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How Did The Houston Rockets Get Good?
And do they even want to be?
So here’s a funny thing. I predicted before the season began that the Rockets would be historically bad, and through the first 17 games, I was right. The Rockets started the season 1-16, with a 15-game losing streak to boot. Then, the Rockets did something unprecedented:
Seven straight wins! Did the Rockets suddenly “git gud?” Is it sustainable? And do the Rockets truly want this?
Sort of, heck no, and not really!
First, how is this happening? Well, it all started with one thing: Jalen Green, their #2 overall pick in the 2021 draft and franchise cornerstone, injured his hamstring in the first quarter of this win streak. Green is an exciting guard with kangaroo hops and a sniper’s mentality. He’s also never met a shot he didn’t love, and that love is usually unrequited.
119 players in the NBA are averaging at least 10 shots per game. Jalen Green currently ranks 105th in FG%, at 38.2%. 91 players are shooting at least five three-pointers per game. Jalen Green ranks 89th in 3FG%, at 27.8%. 227 players are averaging at least 20 minutes per game. Jalen Green ranks 214th in assist to turnover ratio, at 0.85.
If I’m painting an ugly picture, well, wait till you see my masterpiece. According to Cleaning the Glass, Jalen Green ranks DEAD LAST in the NBA in on/off point differential at -32.2 points per 100 possessions. Houston outscores opponents by +10.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s been off the floor this season, but they’ve been outscored by -21.9 when he’s playing.
As bad as that sounds, it’s all part of the plan. Shoot-first guards traditionally have a challenging introduction to the league, as they adjust to the deeper NBA three-point line and the increased physicality and athleticism of NBA defenders. Houston’s baby-faced roster also has no safety blanket for Green in the form of veteran teammates to help him learn the game on the court (spare me the John Wall talk).
Jalen Green may well turn into an exciting young superstar in the mold of a Donovan Mitchell one day. Squint, and the outline is already there. But he is actively harmful to winning games today, and his absence has clearly jumpstarted the team.
Part of that is due to his overlapping skillsets with ostensible point guard Kevin Porter Jr., who has many of the same tendencies and efficiency problems as Green. Any offense would struggle with two high-turnover, low-efficiency gunners. Removing Green has given Porter more room to breathe and play his game without worrying about taking turns (although he has been injured for the last several games, as well). Overall, the offense has had noticeably more ball movement; the Rockets averaged just 20.2 assists per game in the first 17 games of the year, nearly last in the NBA, but lead the league in the previous seven games with 28.4 assists per game.
The other major change that coincided neatly with the win streak’s start? The benching of veteran big Daniel Theis for bullseye guard Garrison Mathews (more on him in a bit). Removing Theis has freed up Christian Wood, who has been a monster during the winning streak as the lone center. Coach Stephen Silas has drastically increased the talented big man’s pick and roll play, and Wood has gotten more opportunities to touch the ball moving downhill. He’s had a significant uptick in both shots and FG% since the streak started (he leads the team in scoring), and Mathews’ sharpshooting has opened up the floor for Wood to dominate in the paint.
Mathews has been a revelation as a starter. NBA diehards may remember he had a few randomly awesome games for Washington last year, but he’s blossoming with the increased offensive responsibility he’s shouldered during Houston’s streak. Garrison’s averaged 16 points on 45% shooting from three during that time after being largely a non-factor prior (he was in the G-League to start the season!). He reminds me of the Heat’s Duncan Robinson with his off-ball activity and hair-trigger release:
That is wild man stuff right there. Unlike Robinson, however, Mathews has also been doing wild man stuff on defense:
His energy and excitement have brought a much-needed joie de vivre to a sad-sack Rockets outfit, and he’s not the only one.
Personal favorite Jae’sean Tate has played awesome defense while going from 11 points and two assists to 15 points and five assists during the streak (it’s amazing what happens when teammates can knock down jumpers). Wing Danuel House has been playing more and shooting well as a 3-and-D wing, as has backup guard Armoni Brooks (who leads the team in on/off point differential).
Old man on campus Eric Gordon has caught fire, shooting 46% from three and aggressively attacking the rim. There’s nothing in the league quite like watching Gordon’s turtle-slow, shoulder-checking drives. He relishes using brute force to get into layup position. I swear there are times he has his man beat and then pauses to let the defender catch up, just so he can throw a beefy shoulder into the poor sap’s ribcage:
Here, EG straight up bullies James Johnson, a man whose nickname is literally “Bloodsport!” Rockets fans love to see it…
…but maybe not for the reasons you’d think. Eric Gordon has definitely increased his trade value by showing he has a lot to contribute still to contending teams, and I’d estimate a roughly 0.0% chance of him remaining on the team after the trade deadline. The Rockets are trying to emphasize playing their young guys (except sweet-passing rookie center Alperen Sengun, who can’t seem to get big minutes thanks to Wood’s success as a lone big). Gordon is too good not to play, but he keeps helping them win games, which isn’t the goal here. He’s gotta go.
The Rockets have also benefitted from an easy schedule during this run. They started off by winning against full-strength Bulls and Hornets teams, which was impressive. But after that, they squeaked by the feisty-but-terrible Thunder twice, barely escaped the terrible Magic, beat the terrible Pelicans (who don’t have Zion), and held on against the not-terrible Nets who were still without Durant (or Kyrie, obviously). Tonight, they play a Bucks team that is out for blood after losing to the Heat, which will be the sternest test yet.
The schematic changes that Coach Stephen Silas implemented over this win streak are unlikely to work this well forever. Most of the rotation has been shooting better than their career averages from three, and when everyone else cools off, Christian Wood will find himself with less room to maneuver down low. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see Wood moved in a trade, either. This team is still abominable defensively, and Jalen Green’s return will not help that (or the offense) at all.
But that’s OK! When you’re a rebuilding team, you want to lose. You don’t want to be the worst team ever, but you want to lose in an entertaining way that provides short-term excitement (“Did you see that Jalen Green dunk? What about that Sengun behind-the-back pass?”) and long-term development. The recent hot streak was perfect: it reassured Rockets fans that their team won’t be in the WOAT conversation while simultaneously building trade value for some of the team’s veterans.
The priority is still development. This team needed a few wins just for morale, but now that that’s out of the way, expect a whole lot more ugly turnovers, late defensive rotations, and missed contested jumpers in the future. That’s the cost of developing young talent (more Sengun and Josh Christopher, please!), and hopefully, it leads to a future where win streaks aren’t just freak occurrences, but reasonable expectations.
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