NBA draft 2022: Why the Houston Rockets are going all-in on their 'very painful' rebuild

ByTim MacMahon ESPN logo
Thursday, June 23, 2022

HOUSTON -- Christian Wood keeps swishing 3-pointers and smiling, the skilled big man showing off his shooting range and seemingly responding whenever the other team gets within striking distance.

It's June 13, and Game 5 of the NBA Finals tips off in eight hours, but metaphorically, this pickup game takes place as far as possible from the two cities hosting the league's championship series.

The location: the practice gym inside the Toyota Center, home to the Houston Rockets, the franchise that has won an NBA-worst 37 games over the past two seasons.

Eric Gordon -- the lone player remaining on the Rockets' roster from the time before they launched into a rebuild -- is feeding Wood for some of these 3s. The duo has been a staple at weekday morning voluntary workouts, which routinely feature more than half of the Rockets' roster and some players from their G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

These sessions start with shooting and skill work supervised by Rockets coaches, as allowed by league rules, and end with pickup games that staffers are permitted only to watch. As is the case this morning, those runs typically pit the vets versus the kids.

The team getting torched by Wood features a few players fresh off their rookie seasons -- Daishen Nix, an undrafted guard who starred for the G League champion Vipers and signed a four-year deal with the Rockets late in the season, and first-round picks Josh Christopher and Usman Garuba.

None of the Rockets' rookies from last season -- a group headlined by No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green and 16th overall pick Alperen Sengun -- are old enough to buy a beer. But they all figure prominently in the Rockets' plans for the immediate future and years to come.

The same can't be said for the 26-year-old Wood, the Rockets' leading scorer and rebounder over the past two seasons.

Two days after his pickup-game display, the Rockets agreed to trade Wood to the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 26 overall pick and a batch of expiring salaries, four players who might not be on the regular-season roster and certainly won't be in the rotation.

Wood would have actually been a hindrance to Houston's plan if he played the final season of his three-year, $41 million contract for the Rockets, who will significantly increase Sengun's playing time in his second season.

Houston also anticipates selecting "one of the three stars" with the No. 3 overall pick in Thursday's draft (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN App), as owner Tilman Fertitta puts it, referring to Auburn's Jabari Smith, Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren and Duke's Paolo Banchero, listed in the order of ESPN's most recent mock draft.

The young get younger, as the Rockets now have three first-round picks in the draft (Nos. 3, 17 and 26), part of a rebuilding plan that requires extreme patience after years of going all-in pursuing a title.

"The priority is development right now, and along with development comes winning habits and doing things the right way," Rockets coach Stephen Silas says after watching the voluntary workout. "Hopefully, that leads to some wins, but development is the priority."

Houston has prioritized development so much that it mothballed former All-Star guard John Wall, paying him $44 million not to play last season and clearing the way for then-21-year-old Kevin Porter Jr. to start next to Green. Wall is owed $47 million next season, and he's expected to get a buyout unless Rockets general manager Rafael Stone can somehow find a trade partner for the 31-year-old guard.

That's part of the price the Rockets, with Fertitta's approval, have been willing to pay for instantly transitioning from Finals contention to full teardown almost two years ago. It's not a shift the franchise wanted to make after competing for a championship during James Harden's eight-year tenure in Houston, and giving up significant assets in attempts to find his superstar partner.

The Rockets desperately tried to extend that era, but once Harden decided it was over, the franchise determined that a long, painful rebuild was the most realistic route for an eventual return to relevancy.

"We're trying to build a core of individuals who can become the foundation of a really good team," Stone says, sitting in an office overlooking the practice court the day after returning from Memphis, where he watched Banchero work out and met with the prospect and his representatives before they all met again in Houston.

"What we want is to see improvement, to see improvement, to see improvement. As long as we're seeing that, we're pretty happy with the rebuild, and I was definitely happy with last year.

"You don't want to stunt their growth by trying to steal a win here or there. Philosophically, we're very cognizant of that. If your goal is to put together a team that's really growing, it is different than a team that's going to try to maximize every win."

THIS SITUATION ISN'T what Fertitta thought he was signing up for when he paid an NBA-record $2.2 billion to buy his hometown franchise in September 2017, when the Rockets were riding high.

Chris Paul had just pushed his way to Houston via a sign-and-trade with the LA Clippers. The hope was that Paul's arrival finally provided Harden the sidekick he needed to lead the Rockets to a title.

They came close -- "a hamstring away," a lot of people in Houston will always believe, in reference to the injury that sidelined Paul for the final two games of the 2018 Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors -- before it all crumbled.

After Harden and Paul butted heads throughout the next season, the Rockets shipped the latter and a package of first-round picks to Oklahoma City in a desperation trade for Russell Westbrook. That star partnership fizzled after one season, and a mass exodus followed, including the departures of coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey before trade demands from Westbrook and Harden.

At that point, the front office made the collective, clear-headed decision to fully commit to a rebuild rather than attempt to continue to field a competitive team. The Rockets decided it was better to become bad than boring.

"It's very painful, but I know we're doing it the right way," Fertitta says over the phone while peering at the Tower Bridge in London from his yacht on a family vacation. "The future is exciting."

"The NBA punishes the middle," says Stone, a longtime front-office employee promoted to GM after Morey's exit. "That's just the way the system is set up."

Houston received one rotation player in the 2021 deal that delivered Harden to the Brooklyn Nets -- Victor Oladipo -- taking a swing at the upside of a former All-Star guard coming back from a ruptured quad in the final season of his contract. (The Rockets' roster has nothing to show now for Oladipo, who was sent to the Miami Heat before the 2022 trade deadline.)

The Rockets could have taken center Jarrett Allen in the deal, but they opted to add another first-round pick by rerouting him to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where Allen became an All-Star last season. Houston also could have had wing Caris LeVert but preferred the higher upside and shorter contract of Oladipo.

Another option: Houston could have sent Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers -- where he ended up 13 months later after forcing another trade -- for a package that was light on draft picks and headlined by former All-NBA guard Ben Simmons. After months of due diligence, the Rockets had determined Simmons wasn't suited to be the centerpiece of a contending team despite his talent and pedigree.

Patrick Fertitta, Tilman's son who is heavily involved in the Rockets' day-to-day operations, credits Stone and assistant general manager Eli Witus for "making the hard and, at the time, very unpopular decision" to prioritize draft capital in the Harden trade. And they all praise Silas for handling the pivot to a rebuild so professionally, considering how much his job changed in the months after Houston hired him to replace D'Antoni.

It might have been unpopular, but Stone insists the decision wasn't difficult.

"There wasn't an equally attractive alternative at the time. Not even close from our perspective," Stone says. "I am a big believer in going all-in. Whether it is to go all-in to rebuild or all-in to win a championship."

Houston received a haul of first-rounders in the deal: the Nets' picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026, a 2022 pick from the Milwaukee Bucks via Cleveland (that was later bumped back to 2023 in the separate P.J. Tucker trade) and four years of swap rights with the Nets. (The swap rights in 2021 did not convey.)

The Rockets anticipated that the superteam the Nets formed with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden wouldn't have a long shelf life, boosting the value of Brooklyn's future picks. It was a bonus that this season was so bumpy in Brooklyn, giving the Rockets the No. 17 pick in this draft instead of the expected late first-rounder.

The Rockets' decision-makers were also betting on the benefits of hitting rock bottom.

"If you look back at what we would have gotten versus the draft capital that we got, I couldn't be happier with the decision," Tilman Fertitta says.

The Rockets needed high-end talent to return to relevancy. That meant a lot of losing. They landed Green with the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, sweating out what were essentially coin-flip odds in the lottery because the Thunder owned the rights to swap that pick with Miami's if Houston didn't land in the top four. (Still owed to OKC, a franchise in a similar rebuild with an even larger stockpile of first-rounders, from the Westbrook deal: top-four-protected picks in 2024 and 2026.) And Houston hopes to add another young franchise cornerstone with the No. 3 pick.

Stone selected Green over the safer pick of Evan Mobleybecause of the belief that Green had a higher ceiling. That's a general draft philosophy of the Rockets' rebuild: Take big swings and hope to hit home runs.

"We made the decision from an ownership standpoint that our goal was to win a championship," says Patrick Fertitta, seated next to his father on the yacht, enjoying the last days of a brief vacation before returning to Houston for the final week of draft preparation. "In order to win a championship, you have to take material sacrifice and pain. I think [for] a lot of teams out there, a lot of organizations, a lot of ownership groups, a lot of front offices, their pain threshold doesn't allow that.

"We made a decision to go forward with that. It hasn't been easy at times, but we're committed to it, and we are aligned from ownership to the front office and on down the line to doing what it takes to give ourselves the highest probability of eventually winning a title.

"That's the path we've chosen, and we're sticking to it."

IT WOULD BE frowned upon for anyone in the front office to admit it, but the Rockets couldn't have scripted the final two weeks of the 2021-22 season much better.

Green, the rookie who got off to a rough start, finished with a spectacular run, scoring at least 30 points in six of the last seven games, including 41 in the season finale. Porter, the talented, young reclamation project in his first full season as a point guard, averaged an efficient 28.7 points and 7.4 assists during the stretch.

And the Rockets lost all seven games, most of which were competitive in the final minutes, learning lessons while sealing the best possible lottery odds.

"You've got to take some L's to get to where you want to be," Green says on his first day back from a brief Mexican beach vacation, the first break he has taken from the voluntary offseason workouts.

"It's going to take time, a lot of hard work and dedication to get to where we want to get to. I would say it's coming sooner than later, just because I'm in the gym with everybody every day. I just feel like we're coming in here with a different vibe and mentality."

The Rockets' confidence in Green as a foundational player never wavered, even after he was one of the NBA's least efficient players in the first month of his career before missing multiple weeks because of a strained hamstring. They "threw him in the deep end," as Stone says, and were encouraged by how Green responded.

"He had struggles, and then you really find out about the character of a guy when they struggle," Silas says. "What are they going to do? Are they going to pout? Are they going to shut themselves off and shut themselves down and not listen, not try? Or are they going to do what he did, which is just work through it and listen all the way through it and watch film and become laser focused on improvement?"

Every future scenario the Rockets' brass considers features a starring role for Green, whose primary offseason focus is adding strength to his 186-pound frame.

They see Sengun, who is bouncing between Houston and his commitments to the Turkish national team this summer, as a key contributor.

They believe they have a handful of quality complementary pieces with room to grow, including Jae'Sean Tate and Garrison Mathews, mid-20s role players the Rockets found on the fringes over the past two years who were locked into team-friendly deals.

How, or whether, Porter fits isn't as clear.

Porter, 22, who was acquired for essentially nothing (a top-55-protected second-rounder) after he wore out his welcome in Cleveland, is eligible for an extension to his rookie contract this summer. The Rockets could also simply allow Porter to play out the season and become an unrestricted free agent.

There is a line of thought from many around the league, including some prominent agents, that Porter isn't reliable enough to be a key part of a rebuilding plan. That reputation was reinforced when he angrily left at halftime during Houston's Jan. 1 home loss to the Denver Nuggets, prompting the team to suspend him for the next game. There are also doubts about whether Porter is capable of being a quality starting point guard, perhaps better suited for a sixth-man role.

Stone, in particular, praises Porter for drastically improving as a defender and catch-and-shoot threat, the two areas the Rockets' staff prioritized for him last summer. (Porter shot 48.2% on catch-and-shoot 3s last season, according to Second Spectrum tracking, the best among 227 players with at least 110 attempts.)

"He is not a finished product," Stone says. "He just turned 22. He needs to grow and improve, on and off the court, but we are excited about him and his trajectory."

The future of Gordon, 33, is likely a more pressing immediate issue. He remains a productive shooter who could help a playoff team (41.2% on 3s last season) and solid defender. There is strong confidence within the Houston front office that the Rockets could receive another first-round pick with a Gordon trade.

But the Rockets value Gordon, whom Silas refers to as "a rock" because of his quiet professionalism over the rough past two seasons, as a role model for their young players. Gordon says he's content with that role depending on "what kind of commitment the Rockets really want to give me." (Gordon's $20.9 million salary for the 2023-24 season is guaranteed only if he makes his first All-Star appearance or his team wins the title, and he's eligible to sign an extension on Sept. 3.)

"It's a tough situation," Gordon says. "When you're doing a rebuild, it's a long-term type thing. Guys have to know that this is a long-term plan. If it's a long-term plan for these young guys, then I have to know there's a long-term plan for me, too. That's the realness of it."

The reality is the Rockets won't measure progress in their rebuilding plan based on the standings again this season.

Tilman Fertitta says there is "no number of wins" he wants to see this season. He cites next summer's free agency, when Houston is going to have "so much cap space" -- the Rockets are projected to have as much as $70 million in the summer of 2023 -- is an opportunity for the franchise to make winning a priority again. For now, he just wants to "see improvement and watch these young players play hard."

It's a plan the Rockets' front office has convinced its billionaire boss is the best route back to NBA relevancy.

"I don't like losing, but we want to get to the right finish line," Tilman Fertitta says. "We do not want to be in basketball purgatory. It's a horrible place to be."

Related Video