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2023 NBA Draft Lottery Team Preview: Houston Rockets
With the 2023 NBA Draft fast approaching, we're taking a look at what each lottery team needs to target with their draft selections, continuing today with the Houston Rockets
Nathan: There has been quite the level of intrigue surrounding the Houston Rockets over the last few months given the changes in the coaching ranks with the hire of Ime Udoka, as well as the notion that the organization is ready to get back into the playoff race in the Western Conference.
With those expectations, however, come overhauls in team priorities, personnel, and roster construction. Sure, there are promising prospects up and down the roster, but being that this is a team of youth and not veteran experience, just how realistic is a jump into the play-in next season?
That’s the question that needs to be answered for Houston, and it starts with what happens on draft night. Come June 22nd, the Rockets will (likely) make a selection at #4 overall, with what would seem to be the best prospect available beyond the highly discussed trio of Victor Wembanyama, Brandon Miller, and Scoot Henderson.
While a number of scenarios technically exist for the team to trade up and acquire its next point guard of the future in Henderson, there’s also been a ton of chatter around the return of James Harden to the franchise for which he had the most success during his career. Should he sign with Houston, it would mean taking over the reins of floor general, making a Henderson trade-up null and void. Harden would certainly accelerate the timeline of the organization, as his playmaking ability would make those around him better, particularly those who lived on a tough shot diet last year in Jalen Green and Jabari Smith. His two-man game with Alperen Sengun could also unlock more of the young center’s offense and provide a play type to build the rest of the offense around.
Harden doesn’t solve any questions for this team defensively, but bringing in more strong voices outside of Udoka’s into the locker room seems to be at the top of Houston’s offseason to-do list. Maxwell, I’ll ask you first before we dig into our draft boards past the top three, if you’re the Rockets are you approaching this draft discussing what to do AROUND Harden, or is the idea of trading up to select Henderson still on the table for you?
Maxwell: That last question is a tough one to answer. I’m a big “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” guy. If we’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that *THIS LEAGUE* is unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen. Remember when Donovan Mitchell was going to be a Knick? Or when the Raptors shocked everyone by making a play and acquiring Kawhi Leonard? During my time in pro wrestling, a wise veteran once told me that you hear about a lot of things that “are going to happen,” but more often than not, they don’t happen. Perhaps the Rockets “know” that they are going to acquire James Harden. But even then, how much does anyone truly KNOW in today’s NBA?
If I’m the Houston Rockets, I’m approaching this draft with the mindset that I’m currently not close to contending, and I need players with the upside to help us contend in the future. If James Harden does indeed arrive in Houston, that’s great. But I’d be filled with enormous regret if I played it too safe, or if I came out of the draft with the right roster fit alongside Harden, and he didn’t end up coming.
The idea of trading up to grab a Scoot Henderson OR Brandon Miller would appeal to me. Maybe I’m still hanging onto too much hope for Jabari Smith Jr., but pairing him with either of those players is exciting to me. Henderson would generate paint touches like a madman and help free up Smith on the perimeter, and Miller would provide another big long-range bomber with defensive instincts. My question back to you on that front is, what would you be willing to give up to acquire one of them?
That takes me back to your first question— how close is the team to competing for a playoff spot? Perhaps I’m underselling Ime Udoka’s coaching ability and the upside that’s within reach for Smith, Jalen Green, and Alperen Sengun, but I don’t think that the roster is very close to that level as it stands. Adding a veteran point guard and a more reliable rim protector with true center size could go a long way. Still, it feels like there’s a sizable gap between the Rockets and teams like Dallas, Portland, and Oklahoma City.
But back to the fourth pick— if you can’t trade up, who are you eyeing for the Rockets?
Nathan: That’s a great question regarding the potential value of the third overall pick and what I would trade in order to acquire it. Maybe it’s because I’m more inclined towards bringing in a franchise talent like Scoot Henderson, so I would put a little more on the table than Rockets fans might initially be happy with. BUT...in order to get a good player, you HAVE to part with good assets in a trade.
My idea for a trade could consist of one of Tari Eason or Jae’Sean Tate, plus this year’s fourth pick, and a future Brooklyn Nets pick for the third pick. This would give the Portland Trail Blazers, owners of the #3 pick, a quality rotation forward, plus the pick one spot back, and a future first to utilize in any additional moves the team would want to make around Damian Lillard. There’s a belief that Portland could ask for Alperen Sengun in any deal, BUT with Nurkic still under contract, and not really a great fit for Sengun currently to blossom long-term, I would assume any of the combo forwards would be on the table in terms of asking price. Eason had a promising rookie season for the Rockets, essentially matching his LSU impact as an efficient player off the bench who can score, defend, and put pressure on the rim. He’s the type of hybrid 4/3 any team should want on its roster, including Houston, but again there has to be a little give to get in these scenarios.
Bringing in Henderson would create one of the most dangerous backcourts in the entire NBA. Jalen Green is poised for a strong junior campaign in the league, and given his explosive combination of slashing and shooting, he could benefit from having more of his shots set up by a floor general in the mold of Henderson. Not to mention having TWO high-level athletes from the guard spots to run sets with and get open would be music to Sengun’s ears. Even if Eason would be out the door, hopefully fences could be mended with KJ Martin, as I believe his long-term ceiling is as high as Eason’s in terms of playing a role on a winning team.
I understand the Brandon Miller argument from anyone who wants to make it, as having him at the SF position alongside Jabari Smith would provide a ton of length and weak-side help for Sengun defensively while keeping the floor spaced for the other slashers on the squad. But it’s looking more likely that Miller is the selection by the Charlotte Hornets with the #2 overall pick, so going up another spot would mean potentially significantly more draft capital needing to go on the table, along with taking back salary that the Hornets may not want on the books next season and beyond, which would eat into the projected $50 million plus in cap room required to bring in more veterans for a playoff push.
IF these trade-up scenarios are off the table, there’s been a growing interest in draft circles for Amen Thompson to end up as the pick, given how he compares and resembles Henderson from a positional fit perspective.
Look, there’s a real case to be made for Thompson to actually be ranked as the next prospect in this draft class behind Victor Wembanyama. He’s a legitimate 6’7” with top-shelf length, athleticism, defensive intensity, and, most importantly, dynamic passing vision. His creativity with the ball in his hands is special when he’s making the right decisions, and when he’s not looking to distribute, Thompson’s splits as a scorer in Overtime Elite actually weren’t as bad as people make them out to be from everywhere but three-point range.
It’s likely that Green, Smith, Forward X, and even Sengun continue to polish their perimeter shots and provide the spacing necessary for Thompson to not need as much of a need to shoot at volume right out of the gate. Not to mention having a big like Sengun to play off of when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands could be a key to unlocking more of his off-ball cutting ability. A lot of the same backdoor windows that Green has taken advantage of the last few seasons would be open to Thompson as they would be to Henderson.
There’s also the possibility of going in a different direction and strengthening the frontcourt with another combo forward to provide depth at the position should someone like Martin end up on a different team next year. Cam Whitmore would be my choice if they went that direction, but I could also see arguments for Jarace Walker and Taylor Hendricks.
I’m curious, Maxwell, as to your answer for options at the fourth overall pick. I think we’ve both had discussions recently about Hendricks’s upside as a high-end role player, but might he end up too redundant next to Smith? Is Thompson far and away the clear choice for you, or would you consider any of the other forwards or POSSIBLY Amen’s brother Ausar Thompson?
Maxwell: I would be fully on board with the Eason/Tate trade package if I’m Houston. Eason showed a lot of promise in year one, and Tate is one of my favorite role players in the league. That said, I would fully be willing to part with them for either Scoot Henderson or Brandon Miller. I’d also lump Sengun into that category, as I’m still not fully confident in where he’s going to settle defensively, given his limitations and lack of length.
Of the players you mentioned at #4 (Cam Whitmore, Jarace Walker, and Taylor Hendricks), the one that appeals to me most is Cam Whitmore. He’s a devastating rim finisher who can plow through bigger players to get to the rim, and he’s effective when he’s there. This past season, he converted 64.2% of his halfcourt shots at the rim, per Synergy. He’s not just a downhill guy, either. Whitmore made 40% of his catch-and-shoot threes, too, and really blossomed in that respect toward the end of his high school career. The in-between game needs a lot of work, which is a real concern given how the ball can stop in Houston’s offensive system. But as a cutter, play finisher, and floor spacer, he’d bring a lot to the table, especially around Sengun.
With Walker, I have some hangups about him and Smith at the forward spots, but I could see the vision of them compensating in terms of rim protection. With Hendricks, I have the same ball movement/in-between game worries as I do with Whitmore, but Cam has more juice to him with an NBA-ready body and a more polished handle. I wrote about Hendricks yesterday, and his playmaking growth throughout the season did indeed impress me. He’d also offer more floor spacing. There’s a world where the size pairings of Walker/Smith and Hendricks/Smith pan out, but there is one prospect in particular that I have a tier above both men.
You brought up the Thompson Twins, and I want to start with Amen, who is my preference here. He has a lot to offer this current Rockets roster, and after diving back into his international tape, I’m more bullish on what he can do off the ball, too. With Amen, you’re getting your straw that stirs the drink. He’ll reliably generate paint touches, and his creativity will allow him to throw tricky, difficult-to-anticipate passes to Jalen Green and Jabari Smith. I firmly believe that Smith is going to show more consistency from long range this year, and having a guard who generates paint touches at will is going to do wonders for him. There’s some real two-man-game potential with Sengun, given Amen’s quickness and lob-threat potential. I get it—the shot is a mess. But if he can even become an adequate pull-up two-point shooter, I think he’ll be off to the races. His length and speed on the defensive end will help cover up some of Green’s shortcomings, too, and he should be able to take the tougher guard assignment if he locks in on that end.
I’m still a bit cooler on Ausar. I’m less sold on his interior touch, and I don’t believe him to be in the same category as a passer. I like Ausar much more in a complementary role, where he’s feeding off another primary initiator. If I’m Houston, I’m still searching for my primary guy. At this point in time, Amen fits that profile more. I wouldn’t hate the Ausar pick, especially if they do find a way to bring James Harden into the fold. He’s much more active off the ball, and again, he’s a tremendous defender. Ausar is much more composed than Amen, playing with more poise at the point of attack while being more calculated in terms of when he looks to gamble and make plays. But as a leading man, his jump shot still needs to progress, and he doesn’t have the acrobatic dynamism or the same first step to get inside that Amen has. Everything is a tad bit slower, and he doesn’t play with as much fluidity. He needs to come to a stop more often in order to dish out an accurate find, giving the defense a little extra time to recover. Again, none of this is to slander him, I’d simply swing for the higher ceiling if I were in the Rockets’ predicament, and I believe Amen is the higher ceiling prospect.
However this pans out, Rockets fans have reason for excitement. Jalen Green is an athletic, exciting shotmaker. Alperen Sengun can sling the ball like few others his size. Jabari Smith is still bringing a wonderful package of size, defensive versatility, and shooting to the table. Adding any of these prospects to their young core will only sweeten the pot. If they decide to consolidate or push toward a bigger fish, they may have to part with some of them, but you can never have too many interesting players on your team. The Rockets are going to leave draft night with one more.