5 things the Rockets must do to ensure a successful rebuild
The hardest thing to do in the NBA is successfully rebuild. General managers are fired every year because they can’t get their teams back on the path to title contention. There’s a reason a lot of the teams at the top of the draft often return the following season. Once you’re at the bottom of the league, it’s really difficult to get to the top.
This is why a team like the Houston Rockets should follow the tried and true methods of completing a good rebuild.
Rockets Rebuild Keys To Success
1. Swing for a star-level talent every chance they get
The Rockets tried their best to retain James Harden because they knew how difficult the road ahead was going to be without him. The most valuable commodity in the NBA is a superstar player in his prime. The second is a prospect that may turn into that type of player. It’s not a secret – these are the kinds of players that lead you to title contention.
Generally, rebuilds start when a team loses this type of talent and ends when they acquire it again. This past era of player movement has distorted how often these players are actually available. Historically, it takes a lot of table setting and luck to acquire this kind of talent. Over the next few years, the Rockets need to do everything in their power to be prepared to land this player. Whether it’s through the draft, free agency, or trade, Houston needs to be in every significant conversation.
2. Accumulate draft picks
The third most valuable commodity in the NBA are first round picks. For a rebuilding team, they offer the highest odds at acquiring a star talent. This could done be via draft or trade. For example, the Rockets expertly used three first round picks to take two high value swings in this past draft; Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun. They used one of the picks in the traditional sense (Green) and they used the other two to trade for Sengun.
Draft picks get you a seat at the table in most trade discussions and if Houston hadn’t restocked their cupboard before this past draft, they wouldn’t be able to bet on Green and Sengun. And while they have a first round pick in every upcoming draft, the objective should be to acquire even more. Veterans like Eric Gordon and Danuel House are nice players to have around, but Houston should attempt to flip both of them before their contracts expire. Until the Rockets have a superstar in-hand, they should always be sellers at the trade deadline.
3. Sign good contracts
The most toxic assets in the NBA are bad contracts. They take up large amounts of cap room and make it difficult to trade for star players once the opportunity arises. This is why the Rockets are searching for a resolution with John Wall and will eventually find one with Eric Gordon. Good contracts carry the opposite effect.
Good value deals, like Christian Wood, can be used as fodder in star player trades. They can be aggregated with other solid contracts, teams can move them later on, and they often can fetch first round picks themselves. This is why the Rockets will spend their next couple offseasons using their exceptions to sign solid role players. For example, players like Daniel Theis and David Nwaba can be flipped for more picks because they’re helpful players that signed reasonable deals this summer.
4. Eventually have max cap space available
While attempting to draft and trade for a star player is certainly important, it’s equally important that Houston become an attractive destination for free agents. I’ve written about how the summer of 2023 is going to be really important for the Rockets, but in short: they’ll have two max cap slots available. This is obviously assuming they don’t acquire big contracts that extend beyond 2023.
After 2023, there are going to be so many key extensions coming up: notably Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. This will prevent them from ever having max cap space again unless they deliberately try and dump contracts. Houston needs to do everything in their power not to jeopardize this space. That means not taking on long-term salary in dealing both John Wall and Eric Gordon, it means being judicious with mid-level exceptions, and it means passing on free agent opportunities in pursuit of the long-term goal.
5. Find the right coach
This is admittedly lower on the totem pole, but it’s still important. The Rockets need to seriously evaluate how Stephen Silas performs next season as they probably only have one season to go in a different direction before the summer of 2023. Houston needs to become an attractive destination and the head coach plays a small part in that. Obviously they don’t need to find their championship coach right now, but there needs to be a baseline of competence there.
For example, the Thunder wisely only tolerated one season of P.J. Carlesimo before moving on to Scott Brooks. Carlesimo famously rubbed players the wrong way and played Kevin Durant at shooting guard his first season in the NBA. Durant has seldom played shooting guard since, but this is an example of moving on before the damage is done. It may be strange to critically evaluate a head coach during a rebuild, but it does matter.
Obviously these things don’t guarantee a good rebuild, but they are all present with successful ones in the past. Watching Rockets GM Rafael Stone navigate all of this over the coming years will be fascinating.