Why the Rockets should embrace the tank
The 2023 NBA draft is historic. Victor Wembanyama is the best prospect since LeBron James, and Scoot Henderson is viewed as a true number one overall prospect. A team doesn’t need to win the lottery, to win the lottery.
The teams with the three worst records have a 14% chance at the first pick and a 13.4% chance at the second, which gives those teams a 27.4% chance to land a top-two pick. In a draft with two players worthy of the first overall pick, this is the year to be tanking.
While Henderson and Wembanyama will get all the attention this draft cycle, the next crop of prospects is also incredibly exciting. Amen Thompson, Nick Smith, Cam Whitmore, Dariq Whitehead, and others are all high level prospects and will be available later than in a normal draft.
The 2023 Draft is reminiscent of the 2003 Draft
The presence of Wembanyama and Henderson at the top of the draft creates a unique opportunity as they push excellent prospects down in a way that seldom happens. Think about the 2003 NBA draft. LeBron was the clear number one overall player, which made one of Carmelo Anthony, Dewayne Wade, and Chris Bosh available outside of the top three. The Pistons made one of the worst decisions of the 21st century selecting Darko Milicic with the second pick, and thus Anthony, Wade, and Bosh went three, four, and five. In just about any other draft, Anthony, Wade, and Bosh would have gone with the first three picks.
The prize of the 2023 NBA draft is Wembanyama, but the consolations are all high level players that will be available lower in the draft, and the Rockets should position themselves to capitalize on that development, while still giving themselves a good shot at Wembanyama.
The Rockets lose control of their draft after 2023
Outside of the 2023 draft, there are a few more key reasons why tanking the 2022-23 season is a necessary evil for the Rockets. There is collective amnesia surrounding the fate of the Rockets’ draft picks in 2024 and beyond. Due to the ill-fated Russell Westbrook trade, the Rockets owe the Thunder a top-four protected first round pick in 2024 and 2026, and a top-12 protected pick swap in 2025.
The 2023 draft is the last draft until 2027 where the Rockets can safely tank with no risk. They can’t miss their last opportunity to take a bite from the apple. If one of Jalen Green or Jabari Smith Jr’s development stalls or they suffer a serious injury, the Rockets will be a man short of a title-worthy team. No one likes talking about insurance, but there’s a reason you absolutely should have it. Another top-five pick is insurance for the current roster and could end up being the piece that pushes them over the top. Anytime you can maximize upside and mitigate downside you should take it.
What does not tanking actually achieve?
The final reason the Rockets should embrace the tank is quite simple. What is the upside for the Rockets winning as many games as possible? There are eight teams (Grizzlies, Nuggets, Mavericks, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Warriors, Clippers, Suns), barring catastrophic injuries, that will be better than the Rockets next season. Then there are three additional teams (Lakers, Kings, Trail Blazers) that should be significantly better than a best-case scenario season from the Rockets.
If the Rockets win 35 games it would be an extraordinary season, but they’d still not sniff the play-in. Outside of a short-sighted endorphin rush for the fan base, there is no real upside to ditching the tank. The Rockets aren't throwing away anything of value if they choose to maximize losing. Unless being as good as the Kings is now the goal.
Giving up on the tank jeopardizes the past two years of pain. There is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s called next season when the Rockets lose control of their draft picks and have a mountain of cap space. Why increase your odds of one day becoming just an okay team when a shot at being a dynasty is on the table?