Houston Rockets and OKC Thunder: Comparing NBA Rebuilds

The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder have been oddly aligned in recent seasons.

After their year on loan from Paul ended with James Harden blocking a late Lu Dort 3-pointer for the lead and popping the ball inbounds, the Thunder committed to a full rebuild. The Rockets did the same when they traded Harden for a bunch of draft capital just nine games the following season.

For consecutive seasons, both teams managed to battle it out at the top of the Western Conference standings. Now, the two organizations’ schedules aren’t far apart after last month’s NBA Draft.

In comparison, both teams drafted well. Houston probably had a better draft experience this time around, but Oklahoma City’s only shots really were that they pulled the trigger on Jalen Williams earlier than expected, and not everyone is a fan of that. striker Ousmane Dieng.

Both Houston and Oklahoma City took similar directions in the draft: getting better defensively. The Rockets picked up two of the best defensemen in the class in Jabari Smith Jr. from Auburn – who has long been seen as the No. 1 pick – and Tari Eason from LSU. Two switchable, sizeable and athletic perimeter defenders who hope to wreak havoc to that end.

Not to mention TyTy Washington, the silky-smooth and precise guard from Kentucky who the franchise says has two-way potential.

On the other side, the Thunder didn’t shy away from their alleged interest in Gonzaga big man Chet Holmgren, even though Smith remained on the board while they selected. The two were often pitted back-to-back as Lethal Weapon as the top defenders in this draft class. Smith, the incredibly fluid perimeter mover and Holmgren, the clever shot blocker whose instinct led him to throw shots at will last season.

Williams, a Santa guard who should make an impact as a two-way player, doesn’t hurt either. Neither did the addition of Dieng, a 6-foot-10 winger.

Oklahoma City has done a good job around its current star, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with legit, young guns. The Thunder have a general body of players that anyone can imagine staying with the team as they start to win.

Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Holmgren, Dort. With the exception of Holmgren, who hasn’t dressed yet but has huge expectations, the group has carved out roles for themselves that can seemingly translate to when the team becomes competitive again. With French great Victor Wembanyama headlining a monstrous draft class, the Thunder may not have to wait much longer.

While the same vision isn’t hard to imagine after the Rockets’ three draft picks in 2022, it just hasn’t developed that quickly. Much of Houston’s near success — or lack thereof — will hinge on how high Smith’s cap is and what impact those rookies and sophomores can have going forward.

One thing is certain: there is apparently no player on either side with more potential to be a first option for a playoff team than Jalen Green.

The Thunder stuck with Chet Holmgren as the No. 2 pick in the recent draft.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

Smith and Holmgren were each excellent choices. Holmgren notably has an incredible ceiling if he can reach it. But nothing seems more guaranteed to become an all-league weapon than Green’s ability to score. His last part of his rookie season showed just as much.

The team is not in a position to win any time soon. If the stars continue to align for Houston’s front office, Smith won’t be the last coveted talent to surround Green moving forward.

Of course, Thunder general manager Sam Presti’s plan to start raising interim capital like memorabilia began when he treated Paul George in the summer of 2019. The Rockets — or any team for that matter — do not affect them in this regard.

Houston can still expect two first-round picks in next year’s draft. Although unlikely, he has the right to trade picks with Brooklyn, and he also owns Milwaukee’s first round. If there’s a draft to be done, it’s in 2023.

Teams could strike gold with Wembanyama. They could land a potential All-Star point guard in G League Ignite’s Scoot Henderson, a monster athlete who killed the league at just 17 years old. Arkansas’ Nick Smith also has a bright future. If a team is looking for wings, Ausar Thompson, Dariq Whitehead and Cam Whitmore will all lead the draft.

In any case, the Rockets will be able to fill a need or two.

Neither team is about to return to their once perennial playoff habits. But both are on the right track. This development season and the draft that will follow will be more vital than ever for both organizations to take the next step in their reconstruction.