Five Ways The Rockets Can Salvage This Season

After a tough 103-109 loss Wednesday night against the Phoenix Suns in Houston, the Rockets record has fallen to 4-9. This marks the worst start through the first thirteen games of the season since the 2010-2011 season. With a complete overhaul of the roster and front office, the new-look Rockets are having trouble finding their footing in the midst of a season of instability.

The roster has started nine different starting lineups over the first 13 games. This is the most of any team in the league other than the Brooklyn Nets. The Rockets have also already missed a combined 33 games from rotational players. Oh, and a certain very talented bearded fellow is no longer on the roster.

After the trade of James Harden, the Rockets are in a state of limbo. The team made moves to stay competitive this season, while also setting the stage to tank in the future. Now, the Rockets currently sit in the 14th seed in the Western Conference. However, the team only sits three games behind in the loss column from the five seeded Golden State Warriors. Wall and House are both out for their road trip to Detroit and Dallas. This means the Rockets could likely end up in an even worse position.

The Rockets would like to make a down year rather fruitful. Here, we look at five different ways that the Rockets can salvage this season.:

Sign Mason Jones to a Guaranteed Contract

Undrafted rookie Mason Jones has been incredible in Houston since being signed on a two-way contract after the 2020 NBA Draft. Many draft analysts had Jones pegged as a late first-rounder. Due to some incredible confidence in his draft day interviews – where Jones admitted to believing that he is the best player in the draft class- he slipped out of the second round and end up being undrafted.

Since the Harden trade, Jones has been allowed to walk the walk. Through seven games this season, Jones is averaging 8.7 points per game (ppg) on 55/55/53 splits. He also has an eFG% of 69.7%. Per 36 minutes among all qualified rookies, Jones ranks first in eFG%, 3P%, TS%, and ppg.

Despite being on a two-way contract, Jones has been a consistent contributor the last three games. He averaged 14 ppg in 20.3 minutes per game- including a 24 point outburst against the San Antonio Spurs in his first career start, where we saw him shoot six of eight from three. With additional playing time, Jones could likely enter the Rookie of the Year conversation. With guards John Wall, Victor Oladipo, and Eric Gordon often nursing injuries, he may be required to play more often than expected.

For the Rockets to get the most out of Jones, General Manager Rafael Stone must consider signing him to a guaranteed team contract. With the roster relatively depleted, and in a season where rosters can dwindle to eight often, having a player like Jones off the bench gives the Rockets a regular scoring threat from a relatively unknown player. Jones has shown the ability to move well off the ball and has a quick trigger. Jones is also a solid defender.

Due to his size and strength, he was often pitted against big college men. He has also shown the ability to read passing lanes. His herky-jerky driving style is reminiscent of teammate Eric Gordon, and he has the ability to shoot from 28+ feet out like Gordon as well. The main concern of his game is his lack of aggression, often passing up open jumpers or driving lanes. However, with instilled confidence from the front office and more playing time, these rookie mistakes can be minimized.

Maintain the Health of John Wall

In December, the Rockets acquired five-time all-star John Wall from Washington for Russell Westbrook. After missing the first two games of the season due to covid protocols, Wall started the season hot- averaging 23 ppg through his first four games of the season.

In his next three games, Wall averaged just 12.7 ppg on 38.9% shooting. Now, missing the last four games due to knee soreness, the Rockets have fallen to 1-5 on the season without its star point guard. This is arguably a major reason for the rough start.

Many worry about the vague responses from Coach Stephen Silas over the issue of John Wall’s health. Silas stated Wednesday that he expects Wall to return Tuesday to face his former team as the Wizards come into Houston (hopefully) after two weeks of having its games postponed. John Wall’s resting seems to be preemptive, to not let a minor injury become a major one. As he is reintegrated, there are quick fixes that Silas and Stone can implement to maintain Wall’s health for the long haul of the season.

John Wall looks pretty great for the Rockets after spending two years on  the sidelines - CBSSports.com

Coming off an injury, Wall should have a minutes restriction. In seven games played, Wall has eclipsed the 36-minute mark three times. He has played less than 30 minutes only twice; a blowout win versus the Magic and a tough home loss against the Lakers that ended with a series of infamous post-game interviews.

To maintain Wall’s health, Silas should limit Wall to around 28-32 minutes per game. As Wall is the primary ball-handler and a great defender, the 30+ minutes he plays are often at full speed with the ball. These minutes can be extraneous, especially after not playing for two years. By limiting Wall to 30 minutes per game, the Rockets can get the most out of their star guard and not have to go games on end without a primary ball-handler.

Even with a minute restriction, there comes the question of “who plays point when Wall is out?” Jae’Sean Tate has proven to be a great playmaker, but his decision-making still has room to improve. Victor Oladipo’s playmaking ability has been suspect at best since his debut as a Rocket. He did manage to connect well with Christian Wood through the last three-quarters of the Rockets’ game vs. the Chicago Bulls last Monday. Danuel House, who Coach Silas refers to as one of the Rockets’ playmakers, has only appeared in four games.

He has been nursing a back injury, as well as dealing with COVID protocols (and investing in his rap career), and was not in great form to start the season. Jones and Eric Gordon also have played point guard at times, but have been unreliable as playmakers. To maintain the health of John Wall and the play of the team, the Rockets should move for a backup point guard.

Trade For a Backup Point Guard and Center

The roster is stacked with wings like David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Jae’Sean Tate, Danuel House Jr, and Ben McLemore. Unfortunately, the center and point guard positions lack a lot of depth. DeMarcus Cousins who the Rockets signed to a non-guaranteed contract last offseason, has been the Rockets best rebounder. However, he can not seem to find his way into the offense. Through 10 games this season, Cousins has passed the 10 point mark just once. He is also shooting a career-low 29.7% from the field.

This could be due to the lack of presence from his Kentucky running mate John Wall. With Wall on the court, the pair are a +0.7 in net rating. With Wall off the court, Cousins has a -6.1 net rating. This +6.8 net rating difference is the largest difference for any Rockets player on the court with Cousins. This could be an indication that Cousins’ confidence rises when Wall is getting him the ball. 

However, the Rockets cannot rely on John Wall’s health. They also can not rely on Cousins, as his rim protection has not been effective. Considering the Rockets also need a reliable ball-handler in the non-Wall minutes, the best bet is to acquire players from free agency or via trade.

Names like Shabazz Napier and Emmanuel Mudiay come to mind as players who can help keep the bench units afloat. The Rockets also have recently acquired Dante Exum. However, Exum will be out for the next month or two with a strained right calf and has not been more than a fringe rotational player on subpar teams. Free-agent centers Ian Mahinmi and Dewayne Dedmon could also help the Rockets with needed rim protection. 

Patty Mills is donating his NBA restart salary to civil rights causes -  Pounding The Rock

The Rockets clearly value cap flexibility and would be unwilling to take on long-term, high-salary contracts. Since the Rockets need both playmaking and shooting, trading for Patty Mills from San Antonio. Mills is on an expiring deal and shooting 42.6% from three, and can fill the void at backup point guard.

For the center, they could target Richaun Holmes or JaVale McGee to fill the role of the rim runner. The Rockets also have a $10m Traded Player Exception (TPE) from the Harden trade, meaning it can now bring in up to $10m in salary without having to send any in return. Attaching a player like Tucker or Gordon to the team’s TPE could allow for even larger returns. If the Rockets want to go all-in again, they could sacrifice some of its newly acquired picks to upgrade.

Fix the Rotations

Given the circumstances, Coach Silas has been phenomenal. Since the acquisition of Coach Silas, the Rockets have traded former MVP, Russell Westbrook, had a training camp issue involving Honey Buns and Lil Baby, lost half the team to a barbershop trip gone wrong, injuries to major rotational players, and the trade of the new Brooklyn Net, James Harden. For a rookie coach to deal with all this through the first month of the season is unprecedented; this is why it seems unfair to judge Silas this early. However, there are some glaring issues present regardless of who is in the lineup.

In last night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, the Rockets were down 54-74 with eight minutes and four seconds remaining in the third quarter. With a lineup of Sterling Brown, Eric Gordon, Victor Oladipo, Christian Wood and Jae’Sean Tate, the Rockets quickly closed the gap to make it a five point game with two minutes and twenty nine seconds remaining in the third and ended the quarter down seven, with a score of 89-82. At this point, after a made bucket by Mason Jones to cut it to five at the start of the fourth quarter, the Rockets went scoreless until the six minutes and forty-four seconds mark with a lineup of Mason Jones, Ben McLemore, David Nwaba, Eric Gordon, and DeMarcus Cousins.

John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins upset over quarantine but ready to play -  HoustonChronicle.com

In Monday’s loss to Chicago, the Rockets cut the Bulls lead to four with less than 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Then, Houston did not hit a single field goal for over five minutes straight. This allowed the Bulls to stretch their lead to 12. Silas seems to be hesitant to pull players in late-game situations, especially when there is a scoring drought. This has cost the Rockets the ability to come back in their last two close losses.

Now obviously, with Wall and House in the mix, the rotations will get better, and the players are still not 100% comfortable with one another, but the lack of adjustments from Coach Silas in the late game have some cause for concern, and his rotations throughout the season have been brutal. If this team wants to compete, it can not go scoreless for five straight minutes. Especially not in the fourth quarter of close games. It simply will not cut it.

Embrace the Tank

Tanking would not exactly save the season. However, it could definitely lead to some positives. With Victor Oladipo’s contract expiring, and his future in Houston uncertain, the Rockets could move him and play the lottery odds. The Oklahoma City Thunder own the Rockets’ pick for the 2021 NBA draft, but the pick is top-four protected. This means that if the pick lands in the top four of the lottery, the Rockets will retain their draft rights.

The Rockets could play the lottery odds and tank, giving the team up to a 52.1% chance of landing in the first four picks of the draft. Playing the lottery odds rarely works in a team’s favor. In this case, though, there seems to be little reason not to, other than dignity.

Teams like the Celtics or Heat should offer young assets and draft picks, for Oladipo or Tucker. The acquisition of these players by these top-tier Eastern Conference teams could help them compete with the new-look Nets. The Rockets could also use assets to unload the contracts of Wall and Gordon when that time comes.

The staying power of Christian Wood: 'Most guys would fold'

Although I am not a fan of tanking, I see why this is the desired route by many Rockets faithful. By embracing the rebuild, it would allow for players like Tate, Jones, and Wood to hone their game and usher in a new era of Rockets basketball.

Thank you for reading.

For questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to contact me at @FindingNeema23 on Twitter.