The Houston Rockets have limped to the worst record in the league this season at 17-52. If last season’s last-place finish came as a surprise, this season’s showing was all a part of the plan.
The Rockets organization has never come out and uttered the word “tank.” Instead, they let their actions and roster construction do the talking.
Their first step was to pay John Wall over $40 million to not play. Wall isn’t worth $40 million a season anymore, but he’d easily be one of the Rockets' best players.
The next step was the organization running out a starting backcourt of Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. The duo has potential, but the term potential isn’t usually attached to actively good players. That being said, when their potential comes to the surface, it's an absolute show.
The reality is, a starting backcourt of Eric Gordon and Wall probably wins more games this season. Not many more, but enough to hurt your chances at the first overall pick.
Step three was the Rockets entering the season with a dearth of wing options. Outside of David Nwaba, who has played sparingly, the Rockets essentially don’t employ a true small forward.
Jae’Sean Tate and Kenyon Martin Jr can fill in at the position but they’re better used as small-ball power forwards, as Tate lacks a credible 3-point stroke and Martin struggles to self-create from the perimeter.
Speaking of power forwards, step four was to have a roster without one. According to Basketball-Reference, the only player labeled a power forward is Usman Garuba, and he has played all of 112 minutes.
The Rockets did enter the season with three centers, but in the modern NBA, you can really only afford to play one center at a time. Which gets us to step five, Stephen Silas trying to run out Christian Wood and Daniel Theis, two centers, for 20 odd games.
All that dual-big pairing provided was more minutes for Alperen Sengun with the reserves and a 1-16 start to the season.
Taking a look at the roster from 3,000 feet it’s obvious why the Rockets lost so many games. The team entered the season without any semblance of a starting-caliber point guard, small forward, or power forward, and it almost didn’t work.
The Rockets' seven-game winning streak from November 24th to December 8th has to be one of the most bizarre and unlikely winning streaks in NBA history. While the streak included wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic, they also beat the Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets, and Brooklyn Nets.
If it wasn’t for those three wins against likely playoff teams, the Rockets would have a stranglehold on the worst record in the league. Even a team in a full-on tank can rattle off a seven-game winning streak, which speaks to the quality of NBA players.
Admittedly, losing is no fun for the team, the fans, and the coaching staff. However, it is critical for the Rockets’ rebuild that they maximize their chances at landing a top pick in the upcoming NBA Drafts.
After the 2023 NBA Draft, the Rockets are sending two first-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder with a pick swap mixed in for good measure. Those picks are both top-four protected, but relying on those protections coming to the rescue means you are one of the three worst teams in the league again, and even then you have a better than 50% chance of it heading west to Oklahoma.
The Rockets needed to tank this season, and they’ll likely need to tank the next one.
This season, Rafael Stone aced the tank. He built an imperfect roster that has plenty of young intriguing players whose development has aided in the objective of losing now while building hope for the future. He found a diamond in the rough in Garrison Mathews, and he was able to shed the ill-advised Daniel Theis contract.
Tanking is anti-competitive, but until the NBA eliminates the draft, then it will remain the best course to build a contender from scratch. If this season is any indication, expect Rafael Stone to push all the right buttons to be at the bottom of the standings for one more year. Then the fun can begin.