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ESPN host floats wild anti-Houston conspiracy about Rockets draft

Is this actually a thing? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

There are 99,999 reasons why the Houston Rockets are stupifyingly awful this season. Leave it to ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser to find the one reason why not.

Earlier this week on Pardon the Interruption, Kornheiser was pondering where sensational French teenager Victor Wembanyama might play next year in the NBA. Kornheiser said if NBA commissioner Adam Silver has his way, Wembanyama won’t be taking his talents to Houston.

“I don’t think he (Silver) wants him in a place like Houston where the owner doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing,” Kornheiser said.

Huh? Is Kornheiser suggesting that it’s Fertitta’s fault that the Rockets are a disastrous 13-45 and destined to finish with the worst record in the NBA for the third consecutive season?

If you’re looking for reasons why the Rockets are flopping, there are culprits a’plenty, starting with the roster. You want to know why the Rockets seem to lose night after night? You see when the Rockets take the court for the opening tip? The players in the other color uniform are better than the Rockets. That’s why the Rockets lose.

The Rockets are young – the second-youngest team in the league. Their average age is 23.58. The bad news is, the only younger team is the Thunder, which racks up points against the Rockets like they’re playing a video game set on “easy.” The Rockets three core players are Jalen Green (21, second year), Alperen Sengun (20, second year), and Jabari Smith Jr. (19, rookie).

It could be the coach. Now in his third season, Stephen Silas has one of the worst career won-loss records (50-162) in NBA history. His defenders will say, “he’s a young coach who can relate to young players, which is what this team needs.” Silas is not a young coach. Silas will be 50 years old in a few months. He is older than the coach of the Celtics, the Grizzlies, Jazz, Thunder, Pelicans, Blazers, Clippers, Nets, Wizards … I could go on.

You can blame NBA superstars who collude to demand trades so they can play amongst themselves and freeze out have-not teams in less desirable markets. The Rockets in their present state can’t attract big name stars. The idea that Texas teams are appealing to star players because of no state income tax simply isn’t true.

I asked a Rockets insider, does Kornheiser know something we don’t? Is Fertitta the reason the Rockets struggle? Is it true that Fertitta doesn’t know what he’s doing?

The insider said, “Tony Kornheiser doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’ll bet he hasn’t watched one Rockets game this year and couldn’t name three players on the team. It’s easy for these national guys to look at the standings and blame the owner.”

Fertitta has been somewhat successful in his careers (plural). His Landry’s restaurant empire is expanding like a kielbasa in a microwave. Forbes calls him the richest restaurateur in the world. He is chairman of the board of regents for the University of Houston, home of the No. 1-ranked college basketball team. His name is on the UH basketball arena. He was the star of Billion Dollar Buyer on CNBC. His net worth is estimated at $7.6 billion.

Yeah, I’d say that Fertitta knows what he’s doing.

The Rockets are in a down cycle, but the team is still drawing fans. The marketing department, under Fertitta’s guidance, has come up with some pretty creative promotions (Undertaker bobbleheads, bargain beer and tacos) to occupy the seats. Toyota Center is clean, the food is upscale, and Bruce Springsteen just rocked the roof off the place.

The insider: “Fertitta gives fans a quality experience. He can’t control the final score. The fact that the Rockets still have strong attendance shows that Fertitta is delivering an attractive product despite the team’s record. The NBA isn’t like the restaurant business, where you can turn a loser into a winner by changing the menu. Larry David thought he could run a successful restaurant simply by adding scones to the menu on Curb Your Enthusiasm. That’s a TV show. The NBA is real life.”

This isn’t the first time a national media type dumped on a Houston good guy and missed the target. Remember a couple of years ago when radio talk host Clay Travis went after Mattress Mack?

Travis said, “I find myself rooting for this Mattress Mack guy to lose all of his money because I’m tired of hearing about him. Marketing genius, but I want this guy to go bankrupt. I wish he would lose $100 million.”

Oops. First, and most important, Travis picked on the wrong guy in Houston. He heard from Mack’s supporters loud and clear. And while I don’t have access to Mack’s books, I’m pretty sure he could lose $100 million and not go bankrupt.

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Nick Caserio's history of drafting injury prone players has become a problem. Composite Getty Image.

Nick Caserio was hired to serve as the general manager (GM) of the Texans on January 7, 2021. Some saw it as another nod to the organization's obsession with the Patriots. Others saw it as the team finally getting their guy after pursuing him previously. They were even hit with a tampering charge while trying to talk to him about the job. Since he's been on the job, there have been highs and lows.

Recently, the news about Kenyon Green and Derek Stingley Jr put a stain on his tenure. Green was placed on season-ending injured reserve (IR) and Stingley Jr is expected to be placed on IR, likely missing six to eight weeks, per Aaron Wilson. Both guys were Caserio's 2022 first rounders. Both guys are starting to look like busts and have fans a little more than just upset.

Green's case was curious because he was said to have needed surgery before he tore his labrum during the Saints preseason game. He had knee surgery this past offseason. There were knee injury concerns when he was coming out of A&M. Adding to his injuries, Green has played poorly. To make matters worse, the Chargers drafted fellow guard Zion Johnson two picks later. Johnson played all 17 games last season as a rookie at right guard and has moved to left guard this season. The pick used to draft Green was part of a trade back with the Eagles. They used the 13th overall pick to take Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis, a guy at a position this team could desperately use.

Stingley Jr was a highly touted recruit coming into LSU as a freshman. He played as well as any corner in the country that year. Oh, and they won a national title with arguably one of the best teams in college football history. His net two years in Baton Rouge were marred with injuries. Some believed his junior year was more him holding back to stay healthy for the draft. It worked because he was taken third overall, one spot ahead of Sauce Gardner. Gardner went on to be an All Pro as a rookie. While he's surrounded by more talent on the Jets' defense, people will forever link them because Stingley Jr hasn't lived up to expectations. He missed six games last season and is set to miss at least that many this season. When he has played, he's looked okay. “Okay” isn't what you want from a guy drafted third overall ahead of the other guy who was widely considered better than him.

For the 2021 draft, Caserio was handcuffed. He had no first or second rounders, and made a few trades that lessened his draft pool from eight to five picks. Of the five guys drafted that year, only Nico Collins seems to be a player. The 2022 draft was more productive. Although Green and Stingley Jr were the headliners and haven't played up to the hype, the others are carrying the load. Jalen Pitre and Dameon PIerce alone make that draft class dope. This past draft was seen as the one to save the franchise so to speak. Getting C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr got the team a franchise quarterback and edge rusher with picks two and three overall. The price paid to move back up to three was hefty and puts more scrutiny on Anderson Jr. They appear, so far, to have also found a couple other nice players. Tank Dell being the hidden gem of this class.

While people can't, and shouldn't, base Caserio's performance strictly off of the guys he's drafted, one must call it into question. The '21 draft was a wash. The '22 draft looks suspect, but has some redeeming qualities. The '23 draft will most likely be his saving grace. But should it? Former Texans GM Rick Smith nailed almost every first rounder he drafted. Even he was almost run out of town because folks didn't like what he did. Why should Caserio be any different? So what if he cleaned up the mess by the previous regime! That's what he was hired to do!

“Keep that same energy!” That phrase is used when people try to hold others to different standards. Where's that energy everyone had for Bill O'Brien, Jack Easterby, Rick Smith, Gary Kubiak, David Culley, and Lovie Smith? When others weren't performing well, their heads were called for. I see some people holding Caserio accountable. For the most part, it appears as if he's getting a bit of a pass. I'll be interested to see if this continues should the team has another subpar season. If that pick they traded to the Cardinals is another top 10 pick and the Browns pick the Texans own isn't...if Green can't come back and/or Stingley Jr doesn't show any signs of being a lockdown corner...then what? Let's hope none of this comes to fruition. If it does, we'll have to revisit this conversation.

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