After a 20-game losing streak, what are the Rockets reaching for?

The Houston Rockets were forced into a rebuild, a James Harden trade and now endured a 20-game losing streak. What are they reaching for now?

Losing is never fun. Coming up short after trying your hardest is always a desultory feeling, but even in the NBA, where every team is composed of a handful of the best basketball players in the world, sometimes one is just outmatched. It’s just something a player has to become accustomed to. The season is long and no team comes out of it unscathed, without suffering a handful of defeats that range from the expected to the heartbreaking to the ignominious. It is not until a number of those losses string together that things get really depressing though, when answers and solutions have been sought with none working enough to keep them from accumulating.

On Sunday, the Houston Rockets became just the eighth team in NBA history to lose 20 consecutive games in a single season. It was a close game, with Houston briefly taking a 110-109 lead late in the fourth quarter, but they were unable to pull it out despite a combined 74 points from Christian Wood, John Wall, and Victor Oladipo. It was the latest setback for a team that has been having a very rough season, a franchise that may have reasons for optimism in the long term even if they do not currently appear evident.

James Harden is both great and singular. Accordingly, the Rockets spent eight years trying to cater to his specific set of skills, acquiring players that could accompany and seamlessly blend in alongside him. The problem is that, now that he is in Brooklyn, many of those players, talented as they may be, make less sense for a team without Harden at its center. Players such as Danuel House, Ben McLemore, and Eric Gordon all made great supporting pieces in the James Harden show. They all knew their roles and played them well, but without him, there’s been a sense of these players being unmoored, something that could be said of the franchise as a whole.

Where do the Houston Rockets go from here?

It’s hard for a team to find any success if they lack continuity. That’s been a struggle for most teams this season as they try to navigate playing in the midst of a global pandemic, but the problem has been exacerbated for the Rockets due to a number of trades and injuries. Twenty-three different players have suited up for Houston this season and 15 have started at least one game. Only four players have played at least 30 games for Houston and one of those four, P.J. Tucker, just got traded last week. And there’s a decent chance that, with Victor Oladipo on an expiring contract and unlikely to re-sign, the Rockets will be making another sizable trade before Thursday’s deadline. If they do, then the turnover will continue and the likelihood of their turning things around this season will become even more remote.

On the bright side, the Rockets do have a number of promising young players. Jae’Sean Tate has been a pleasant surprise; Kevin Porter Jr. is a skilled scorer and could be a good reclamation project following a rough tenure in Cleveland; Christian Wood looked like a leading candidate for Most Improved Player before an ankle injury kept him out for 17 games. But is a situation such as Houston’s is conducive to player development? And also, does Houston see any of these players as building blocks or as mere stopgaps meant to fill minutes before a second, more intentional phase of rebuilding begins?

The problem with the moves the Rockets have made this season is that they seem to be aimless. There appears to be no overarching purpose or sense of direction behind them, and if there is one, it’s not clear what it could be. The team seems to just be acquiring assets and players hoping that some greatness is uncovered, following the blueprint of Sam Presti in Oklahoma City, but without the same amount of planning or foresight. This makes sense since the Rockets did not begin the season planning to rebuild. Rather, after a series of playoff runs, including two trips to the Conference Finals since 2015, the team was hoping to take another shot at winning a title. But with Harden demanding a trade, any such plans had to be abandoned since the Rockets management seems to not have replaced that old one with a newer, better one.

Any hope for the future has to be more theoretical than actual. While the Rockets gave up a number of picks to acquire Russell Westbrook in 2019, they made up for it by essentially taking control of Brooklyn’s first-rounders until 2027. While those picks are not likely to be anything special for a few years considering how good the Nets currently are, they could be lottery picks in a few years, which would allow Houston the opportunity to rebuild. Perhaps once the trade deadline passes and the offseason comes, the front office will have a clearer picture of what they have on their hands and how to move forward. That’s probably not much consolation to any current Rockets player though. Once things turn around, will any of them still be in Houston?

One sad element of this streak is that coach Stephen Silas, despite being in his first season, is sure to bear a sizable amount of the blame regardless of how much the Rockets’ poor showing this season is actually his fault. Silas finally got his first chance as a head coach this year after two decades as a respected assistant and scout throughout the league. It looked like he would have a chance to guide a playoff team, but with Harden’s trade demand, those hopes evaporated and he’s now inherited a vastly different job than the one he was initially hired to do. It’s long been noted that black coaches often have to wait longer to get their first opportunity as a head coach and are often given fewer chances to succeed than their white counterparts. In light of what a strange season this has been, not just for the Rockets but for the NBA as a whole, Silas should hopefully be granted more leeway than he would receive otherwise. Though it’s still an unfortunate element of coaches having to often accept blame that should more accurately be placed upon the shoulders of management and ownership.

The Rockets did finally win a game last night, defeating the Raptors by 18. While this victory is not indicative of a wholesale transformation — they can’t count on Tate and Sterling Brown to shoot a combined 15 of 19 every night — it at least stops the proverbial bleeding. If they lose on Wednesday night to the Hornets, it will only be a single loss, not their 22nd in a row. That’s not a ton of comfort for the players and coaches, though it is still an easier burden to bear. Better days may not be imminent for the Rockets, but at least the worst should be over.

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