This past week, perhaps the biggest event for the current iteration of the Houston Rockets arrived with the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery. For the Rockets, hopeful to get at least one of the top 3 picks, and tied for the best odds for the #1 pick, that they only ended up with the #4 pick rates a major disappointment. Compounding that disappointment is that the Rockets face increased pressure to improve in the standings. Yet, the Rockets are not alone in that sentiment. Their counterparts at NRG stadium, the Houston Texans, also face pressure to improve. This has not been a good decade for the Rockets or the Texans, but maybe the tide will turn. If nothing else, the fans and ownership cannot stand another year of suck.
The first 3 years of the 2020s saw both the Rockets and Texans follow parallel tracks of misery. While not a word-for-word match, there are enough similarities. The decade started with both viewing themselves as contenders. Both had their franchise cornerstones (James Harden and Deshaun Watson). Both had their successes (two Western Conference Finals appearances among five straight playoff appearances for the Rockets between 2015-2019; four division titles and two playoff wins for the Texans in that same timeframe), but also their playoff heartbreaks (the Rockets falling to Golden State in 2018 despite a 3-2 series lead and home-court advantage; the Texans losing to Kansas City in the 2019-2020 season Divisional round despite a 24-0 lead).
Yet, the teams possessed structural weaknesses that hastened their respective downfalls. The Rockets, after back-to-back tough playoff losses to Golden State and facing internal dissent between Harden and Chris Paul, made a massive gamble to trade Paul to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook. Along with sacrificing control of future drafts, the team also found themselves forced into playing full-time small-ball, which it could not overcome its limitations in their eventual loss to the Lakers in the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals. Not long after the 2020 season, Mike D’Antoni was not retained as Head Coach, and GM Darryl Morey moved on to the 76ers. Stephen Silas (HC) and Rafael Stone (GM) took over, looking to keep the championship window open. Instead, they both watched the sudden disintegration of the team, with Westbrook and Harden traded, and the team shifting focus from the title to the Draft Lottery.
The Texans also entered the 2020 season hopeful of contention. Yet, a career season from Watson and a full-slate of games played by JJ Watt could not overcome a deficient roster and they cratered to a 4-12 record. HC/GM Bill O’Brien did not survive the season. Multiple short-sighted personnel moves left the team in a horrid position, with few quality draft picks, little cap space, and a talent-starved roster. Matters were not helped when Watson, mad about a lack of say in hiring of Caserio, demanded a trade. Yet, before any trade, Watson found himself in massive legal trouble, going from franchise savior to franchise albatross in a matter of weeks.
Thus, both teams endured bad seasons and the fans responded in kind. Attendance fell for both organizations. The Rockets didn’t suffer quite the leadership turnover that plagued the Texans, especially as the later when through two head coaches in two seasons, both after long and asinine searches. Still, the Houston NBA squad possessed their share of personnel drama, as several players butted heads with Coach Silas. The Rockets’ main post-Harden hope, Center Christian Wood, was not the answer, and the Rockets traded him prior to the 2022 season. The Rockets became a dramatically younger team, mostly with their higher draft picks from 2021 (Green, Sungun) and 2022 (Smith Jr, Eason).
The Texans didn’t immediately go full youth movement, but mainly due to a lack of draft capital in 2021. In 2022, they did bring in younger talent with the potential to build into franchise mainstays (Stingly Jr., Pitre, Pierce). Yet, while the teams restructured, their records remained the worst in their respective leagues. Unfortunately, neither squad, despite their respective badness, could lock down the #1 pick. The Rockets unlucky with the ping-pong balls of the Lottery, and the Texans either not bad enough at the end of a season (2021) or unlucky/incompetent with a last second win on the season’s final day (2022).
Misfortunes notwithstanding, both organizations find themselves under pressure. Fans can understand to a point that rebuilding teams struggle. That both Harden and Watson left under less-than-ideal circumstances gave the organizations a little leeway. Neither team made big-splash moves for immediate short-term improvements. However, neither played exciting ball, and fans, with little promise of winning or thrills, stayed away. Those type of actions get the notice of owners, and the patience for long-term builds only goes so far. Caserio hired and fired two coaches in two years. Rarely do GMs stay around to get a 3rd. Stone oversaw the sudden 180-degree shift of the team and did make some solid moves, but without on-court results, he too could receive his pink slip.
2023 does not figure to see either the Rockets or Texans in championship contention. However, both have reasons for optimism that make increased expectations not unreasonable. The Rockets are the youngest squad in the NBA, and along with two picks in the first round of the upcoming NBA draft and $60M in cap space, have the capacity for major improvement. The team moved on from Silas and brought in former Boston coach Ime Udoka. While not without controversy, Udoka did lead a Boston team to the NBA Finals in his last full season and has a record of getting a lot out of young talent.
As for the Texans, this off-season saw the squad also make major moves towards improvement. The team brought in arguably the hottest coaching prospect in DeMeco Ryans. The Texans didn’t make a huge splash in free agency, but did bring in some veteran talent that rates higher than the DVD-bargain-bin-at-Walmart level. Then came the 2023 NFL draft. The Texans, coming in with the #2 pick, drafted CJ Stroud, perhaps the best QB on the roster since Watson. Then no sooner had Stroud finished his post-draft interview than the Texans moved up in the draft and selected LB/DE Will Anderson Jr. Within the span of 10 minutes, the team selected its potential franchise QB and franchise defender. Couple that with the emerging talent on the team, the days of 3-4 wins, if not gone, cannot continue.
Both can’t really afford to suck again, as neither controls their highest potential draft pick (the Texans’ pick went to Arizona in the trade for Anderson pick and the Rockets’ 2024 pick belongs to Oklahoma City from the Westbrook trade). Another bottom of standings record is likely to see Caserio and Stone gone. Still, if either the Rockets or Texans need a sign of hope, they can both look to their MLB brothers at Minute Maid. The 2010s started out with the Astros playing the worst baseball in the major leagues. Yet, they broke through and are now in their greatest stretch as a franchise. There is hope, but for the Rockets and Texans, that hope now comes with actual expectations. For both, time to deliver.