Parity: The Rockets' Window of Opportunity

Cam Whitmore Amidst a Defensive Contest
Cam Whitmore Amidst a Defensive Contest / Carmen Mandato/GettyImages

When I think of the NBA in the 2010s, a few players instantly come to mind as its top dogs: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant. By the end of their rivalry, LeBron's Cavs had faced the Warriors in the finals a stunning four straight times. And when the two weren't facing each other, they were playing Kawhi. Compared to the 2010s, the current NBA has seen the emergence of an array of young talent, seeking to challenge an old guard who aren't keen to give away their position.

The resulting product is parity: where the competition is so close that no team has won more than one championship let alone gone to the finals in consecutive years. Era-defining talents such as LeBron, KD, and Steph have continued to be stellar and defy the expectations of age. Teams like the Nuggets, Celtics, and Bucks have established themselves as winners, while young teams such as the Thunder and Timberwolves have taken drastic steps towards reaching that status.

The Success of the Timberwolves and Thunder and What it Means for the Rockets

The Timberwolves and Thunder particularly demonstrate the NBA's new parity and how rebuilding teams, such as the Rockets, may be one draft pick or one developing star away from having breakout seasons.

For the Thunder, it was introducing Chet Holmgren to an already potential-filled team that helped elevate them from the play-in to the first seed in a dangerous Western Conference. He complemented the superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander perfectly, bringing great three-point shooting, height, and needed rim protection to the team. As a result, the Thunder saw drastic improvement both offensively and defensively.

In the case of the Timberwolves, it was rather Anthony Edwards' continued development that aided their transformation. In the 2023-24 season, Edwards took strides as both a playmaker and scorer. Simultaneously, he also played a vital role in the Timberwolves' historic defense, bringing gritty on-ball defense and surprisingly good shot blocking for his position. This development was reflected by the Timberwolves' success as they went from the first round to the Western Conference finals.

While it may be difficult to match their improvement, teams like the Thunder and Timberwolves have provided a strong blueprint for teams like the Rockets.

The Rockets' breakout season is imminent.

Looking back at the 2023-24 season, the Rockets exhibited many glimpses of potential. It all started with Alperen Sengun, who has drawn "Baby Jokic" comparisons from NBA fans. These comparisons are more than justified, considering his strength as a post player and distributor. Last season, he leaped from a role player to an undisputed star, even achieving co-signs from the likes of Nikola Jokic and LeBron James.

The Rockets' number 2 pick, Jalen Green, had a season which was harder to characterize. Playing in a system where he would not get the most touches proved to be initially strenous. His scoring consequentially took a hit, with his ball handling and finishing not looking as sharp as it previously was. Despite the rough start, Green finished the season on a strong note, leading the Rockets to a 10 game winning streak and averaging 27.7 ppg in March.

Many critics espouse that Green's stretch was purely because of Sengun's absence and that the two do not work well together. However, it is vital to remember that it was their first season under Ime Udoka's coaching. Going from Stephen Silas' lenient to Udoka's more accountability-driven coaching is not an easy transition. Additionally, the Rockets acquiring veterans such as Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks also forced both of the young players to adapt in terms of their playstyles.

The fact that both were still able to find their forte throughout the season is promising. Given his track record, fans can expect that Ime Udoka will maximixe both of their strengths in his offensive schemes next year.

Even though the dynamic between Sengun and Green is still a work in progress, their growth collectively or individually should be enough fuel for the Rockets to break through.

The Rockets' other talent such as Cam Whitmore, Amen Thompson, and Tari Eason have also been ambitious. Even slight changes such as Whitmore polishing his shot selection and adding to his scoring or Thompson improving his ball handling while maintaining his defense could go a long way. All in all, any of these players getting better could further transform the Rockets into a serious threat in the west.

The Rockets' new acquisitions make them even better.

From the recent trade deadline to the offseason, the Rockets' front office has made it abundantly clear that they want to win now. The acquisition of Steven Adams was a perfect remedy to the rotation's previous lack of a reliable backup big. Adams will bring great rebounding to the bench and also open up many avenues with his formidable screen setting.

Having shot an astounding 52.1% from 3 at Kentucky, the Rockets' new rookie Reed Sheppard will help alleviate the struggles they had from beyond the arc.

The West is as open as ever.

In the past years, the west has been very unpredictable. If you had told fans at the beginning of last year that the Denver Nuggets would be semi-finals exits, many would have laughed. Teams such as the Kings and Grizzlies also being top seeds recently is significant. As the NBA's youth have burst onto the scene as stars, the conference isn't as top heavy as it once was.

This parity is the perfect window of opportunity for the Rockets. With a young core that will continue to get better and new acquisitions that will help lessen their flaws, the Rockets have a serious chance to return to the helm of the western conference.