Rockets restock with historic draft haul

Jalen Green #0, Josh Christopher #9 and Alperen Sengun #26 of the Houston Rockets
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Less than a year ago, the Rockets were playing in the playoffs. They were James Harden‘s team. In every sense. Prioritizing the present, Houston had the oldest roster weighted for playing time in the 2020 postseason.

Harden’s trade request completely derailed the Rockets, who eventually dealt him to the Nets. A team designed to win around Harden made no sense without the superstar.

But Houston is quickly charting a new course, primarily around a record-tying four first-round picks:

Just two other teams had so many first-rounders in a single draft:

Trail Blazers in 2006:

  • No 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge
  • No. 6 pick Brandon Roy
  • No. 27 pick Sergio Rodriguez
  • No. 30 pick Joel Freeland

Kings in 1990:

  • No. 7 pick Lionel Simmons
  • No. 14 pick Travis Mays
  • No. 18 pick Duane Causwell
  • No. 23 pick Anthony Bonner

Obviously, those precedents yielded mixed results.

Portland built a winner around Roy and Aldridge. After Roy got hurt, Aldridge remained a star while the Trail Blazers ushered in a new era with Damian Lillard.

Sacramento’s 1990 second-rounder – Bimbo Coles, who was immediately traded – had a better career than any of the team’s first-round picks. Already in a four-year playoff drought, the Kings went another eight straight seasons with losing records.

The Rockets are certainly aiming higher.

Green headlines their draft class. An electric scoring guard, he has an upside unsurpassed by anyone in this draft – including No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham. Self-created scoring is the NBA’s premium skill, and Green can get buckets attacking the rim or shooting jumpers. His combination of talent and athleticism is tantalizing.

I’m usually a sucker for young players who, regardless of any other concerns, find ways to play productive basketball. Sengun (MVP of the top Turkish league at 18) and Garuba (EuroLeague Rising Star at 19) certainly qualify.

But I wasn’t smitten with either. Sengun faces athleticism issues, and unlike Nikola Jokic – a common favorable comp – isn’t particularly large. Though Garuba commendably became a positive contributor in Europe’s top league as a teenager, he’s a hustle player rather than someone with an easily projectable high upside.

Still, I ranked both Sengun (No. 11) and Garuba (No. 17) higher on my board than their actual draft slots (Nos. 16 and Nos. 23).

Christopher is more of a wildcard, a powerful athlete with an impressive bag of moves who underperformed at Arizona State last season. I like him just fine in the range he was picked.

For what it’s worth, Houston mostly assembled this draft capital before the offseason.

The Rockets earned the No. 2 pick the straightforward way – being terrible then getting a little lucky in the lottery. Houston’s expected draft position entering the lottery was between the No. 3 and No. 4 pick, leaning slightly toward No. 4.

The No. 23 pick came from the Robert Covington trade with the Trail Blazers in November. The No. 24 pick came from the P.J. Tucker trade with the Bucks in March.

Aside from choosing Green over Evan Mobley, acquiring Sengun was the Rockets’ big offseason move. Houston dealt two future first-rounders, albeit heavily protected Pistons and Wizards picks, to the Thunder. That’s not a cheap price, though it’s at least possible neither pick conveys as a first-rounder due to the protections.

The Rockets still have four extra future first-rounders from the Harden and Tucker trades, Christian Wood, Jae'Sean Tate, Kenyon Martin Jr., Kevin Porte Jr. and now Green, Sengun, Garuba and Christopher. This rebuild is on its way.

Houston also gave relatively hefty contracts to Daniel Theis (three years, $26,083,107 then a fourth-year team option) and David Nwaba (two years, $9,672,000 then a third-year team option).

Theis is a solid defensive-minded center who sets good screens and can shoot a little. Nwaba’s intensity and defense make him a helpful wing, a position where every team could use more depth.

But I’m not sure how Theis (29) or Nwaba (28) help the Rockets, who aren’t close to winning. Maybe Theis and Nwaba will maintain positive trade value, but by paying to get team options included on their deals, Houston raised the players’ salaries above the level potential suitors might value.

Even more curiously, the Rockets sent the Bulls $1.1 million cash to acquire Theis via sign-and-trade, allowing Houston to preserve its mid-level exception for… who knows what? The exception remains untouched. Maybe the Rockets chased a free agent who signed elsewhere. At this stage of rebuilding, Houston looks like an unlikely post-buyout destination during the season.

Credit Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta for spending to give his team more optionality. Having the mid-level exception still available only helps Houston.

But these are faint clues the Rockets might not be as patient with their rebuild as they should be.

Still, Houston actualized an intriguing young core from its (still-vast) pool of picks. That’s progress. The Rockets have a direction if they want it.

Offseason grade: C+