houston has no draft picks this off-season and the only tradable assets are Gordon, Capela, and Tucker. Tucker and Capela are most likely untouchable, but without any draft picks to dangle next to Gordon, you won't see him being traded for an upgrade.

In short, Houston's chances at improvement this offseason don't look great. But with their starting 5 locked up, their chances of being worse are fairly small.

General Manager Daryl Morey has made a habit the past few years of keeping his core guys and slapping the bondo equivalent of journeyman players on the bench to soak up regular season minutes. They're usually redemption projects that fit Houston's unique system, signed for veteran minimum contracts or scooped midseason like this past one off the buyout market. It's a very hit or miss tactic though. Sometimes you get a Luc Mbah A Moute, and sometimes you get a Michael Carter-Williams.

As it stands, if the Rockets go that route and simply fill in the inevitable bench holes, they will still be a great team. Will they be better than this year's? It's difficult to think so, but they will still be competitive.

In order to improve beyond being this generation's Knicks to Bulls-esque Warriors, the Rockets have shown that they need to improve. That task seems incredibly difficult to pull off given the Rockets' financial constraints and lack movable assets, but if there's a GM out there that can find a way, Morey is certainly among them. Until then, Houston fans will have to be something they've become frustratingly accustomed to:

Patient.

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The Rockets selected Jalen Green with the No. 2 pick. Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images.

The city of Houston can finally rejoice as Jalen Green was selected as the number two pick by the Rockets at the 2021 NBA Draft. It was already suspected that the Rockets would draft Green from past reports. Shams Charania of The Athletic already reported that the Rockets narrowed their decision down to Green.

Green is an explosive shooting guard that can get in-and-out amongst the perimeter and paint. With the G-League Ignite, he averaged 17.9 points, 2.8 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. He is an excellent free throw shooter at 82.9 percent. Like James Harden, he is incredibly good at getting to the free throw line. Green has a good trigger from three by shooting 36.5 percent on 5.7 attempts a game. His mature status since high school has prepared him for the NBA.

"His down-hill playmaking is really hard to guard", as Joey Fucca, his ex-coach told TDS. "If he says he's going to get to the rim, good luck. He is very good at getting to the free throw line, he is also very explosive to finish above the rim. When his three ball is on, you're just going to have a long night. I wouldn't be excited to guard him."

Green has blistering speed with outstanding handles to blow by his defenders and score. Spectators have compared Green to a younger Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Bradley Beal, and Zach Lavine, which are superstar players. He is a particularly good midrange shooter underneath the perimeter, as he shot 35 percent on a small quantity of attempts in a shorter season.

"Jalen is a uniquely blessed guy. He's a transcendent athlete," as Rockets GM Rafael Stone said. "He can handle the ball, and he can shoot. Normally, people that athletic aren't as skilled. We think that combination of tools makes him an extraordinarily exciting prospect."

During his press conference on Thursday night, Green emphasized the achievements he wants to accomplish with the Rockets. Green even discussed his desire of being a better defender, as he wants to continue to get better. He has a great wingspan and lateral movement to stay with opposing players on defense and be disruptive in the passing lanes.

"They're going to say it's a great choice," Green said. "Rookie of the Year, All-Star, All-Defense, max contract. We're doing it big."

"Yeah, I think I can be that piece. I think I'm going to bring that dominant mentality, that defensive mindset…They already got a lot of star players"

As the draft continued, the Rockets sent future draft picks from the Wizards to land the 16th pick in the draft, which was 6'10 Alperen Sengun from Turkey. The 16th pick did belong to the Oklahoma City Thunder until Rafael Stone executed an interesting deal with Sam Presti.

"We did not think he would fall to us at 23, so we were really aggressive to try and move up all throughout the first round to acquire him," as Stone said.

Sengun's abilities on the court revolve around his post ups and skillful passing. He even maintains good feet along the baseline. In his press conference, he mentioned his passing skills can become better. There are clips of him looking impressive on shovel passes, passing the ball behind his back, and finding the cutting man towards the basket. Sengun looked good in double teams by showing he can still find the open man with his back turned.

While playing in the Turkish Super League, Sengun was an MVP at 18-years-old, averaged 19.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.5 assist, 1.7 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game. He could be another huge figure next to Christian Wood on the court, and a safety blanket for the Rockets if they cannot bring back Kelly Olynyk.

Usman Garbua is similar to former Rocket Luc Mbah a Moute. He is 6'8 with a tremendous wingspan at 7'3 and can guard anyone on the court, which is 1-5. Garbua was seen guarding Kevin Durant in the Team USA vs. Spain matchup and had interesting battles. The Rockets will get a ton of energy out of the 19-year-old player. He knows how to run the floor in transition, so he can finish around the rim. As I see it, he could be on a defensive first team in the future as he matures more. Garbua will become a defensive nightmare against opposing players.

"I think he's the best defender in the world outside of the NBA, and he's just 19 years old," Stone said. "I think he potentially could be really, really impactful on that side of the ball."

As the Rockets made their last selection, they selected Green's AAU buddy, Josh Christopher from Arizona State. He impressed a ton of scouts during his draft workouts and scrimmage against other prospects. Christopher had a double-double during his third scrimmage, which was 16 points and 10 rebounds. He is a very shifty guard with a ferocious step back.

While playing with the Sun Devils, he averaged 14.3 points per game and shot 49 percent from the field. Just like Green, he loved the midrange opportunities, as he shot 49.6 percent underneath the perimeter. He is another shifty big body the Rockets will have in their back court at 6'5. Christopher is very good at rebounding and playing defense. Stone loves watching him in defensive one-on-one situations. Christopher has Sixth Man of the Year written all over him because of his stocky body type and upside.

Hopefully, the Rockets have an exciting summer league and training camp along with their season.

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