What FiveThirtyEight's win-total projections says about the Rockets
For an organization that became associated with analytics, the Houston Rockets and projection systems have not been on good terms recently. FiveThirtyEight’s season projections have the Rockets as the worst team in the NBA, finishing with a 19-63 record and being outscored by 8.8 points per game.
If you’re all in on Victor Wembanyama, then this is music to your ears, but if you were hoping for a better season than the last two when the Rockets also finished with the worst record in the league, then you’re probably saying these projections are garbage and are about to close the tab. Here’s why the projections are probably wrong, and what they’re actually telling us about the Rockets.
Projections have blindspots
FiveThirtyEight’s projections attempt to predict the future while being unable to predict the future. One area where they cannot make predictions are trades. The Jazz are projected to win 38 games, but that's because, at this moment, they still have Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson.
Projections also struggle with young players, which the Rockets' roster is essentially comprised of. Young players are extremely volatile, and final projections are the 50th-percentile outcome. The Rockets' 90th-percentile outcome, due to the potential on the roster, is likely significantly higher, but it remains extremely difficult to project a massive breakout. In fact, if a projection system routinely predicted massive breakouts, it wouldn’t be very good.
The final blindspot FiveThirtyEight’s projections have is in lineup construction. The Spurs are projected to win 30 games because Keldon Johnson, Jacob Poeltl, Devin Vassell, and Tre Jones all grade out as average to above-average players. However, none of them of primary ball handlers or offensive initiators. Chances are this group underperforms its projections because they lack a key component to have a competent offense.
What the projections tell us about the Rockets
The Rockets being projected as the worst team in the league isn’t surprising. They had the worst record in the league the past two seasons and traded their best player this offseason without making any meaningful additions. If you’re bad and don’t add talent, it’s hard to project a team getting better.
The Rockets’ season hinges on their young players' development. If Jalen Green breaks out in a big way, the Rockets will fly past 19 wins. Throw in more development from Alperen Sengun and Kevin Porter Jr. and strong rookie seasons from Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason, and suddenly the Rockets will be as dangerous as a North Korean dictator.
However, that’s a lot of "ifs," and that’s what the projections are telling us about the Rockets. If the "ifs" don’t go the Rockets' way, then this season could be a slog. Now, if the ifs go the Rockets' way, then fans will post screenshots of this projection at the end of the season and declare victory over math.
The Rockets are a team that lives in the projections’ blindspots. They’re unlikely to shed significant contributors, are incredibly young, and have a roster that makes sense. A lineup of Porter, Green, Eason, Smith, and Sengun might not be all that effective, but their skill sets make sense together, and there is a ton of room for them to outdo their projections.