When James Harden was the featured star of the Houston Rockets, this team was always one of the final squads standing in the playoffs, right on the cusp of the NBA Finals. However, Harden and the Rockets were never able to break through, resulting in the franchise taking a step back. Three seasons have come and gone now without Harden in Houston and this organization has failed to win more than 22 games in a season over this span.

In fact, they have only won 59 games since the start of the 2020-21 season. The Milwaukee Bucks won 58 games this past year alone. This has been the worst three-year stretch in the entire history of the Rockets organization, which is why drastic changes occurred during the offseason. The first of which involved a change on their sideline, as head coach Stephen Silas was relieved of his duties and replaced with former Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka.

As a first-year head coach with the Celtics during the 2021-22 season, Udoka ended up leading them to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. Then a suspension came for Boston's head coach following their Finals loss, as he violated team policies pertaining to an improper intimate relationship with a female Celtics staff member. Joe Mazzulla was named the interim head coach of the team and eventually had his interim tag removed in February, leaving Udoka as a free agent.

What he did in one season as the head coach of the Celtics was enough for the Rockets to move forward with Udoka, as they believe he can be the one to quickly turn things around with this young team.

“Having that time off and really a full understanding of how many people you impact by a poor decision, that’s where you start with the ownership and accountability,” Udoka said when being introduced as the head coach of the team this offseason. “I preach that for the players and so I have to take responsibility for my part. I took leadership and sensitivity training and (did) some counseling with my son to help him improve the situation that I put him in.”

“You can grow from adversity and think I’ve done that this year.”

Udoka now inherits what many viewed as a “broken” team this offseason. The Rockets have not had any sense of direction these last few years and 2021 second overall pick Jalen Green had been their only true bright spot. With Alperen Sengun stepping into a larger role, Tari Eason having a solid rookie campaign, and Jabari Smith Jr. looking to grow during his second year in the league, though, there is certainly a lot to like about the potential this young core possesses.

Given his experiences working under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, Udoka is well-equipped to lead his new team to success. The additions Houston made this offseason will also help the organization get back to being a competitive team in the Western Conference.

Rockets offseason additions and departures

Additions: G Fred VanVleet (free agency – TOR), F Dillon Brooks (free agency – MEM), C Jock Landale (free agency – PHX), F Jeff Green (free agency – DEN), G Aaron Holiday (free agency – ATL), G Amen Thompson (draft), F Cam Whitmore (draft)

Departures: F Kenyon Martin Jr. (trade – LAC), G Josh Christopher (trade – MEM), G TyTy Washington (trade), F Usman Garuba (trade), C Frank Kaminsky (free agency)

This offseason was all about free agency for the Rockets, especially since they entered the summer with the most cap space to play around with. Linked to numerous stars such as James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, Houston was ultimately unable to land any of these bigger names.

However, they did find themselves in a bidding war with the Toronto Raptors for 2021-22 All-Star guard Fred VanVleet, a battle in which they won. The Rockets and VanVleet agreed to a three-year, $130 million contract in free agency, making him the highest-paid undrafted player in NBA history.

Being able to land an experienced champion in VanVleet, who had spent the first seven years of his career with the same franchise, was monumental for this organization. Not only will he be the team's starting point guard and their veteran leader, but he can be the bridge that helps connect the youth of the franchise to long-term success.

Throughout his entire career, VanVleet has always been regarded as a tough-minded two-way guard who can play with or without the ball in his hands. Even though his numbers and production were down this past season, the Rockets are confident that he will be able to have an All-Star-like season once more.

After agreeing to this large deal, the Rockets were not done in free agency. They continued to round out their roster with experienced talents by signing Dillon Brooks, Jock Landale, Jeff Green and Aaron Holiday.

Brooks, who had been linked to Houston ever since the Memphis Grizzlies made it clear that they were not going to be re-signing him, ended up receiving a four-year, $80 million deal from the Rockets. Many have criticized the team for paying this much for Brooks, especially since his tenure with the Grizzlies ended with him being a liability offensively.

Since then, Brooks has continued to work on his game and he recently had some major performances in the FIBA World Cup for Team Canada, helping them claim the bronze medal overseas.

“I'm really happy for Dillon. Largely, that's the player we thought we were signing so it's not at all surprising,” Rockets general manager Rafael Stone said recently when talking about Brooks' performances for his country. “It's great and more so than any player I can remember in recent memory, there's a narrative about him that's odd and wrong. I think the whole world has kind of owned that he's a really good basketball player… He played like we expected him to and we are excited to get him back and get him integrated.”

VanVleet and Brooks have instantly become the veteran leaders of this team and the Rockets obviously believe in their abilities to find success, hence why they invested $210 million in them. Landale, Green and Holiday are three other free agent signings who will spread out the depth of this roster.

Landale stepped up into a bigger role with the Phoenix Suns last season, and Holiday has always been a solid shooting threat coming off the bench. As for Green, he returns to the Rockets after winning a championship with the Denver Nuggets. Another player with championship experience, it's clear to see that Stone and this front office wanted to add players who have been around winning cultures.

This year's NBA Draft is what really got Rockets fans excited, especially since they ended up grabbing two players with very high ceilings. Amen Thompson was the team's fourth overall selection and he is a player who could very much become the face of this franchise alongside Jalen Green in a few years. There truly are no limitations to Thompson's game, which makes him a versatile option the team can move around at multiple positions.

Size, athleticism and IQ are three things you cannot teach and Thompson possesses them all. It will be interesting to see what his role with the Rockets looks like early on, especially since the team signed guards such as VanVleet and Holiday in the offseason.

Whitmore was expected to be a Top 10 pick in the draft, but he ended up slipping due to some medical concerns. The Rockets had been eyeing him throughout the entire draft process and to be able to grab him with the 20th overall selection was a dream come true.

At the Las Vegas Summer League, Whitmore put on a show. In six games, he averaged 19.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 44.7 percent from the floor. He recorded a Summer League record-tying eight steals in one game and went on to be named the NBA 2K24 Summer League MVP.

There are minutes to be had out on the wing in Houston entering the 2023-24 season. This is why both Thompson and Whitmore have a chance to see a solid amount of minutes early on in their careers.

The Rockets replaced uncertain and unreliable youthful talents on their roster with experienced and high-potential players, which is why they ended up having a very underrated offseason compared to the rest of the teams in the league.

Latest on Kevin Porter Jr.

Houston Rockets, Kevin Porter Jr.

On September 11, Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. was arrested in New York City after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend Kysre Gondrezick, who is a free agent in the WNBA. According to reports, she sustained a laceration to the right side of her face and was complaining about pain to her neck.

Days after, there were more reports stating that Gondrezick suffered a fractured neck vertebra and a cut above her right eye as a result of the incident with Porter. The 23-year-old guard and his representation have since requested that the Manhattan District Attorney's office drop his second-degree felony assault charges since a forensic study of her injuries showed that Gondrezick has a congenital condition for a cracked vertebra, something they are claiming was not caused by this altercation.

At this time, the Rockets have not released any formal statement, as they are gathering all the prominent information needed to investigate the matter. The NBA is conducting its own investigation and is awaiting further details from law enforcement before making a decision on Porter's future in the league.

“The allegations here are horrific. There are no questions about that,” Commissioner Adam Silver firmly stated at the NBA's Board of Governors meeting recently. “But I don't know anything more about the actual facts other than reading those allegations. We have a domestic violence policy that was collectively bargained with the player's association. Again, when I say bargained, it was not a contentious issue. They certainly feel as strongly as we do about the issue.

“Every case also depends on its unique facts. I think here, when we're not in season, there is a little bit more of an opportunity to absorb more of what's happening before we act,” Silver explained. “I think if it were a case when we were in the middle of the season, we would be compelled to do something faster. And so, while ultimately we're required to be differential to law enforcement when there's an investigation, I think this has given us the opportunity, because we are not in season, to take a little bit of time to understand the situation.”

The Rockets have been evaluating all of their options pertaining to Porter and his new four-year, $63 million contract that begins during the 2023-24 season. Regardless of what is and is not true about what happened in New York, it appears as if Porter's time in Houston is coming to an end. The team has reached out to several other organizations about a potential trade involving the former first-round pick, offering draft picks as an incentive for teams to acquire Porter.

While he remains on their roster, it is very unlikely that Porter will be in attendance for training camp, which is set to begin in the next couple of weeks.

2023-24 season outlook

The drama surrounding Porter has distracted many from the fact that this has been a terrific offseason for the Rockets. VanVleet and Brooks will be instant contributors on both sides of the floor and they will help set the foundation for the culture that Udoka looks to build in his first year with the organization.

Many coaches in the league may know what they are talking about when it comes to Xs and Os, but relationship building and having the veterans of the team believe in you is equally as important. If the locker room doesn't believe in their head coach and help him establish a winning culture, then the organization is doomed to fail.

Just look at the Sacramento Kings and what they accomplished this past year. In his first year as the head coach of the franchise, Mike Brown came in and he made it clear that change was going to happen. He had the backing of the team's leaders in De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, resulting in them ending their 16-year playoff skid. For Houston, Udoka is going to put this group in a position to succeed from a planning standpoint every game, which shifts the focus for potential success onto the new leaders.

Believe it or not, this team that went 22-60 during the 2022-23 season actually had contributors and a solid amount of depth. Green, Sengun, Eason and Smith are all young, emerging talents who will be leaned on for offensive production outside of VanVleet and Brooks. This is going to be a big year for Green especially, as he is on the cusp of becoming a star.

His touches and production will decline slightly since he will not be taking every single shot this upcoming year, but Green is the key to the Rockets finding long-term success. Everyone within the organization always raves about his potential and he's the one player stars of the league are always speaking highly of in Houston.

The Rockets have veterans, they have growing talent, they have a head coach who's been to the NBA Finals, and they have a respectable depth. Maybe they are still a year or two away from making it back to the playoffs, but Houston should absolutely be in the conversation for a play-in tournament spot during the 2023-24 season.