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2023-24 Houston Rockets Season Preview
New faces. New expectations. New results?
This was the Rockets offseason in a nutshell:
Two 2nd round picks (via LAC)
Rights to Alpha Kaba
Two 1st round picks (#4 and #20)
Five 2nd round picks
(Note: Some rostered players, including Kevin Porter, are subject to getting waived or traded before the start of the NBA season.)
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Every year I’ve done the season preview a little differently. Sometimes it’s audio. Sometimes it’s text. Sometimes it’s intentionally formulaic. Sometimes it’s vague.
This year I wanted to try a different approach. Today, we’re going to attempt to answer 6 questions about the 2023-24 Houston Rockets season.
Let’s get started.
1. What impact will the new additions (VanVleet, Brooks, Green, Landale, Bullock, Holiday, etc..) have on the trajectory of this team
The answer here varies by the player
In the short term, VanVleet will immediately step in and be one of the best players on this team. At the point guard position, VanVleet is a pesky point-of-attack defender who is willing and able to fight through screens. He’s also a solid floor general that averaged a career-high 7.2 assists last year which will aid in getting quality looks for players like Jabari Smith and Dillon Brooks. Most importantly though, VanVleet is a very strong three-point shooter (37.3% for his career) that will provide quality floor spacing for Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Amen Thompson.
Long-term, this is the best thing that could’ve happened to Jalen Green. As talented as Green is on-the-ball, he does not currently project to be the offensive engine for a top offense in the NBA. Fortunately for Houston, Green flashed some impressive off-ball talent for the G-League Ignite that can be better emphasized next to a more natural floor general in VanVleet. While continuing to get reps as a pick-and-roll operator, Green should relish the opportunity to hone his off-ball game, particularly for when rookie Amen Thompson is ready to be a starting NBA point guard.
It’s not a stretch to say Dillon Brooks is one of the best perimeter defenders in the world. It’s also not a stretch to say he’ll be Houston’s best defensive player next season. Aside from Jae’Sean Tate, the Rockets haven’t had someone of Brooks’ caliber as an on-ball defender during their rebuild and his presence further absolves Jalen Green from having to defend the toughest night-to-night perimeter matchups. It also further protects center Alperen Sengun from having to do more than what he’s capable of as an interior defender.
Long-term, Brooks is actually more valuable to the Rockets than the fanbase thinks. For starters, his mentorship will go a long way with the talented defensive prospects Houston has amassed during their rebuild (Tari Eason, Jabari Smith, and Cam Whitmore). As despised as Brooks is, his work ethic and overall attention to detail is off-the-charts. He also signed a fair-value long-term contract with the Rockets this summer. It’s unlikely the Rockets will be able to pay all of Eason, Smith, Whitmore and Tate when their contracts come up
From a front office perspective, having Brooks inked to a cost-controlled deal gives Houston some assurance and leverage during their negotiations with Eason, Smith and Whitmore.
(It’s also possible that Brooks will be a very helpful salary-matching contract for Houston if Kevin Porter Jr. is waived.)
Jeff Green, Jock Landale, Reggie Bullock, and Aaron Holiday
It should come as no surprise that not all of these guys will be night-to-night rotation players for the Rockets. Of the four, Bullock may be the only one who plays more than 20 minutes a night due to his value to Houston’s guard rotation. The rest are all at risk to earn DNPs when the roster is at full health. Many seem convinced that Landale is a lock to be Houston’s backup center, but Jeff Green just played every single game of the NBA Finals and has a relationship with Ime Udoka.
The short-term value for these veteran players is self-evident - they’re good NBA players who can all shoot and defend. This helps fortify Houston’s bench rotation. Their long-term value is derived in two ways: mentorship and tradability. For example, Jeff Green (over 31,000 NBA minutes played) can provide a ton of perspective to someone like Jabari Smith. On the flip side, he’s also a significant non-guaranteed, two-year salary that can be aggregated with other salaries. This can be useful if the Rockets want to make a trade for a major star over the next 16 months.
2. Will Jalen Green make a big leap
There seems to be mounting external pressure on 21-year-old Jalen Green to make a significant leap this year. While it’s understandable that the Rockets have a lot riding on what has been the highest draft pick of their rebuild so far, the organization is wisely exercising great patience with his development. For example, ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote a feature story on Green during training camp and was given this quote by former-assistant-coach-turned-front-office figure John Lucas:
Lucas is confident. "In another year, he will really be a professional," Lucas said of Green. "Next season [2024-25], he is going to take off like Ja Morant and Devin Booker.”
It cannot be overstated enough how shrewd it was for Lucas to say this. For years, the old adage in the NBA has been that players take significant steps forward in production in their third season. While it’s true for some, this is a misnomer for most one-and-done prospects. In reality, the data tells us that most All-Stars get their first selection at around their fifth season in the league and a giant spike in production occurs in their fourth season.
It’s possible that the term “third year leap” came about when most top prospects when to college for at least two years before making the jump to the NBA, but this is no longer the case today. A more practical expectation for Green would be to take a decent step forward in production due to being in a better optimized environment and a spike from his sophomore-year plateau in efficiency/per-minute production. But that “leap” into stardom is probably not coming until the 2024-25 season like Lucas said. Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine were Jalen Green’s most frequent comparisons coming out of the G League and neither made an All-Star game until their sixth season.
It’s important to lower the bar a little bit here. Prospects like Green take time.
3. Will Jabari Smith snap back from his underwhelming rookie season
Jabari Smith was disappointing last season. Anybody with differing opinion is looking at this through rose-colored glasses. Despite his All-Rookie Second Team selection, USA Today, Bleacher Report, and The Athletic all had Smith no higher than 5th in their 2022 NBA Re-Draft. Smith’s troubling ball-handling and self-creation ability rearing its’ head last season wasn’t a surprise, but nobody could have predicted Smith shooting less than 35% from three-point range his rookie season, much less 30.7%. After getting passed by the Orlando Magic on draft night, Smith’s confidence look absolutely rattled from Summer League onward and this was confirmed in the story Kelly Iko wrote about Smith for The Athletic this summer.
So the question now is “Will Jabari bounce back?”.
If you place any weight in his Summer League showing, it’s plausible. In two games, Smith averaged an impressive 36 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 block per game on 65% true shooting. What was notable about his performance was the strides he seemingly made over the offseason as a ball handler. After Amen Thompson went down with an injury in the first game, Smith took the onus of point-center upon himself and flashed the confidence that made some rank him as the top prospect of the 2022 NBA Draft. While the concerns about his streaky shooting feel tangible (33.3% from three-point range in summer league), if Smith can find other ways to be efficient as a scorer and take another step defensively, he could find himself back as a consensus top three 2022 prospect again.
Smith’s relative youth (turns 21 in May of 2024) and physical tools are probably the biggest reasons to remain optimistic about his trajectory.
4. Will Alperen Sengun get a fair shake
Now that Kevin Porter is no longer part of the Rockets rebuild, Alperen Sengun has claimed the throne as “most polarizing prospect on the roster”.
The spectrum on Sengun opinions ranges from:
A. “The Nikola Jokic ceiling is fair and we should explore at least explore and have a discussion about it.”
B. “He’s good and may even reach Domantas Sabonis level heights, but X, Y, and Z concerns hold me back from buying his top-end outcomes.”
C. “He won’t ever be good enough to start on a championship level team. What are we even talking about?”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve got my foot firmly planted in Class A. If I were to guess, I’d say the Rockets as an organization unfortunately fall somewhere between Class B and C. Other than the night they first traded for him, this has not looked like an organization that ever seriously considered Sengun’s top-end outcomes. Their dismissiveness to this possibility has been one of the most reasonable critiques of the Rafael Stone regime.
The hope with a new coaching staff is that they will evaluate the entire roster with a fresh set of eyes. This means no set-in-stone biases and no preconceived notions for player ceilings. But based on Houston’s frenzied pursuit of center Brook Lopez this summer, there are reasons to be skeptical that developing Sengun is of high priority of head coach Ime Udoka.
It may piss some people off, but I’ve reached the point of not believing the Rockets will give Sengun an opportunity to be “the guy” until we see them actually do it. It looks like he may receive the Day 1 starting spot, but that also looked to be the case last season. They don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt in this regard.
If Sengun is one of the best per-minute performers on the team again and doesn’t average at least 15 field goal attempts and 30 minutes per game through the second half of the season, we can kind of put this issue to bed once and for all.
5. Any wild predictions?
Yes. Amen Thompson will be in the Rookie of the Year race.
I’m not saying he’ll win it, but I have a sneaking suspicion he’ll be a dark horse candidate. While it’s true that Thompson will have a tough road to putting up big numbers off the bench for Fred VanVleet and Jalen Green, I kind of that this gives him a slight edge. If he pops in any significant way, it’ll make a lot more noise because nobody’s expecting it.
Additionally, the Rockets should be a lot better than the Spurs and Trail Blazers who possess Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson respectively. Brandon Miller may have something to say here, but I just believe Thompson is a higher upside prospect. It’s just easy for me to envision a world in which the Rockets are able to compete for a play-in tournament spot with Amen Thompson leading raucous bench units while Wembanyama and Henderson toil away in irrelevancy for a year.
6. How many wins?
It took me a while to settle on this number. Last season, I had Houston pegged as a 30-win team and looking back, that number probably should’ve been lower. “Lower” as in 28 wins though, not the paltry 22 that they ended up finishing with. Yes, the team was young, but I think we can be honest and say that Stephen Silas greatly underachieved with the talent he was given these past three seasons.
I believe Ime Udoka to be a more capable coach than Silas, but he’s still relatively unproven with only one season under his belt. The Rockets spent some real money upgrading the roster, but also didn’t sign a true max-caliber star that could theoretically vault them to the moon. With all that said, it’s hard to believe that this team doesn’t possess the talent and coaching infrastructure to be a Top 20 offense and defense next year.
The combination of Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, and Reggie Bullock add so much shooting and defensive ability to Houston’s perimeter. This will allow Jalen Green to truly be the best version of himself in year three. One would also expect that Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith, Tari Eason to take marginal steps forward defensively in the frontcourt. Those combination of factors lead one to believe that this team will take a significant step forward.
With that said, this estimate remains somewhat conservative due to the strength of a loaded, healthy Western Conference. There’s totally a world in which this team is Top 15 in defense and wins 40+ games this season, but it would require a lot of other teams falling short of their expectations.
The Rockets will be fun this year. I think?
Thanks for reading Red Nation Hoops: A Houston Rockets Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.