With the second pick in the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday, the Rockets will select a player they hope will anchor their franchise for at least the next decade. It’s a pick they’re fortunate to still hold (due to the swap rights owned by the Oklahoma City Thunder as a result of the ill-fated Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade). Instead, through a rare dose of good fortune, the Rockets can welcome the foundational piece who will usher them into the team's next era.
THURSDAY’S PICK: Breaking down Rockets’ options with No. 2 pick in NBA Draft
Of course, it has been more than 10 years since the franchise last embarked on a rebuild. That time, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady's bodies finally couldn't take any more; theirs was an era tragically lasting a mere five seasons. McGrady was unceremoniously sent to New York. After the lower body injuries mounted, Yao retired. Daryl Morey was left seeking to pick up the pieces and start anew.
What's different this time around is the possession of the high lottery selection, something from which Morey never benefited, as then-owner Leslie Alexander preferred his teams to stay competitive rather than sinking to the bottom. Yao's last healthy season was 2008-2009 when the Rockets won 53 games and lost to the Lakers in the conference semifinals. For the next three years, the team toiled in mediocrity, hovering around .500, missing the postseason each year. Winning close to 40 games each season, the Rockets couldn't revamp organically through the lottery like Morey's peers were allowed to do.
But in 2012, Morey struck gold, trading for James Harden with the assets he had meticulously accumulated since the retooling began. Signing Dwight Howard in free agency the next summer, the Rockets never looked back, launching a near decade of contention.
This time, there was no mediocrity – Houston plummeted in the standings in the same season as Harden's departure, with Stone prudently opting not to trade in-season for players who would impact the team in the standings. The result? The second pick in the draft.
From 2016 through 2020, I used to keep a spreadsheet, tracking the Rockets' rankings in the league across various statistical categories such as offensive and defensive rating, and rebounding. I also tracked the productivity of various lineup combinations. I'd update it every Sunday morning, reflecting data from games played over the past week. I wanted to see not just the team's improvement over the course of the year, but also to understand how it was evolving during the marathon of an 82-game regular season. What was the impact of injuries or experimental rotations?
(I've noted several times over the years that the most striking observation I had made while maintaining this practice was the discovery of Patrick Beverley's net impact on the team in 2016 after his return from injury. It seemed that replacing a bad rotation player with an above average one could impact a team as much as replacing a good player with a star.)
Being a fan of a rebuilding team in its nascent stages is different. It's ill-advised to measure the performance of the team as a whole. Instead, one should look to the growth, development, and interplay between young prospects as management seeks to identify its long-term core. It is futile to watch or draw much from the scoreboard.
To date, general manager Rafael Stone has managed the rebuild brilliantly. In exchange for Harden, he valued the liquidity and high upside of future picks rather than players who might help the team marginally but not aid it in reaching the ultimate goal. He didn't saddle the team long term with contracts for Jarrett Allen or Caris Levert; he didn't make acquisitions in-season that improved the team. He resisted the temptation of Ben Simmons, a move that might have capped the franchise's long-term ceiling, but improved it significantly in the near term.
Earlier this week, the Rockets were rumored to be interested in acquiring Portland guard Damian Lillard, who is breathtaking, but trading the No. 2 pick for a 31-year-old would be the dumbest thing the team could do. Instead, both management and ownership need to be patient and bide their time. The next pick that will be owed to the Oklahoma City Thunder is in 2024. The Thunder will own the Rockets' pick in 2024 and 2026 and will have the right to swap picks—like they did this year—in 2025.
That means Stone has a two-year window where the Rockets control their own pick. The most prudent course long term would be to ensure high picks in each of those two seasons. Will ownership and fans be able to stomach it?
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