Author: Stephen Knox
This article originally ran at Deadspin
Once the NCAA Basketball Tournaments come around, the rest of the NBA season can feel like a slog. If you were already upset about players missing games, the volume gets ratcheted up on that, and at that point it’s fairly clear which teams are the best in the league. It’s also hard to muster excitement for a March NBA on TNT Tuesday after inhaling single-elimination basketball through a gas mask since Thursday. Then once the college basketball postseason concludes, there’s another two weeks left of regular season games that make some people wish for a real-life simulate button.
It doesn’t have to be this way though.
Most people are not like me. They don’t have NBA League Pass, and even if they do, it’s probably not their default television choice. In 2018, it was during one of those groggy Weeknights that I was in and out of sleep on the couch when at a certain moment I was shaken awake by a few plays from the Los Angeles Lakers. I doubt they won the game, they didn’t win much the year before LeBron James’ arrival, but they were young, explosive, and making plays as the competitive teams in the league were winding down.
Since then, once the calendar turns to mid-March, outside of a major prime-time matchup in which the stars decide they want to play against each other before the playoffs, the best bet for entertainment is a young team trying to build on something positive at the end of the season. This season, that team has been the Houston Rockets.
Jalen Green was supposed to be in the Rookie of the Year conversation at the end of the season. Jalen Rose and Jay Williams thought that he would be the best player from the 2021 draft class. It was a brutal start this fall for Green. In October the Rockets played six games, and Green shot 33.7 percent from the field. November was a bit more respectable, but he was still only averaging 14.5 points per game on 40.7 percent from the field. He also went down with a hamstring injury at the end of the month that cost him 14 games.
When he came back, brief success tailspun into a complete disaster. There was a stretch in late January when Green shot less than 25 percent from the field in three consecutive games. In 14 games in January he averaged 13.1 points per game on 32.8 percent from the field, 28.7 percent from three. This all while Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes, the third and fourth picks in the NBA Draft, were the clear favorites in the Rookie of the Year race while playing for teams jockeying for postseason positioning. He even somehow managed to be the most disappointing performer in the Slam Dunk Contest — the event that was supposed to show off his greatest asset, his athleticism.
After the break, all Green did was average 28.7 points per game on 47.6 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from three while attempting eight per game. It can be argued that he’s been the best rookie since the break, and the most exciting player in the league. If you turn on the Rockets he will make at least one play in every game worthy to be shared in the group chat. Look at this block he had against the Toronto Raptors. He was high enough to crash head-first into the rim. Barnes should get the award for his consistency and helping the Raptors out of the play-in, but let’s be clear, he can’t make this play.
As you can see from the bookend of this sequence, Green isn’t the only exciting player on the Rockets. That is Kevin Porter Jr. flying past Pascal Siakam for the slam. Porter’s blow ups have been what he’s received the most publicity for, but he also has been playing much better basketball post all-star weekend. He’s averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting over 35 percent from the 3-point line. On top of being a high-flyer, and long-range threat, he is a dynamic ball handler. Defenders who are isolated against him, good luck.
The Rockets also have another first-round pick from this season, Alperen Şengün. They traded a couple of future first-rounders to the Oklahoma City Thunder who selected the young talent from Turkey for the Rockets. During summer-league play, he showed natural footwork in the paint, nice touch at the rim, and also some playmaking ability along with being a strong presence in the paint. He and Jonathan Kuminga were two of my favorite players to watch during the 2021 Summer League.
Şengün has not been a double-double machine, or even averaged double digits this season. But he has also improved, and if you watched him play in the post recently, you would see that he’s starting to get a great feel for the game, even though he will probably play another year of summer league.
The Rockets have another impressive young athlete in Jae’Sean Tate, and let’s not forget the one player everyone expected to produce once they traded for him, their No. 1 option— Christian Wood. Since the Rockets traded for him, he’s averaged 19.1 points per game, a shade under 10 rebounds, and shot 50.1 percent from the field. Wood is also a long player capable of snatching an alley-oop from the heavens.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, all of this fun did not result in consistent winning at any point this season. They had the worst record in the NBA. They’re the classic play fast, second in the NBA in PACE, to cover for their lack of efficiency on either end of the court, 26th on offense and second to last on defense. At least their win total improved by three wins from last season.
Even though the Rockets finished 2021-22 with another dreadful record, there is hope. There is talent on the rosters, the players are just going to have to be more consistent on offense and play at least a little defense. Until they make these changes, by adding to the roster or their players’ games maturing, personally I’m satisfied with the Rockets entertaining me for two months before the playoffs begin. In these final months, the league is sometimes at its best with young players bouncing around the floor just trying to make plays and get better.