The post-James Harden era has been unkind to the Houston Rockets, producing a difficult three-season stretch that will once again culminate in top-three draft odds and a consequential lottery night. And if Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta’s public “Pray for Victor” rallying cry from February is any indicator of where the organization’s best hopes currently lie, well, you get the picture.

Houston has spent the past few years reshaping its roster, having drafted Jalen Green (2021), Alperen Sengun (2021), Tari Eason (2022) and Jabari Smith Jr. (2022), along with trading for Kevin Porter Jr. The Rockets have also developed Kenyon Martin Jr. and Jae’Sean Tate, and annually field one of the NBA’s youngest rosters. Still, it has not led to wins, and the actual fit of the team they’ve assembled has been questionable at times.

With the Rockets hiring Ime Udoka to replace Stephen Silas as coach, this is shaping up as a key transitional summer for the franchise. Keep in mind that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported in December that Harden views Houston as a potential destination if he decides to opt out of his deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. And with a legitimate chance at adding Victor Wembanyama to their core, this could become one of the league’s most interesting rebuilds with the right offseason breaks.

The Rockets have a 14% chance to win the lottery, tied with the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs, and can draft no lower than sixth in any scenario after winning a tiebreaker with San Antonio.

Jeremy Woo breaks down how winning the draft lottery and the chance to draft Wembanyama would impact the Rockets.

How does Wembanyama fit with the Rockets?

It feels like a safe bet that any team drafting Wembanyama will immediately begin to tailor its plans around him, but his stylistic synergy with Houston’s other young players would seem to vary on paper.

No matter which prospect they select in the lottery, the Rockets will have to solve the problem of meshing the skill sets already present on the roster: Green and Porter are ball-dominant young guards, promising big man Sengun and his passing skills could be optimized with better ball movement, and they need to do more to help Smith, last year’s No. 3 pick, find shots within the offense.

The Rockets will hope their coaching change and the maturation of these younger players help smooth over some of the issues. But adding Wembanyama as an immediate focal point of the team would provide a natural impetus to begin reshaping the roster around him as necessary. The biggest question would be whether his presence leads to at least somewhat of a stylistic shift away from the catch-and-hold tendencies of the Green-and-Porter pairing.

While Wembanyama’s ability to shoot over defenders will certainly warrant isolation looks, his ability to create mismatches and stretch the floor will be best optimized with more movement and more teammates touching the ball.

Between a hypothetical Wembanyama addition and a new coaching staff, it’s fair to posit that macrolevel systemic and personnel changes could eventually be in the cards. Part of Wembanyama’s appeal is how malleable a star his skill level and size should allow him to be. But in the short term, the Rockets ought to prioritize evaluating which young players make sense with him and which ones don’t, and based on Houston’s recent results, expect a lot of trial and error in the early going.

Which current player could benefit the most from Wembanyama?

Adding Wembanyama to the mix as a potentially formidable rim protector and roving help defender could immediately provide a pathway for increased minutes for Sengun, providing the type of defensive cover he needs to be a more viable winning regular in the NBA. Sengun, who took over as Houston’s starting center last season, averaged less than 30 minutes per game as the Rockets experimented with personnel and often fielded smaller, spacing-oriented lineups, to varying effect. The 20-year-old is an efficient scorer, an exceptional passer at his position and a strong rebounder, but he also has been turnover-prone and doesn’t offer much as a rim-running target or rim protector.

The Turkish big man is an unorthodox center by NBA standards, and while highly productive for his age, he hasn’t totally meshed with the Rockets’ style.

Sengun would presumably guard stronger 5s and let Wembanyama operate in his natural role as a 4. On the offensive end, there’s potential for immediate passing chemistry between them. Wembanyama’s ability to stretch the floor would help open up room for the Rockets to play through Sengun a bit more, and the former will also be a massive target and safety valve late in the shot clock.

Which current player could be hurt the most because of Wembanyama?

While Porter and Green might inevitably wind up with a bit less offensive volume and freedom in a Wembanyama scenario, both are good enough catch-and-shoot players to fit alongside him. Houston could also create dangerous two-man game situations with Wembanyama and its guards that force defenses to pick and choose. Wembanyama is skilled enough on the perimeter that the Rockets could feasibly start him alongside Sengun and Smith in bigger lineups, but adding him into the mix might create somewhat of a developmental hurdle for Smith more than anyone else.

On the defensive end, Smith and Wembanyama would be a formidable and versatile pairing, and Houston could make a significant jump right away. But the concern would be that Smith’s offensive development could be stunted a bit by adding another jumper-oriented frontcourt player into the mix. Smith struggled shooting as a rookie, which doesn’t feel like a serious long-term concern, but the Rockets’ personnel and scheme didn’t optimize him as a scorer or consistently manufacture him many comfortable looks.

For Smith to tap into his considerable upside, you’d hope he has an opportunity to stretch himself more as a shot creator and get out of his comfort zone. Throwing Wembanyama into the mix might make Smith’s promising offensive skill set somewhat redundant and limit him from getting the type of touches he needs to fully access his ability as a scorer.

You got Wembanyama, now what?

The Rockets are operating on much thinner margins when it comes to playing their way out of the basement. Houston has top-four protection on only its 2024 first-round pick (which will otherwise go to Oklahoma City); top-10 swap protections on its 2025 first-round pick (the Thunder can otherwise exchange their own pick for the Rockets’ selection); and Houston’s 2026 first-round pick also has top-four protection, and otherwise goes to the Thunder.

The Rockets do have future draft picks on the way (most notably Brooklyn’s unprotected 2024 and 2026 firsts), but it behooves them to get better with at least some degree of expedience.

Houston is in a flexible position contractually, projecting to have $60 million in cap space with no major long-term money on the books. Green remains a year away from extension eligibility, and the Rockets primarily have rookie contracts on the books. Porter’s deal is non-guaranteed for 2024-25, making this effectively a contract year for the guard. The Rockets also have the No. 20 pick in this year’s draft (via the LA Clippers), allowing them to add another rookie.

The Rockets didn’t make a ton of visible on-court progress last season, and with Udoka on board and with the cap space available to aggressively upgrade the roster, Houston has an opportunity to be a player this summer in free agency.

No matter which direction they go, the Rockets would likely benefit from increased stability and veteran leadership as this rebuild moves forward, so long as they aren’t siphoning away important minutes from their returning youngsters. The prospect of a Harden return would certainly make things interesting — but it would also clutter up the backcourt minutes. Houston might want to get aggressive this summer but will need to be careful in its approach, whether or not it wins the No. 1 pick.

Can Wembanyama turn the Rockets into a playoff contender next season?

Based on how far away the Rockets were last season, Wembanyama alone probably won’t be enough to lead a playoff-level turnaround in the West, where a play-in berth required 40 wins this season. Most of the conference’s top half is either on stable footing or not in a position to fully rebuild and lose games. No matter how good Wembanyama is as a rookie, Houston as constituted is still an extremely young team, and most of its players will also be going through their first professional coaching change.

Of course, it’s reasonable to expect real improvement from any team that adds Wembanyama — he’s not going to look like your average rookie — but these things tend to take time. Even the most transformative talents tend to need an adjustment year before their teams take a leap. Considering the circumstances, if the Rockets are able to add a quality veteran player or two to the mix, then this could certainly be a different story. But as currently constructed, the playoffs still seem like a tall short-term task for the Rockets.

Jeremy Woo is an NBA analyst specializing in prospect evaluation and the draft. He was previously a staff writer and draft insider at Sports Illustrated.

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