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4 ways the Rockets make the play-in tournament this season

Rockets play in tournament

After winning 17 games last season, the Houston Rockets are projected to be at the bottom of the Western Conference again next season. Per BetOnline, the Rockets have an opening win total for the 2021-22 season of 26.5 wins – second to last in the West. And it’s understandable why the line is set that way. The Rockets will enter the season without an All-Star for the first time since 2012 and have six players on the roster under the age of 22.

However, it’s not unheard of for teams with several young players to surpass expectations. The 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder won 50 games after a 23-win season the prior year on the backs of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka – all of whom were under the age of 22. The 2014-15 Utah Jazz jumped to 38-wins from 25 the year before led by a 24-year-old Gordon Hayward, a 22-year-old Rodney Hood, a 21-year-old Enes Kanter, and a 19-year-old Dante Exum. The Rockets obviously aren’t perfect comparisons for these teams, but it shows how commonplace this phenomena is.

For Houston to surpass expectations next season and make the play-in tournament, several things do have to happen though.

1. A healthy Eric Gordon season

Eric Gordon may not be an all-star, but he’s one of the best role players in the NBA when healthy. Gordon just does so many helpful things on the court – defense, shooting, and attacking the basket. Health has always been the biggest roadblock of Gordon’s career and last season, he only played in 27 of Houston’s 72 games. If Gordon is at his best and the Rockets choose to keep him past the trade deadline, he’s an extremely helpful player that couldn’t contribute last season.

2. A good and reduced John Wall

It’s been several years since John Wall has been an effective basketball player that impacts winning. Part of this is obviously the injuries keeping him out of action, but Wall put too much on his own plate when he was with the Rockets last season. A career high 31.7% usage isn’t helpful when you’re scoring with only 50.4% true shooting. Wall can still be an excellent passer, but the best version of 2021 Wall is just that – a table setter. If Wall can wane back the shot attempts in favor of more efficient scoring teammates, the Rockets will benefit a great deal.

3. A step forward for Kevin Porter Jr.

Kevin Porter Jr. is arguably the most compelling storyline for the Rockets headed into the 2021-22 season. Entering his critical third season with the potential to earn a ludicrous amount of money, Porter Jr. has a lot of incentive to take a step forward this year. The second-year guard was certainly impressive last season, but he fell behind in two categories that impact winning – scoring efficiency and defense. If Porter Jr. can take steps towards being a league average defender (or even slightly below average) and shoots the ball better from three, he’ll turn a lot of heads next season.

4. One or two rookies contribute right away

Asking all of Houston’s first four first round picks to play consistently – let alone be positive contributors right away – is asking a lot. However, if the Rockets can get just one of their rookies to exceed expectations and be a positive player in their first year, that’s a big development. The smart money right now is with Jalen Green. Green doesn’t have to win the award, but being in contention for Rookie of the Year is a worthy goal. Historically, a great deal of surprise teams have come because young players have shown more than what was expected of them.

The play-in tournament is a lofty organizational goal for the Rockets. It’s pretty improbable, but definitely in their higher range of outcomes. GM Rafael Stone and head coach Stephen Silas will be asked what Houston’s objective is for next season and it’ll be interesting if the tournament is something they’re interested in.