The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are the post-James Harden Rockets poised to make the wrong type of history?

Kevin Porter Jr. and the Houston Rockets have lost 14 straight games. (Eric Christian Smith/AP)
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The Houston Rockets surely understood that there would be harsh consequences for trading James Harden. After all, the 2018 MVP had served as the franchise’s centerpiece for eight seasons, claimed three scoring titles and led a pair of runs to the Western Conference finals.

But the January blockbuster that reunited James Harden with Kevin Durant on the Brooklyn Nets has left a Texas-size mess in its wake. With more than a month of games under their belts, the Rockets are on track to become one of the worst teams in NBA history.

For context, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers set the 82-game season standard for futility with a 9-73 (.110) record. The 2011-12 Charlotte Hornets posted the lowest winning percentage in NBA history by going 7-59 (.106) during a lockout-shortened season. Then, Sam Hinkie’s “Process” 76ers challenged both marks in 2015-16 with a 10-72 (.122) campaign that was so dismal that it helped convince the league to change its draft lottery rules to discourage tanking.

This unhallowed group may need to prepare to welcome Houston, which fell to 1-15 (.063) with a loss to the New York Knicks on Saturday. While that doesn’t qualify as the worst start ever — the 2015-16 76ers and 2009-10 New Jersey Nets each lost their first 18 games — the Rockets are on pace to go 5-77. That’s not a typo.

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The Rockets’ 14-game losing streak would be the longest in franchise history ... except they lost 20 straight games shortly after trading Harden. Remarkably, Houston has won just seven of its past 60 games dating from early February. Put simply: This is about as bad as it gets in the NBA.

There have been a few moments of excitement, including a blowout win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Rockets’ home opener and a down-to-the-wire loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. Yet the default setting has been misery: Houston leads the league with 11 double-digit losses and ranks last with a minus-10.8 point differential. It doesn’t take much digging into the numbers to reveal a bloodbath: The Rockets rank 30th in offensive efficiency, 29th in assists and 28th in three-point percentage, and they lead the league in turnovers per game.

“It’s been happening all year,” guard Eric Gordon said after a blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns. “We struggle to get 100 points. It’s a lot of different things. We hurt ourselves in so many ways. It’s just a lot to overcome. … There’s a lot of little things we don’t do to help one another. It’s just tough.”

At least some of this pain is by design. Houston’s front office chose to shut down John Wall before the season to clear minutes for its young backcourt of Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green. With Wall, owner of a $44.3 million contract, watching from the sideline, the 21-year-old Porter has struggled to handle point guard duties and the 19-year-old Green has shot poorly to open his rookie season. While top-five picks such as Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes are off to strong starts, Green is shooting 37.9 percent from the field and 28.4 percent from deep while averaging more turnovers than assists.

Porter and Green are hardly the first raw guards to get in over their heads, nor are they the only youngsters in Houston’s rotation. As he seeks to assemble a core group, second-year coach Stephen Silas has given plenty of minutes to 19-year-old rookie center Alperen Sengun and 20-year-old forward Kenyon Martin Jr. Houston’s prospects have shown some flashes, but consistent impact has proved elusive.

“We’re not there yet,” Silas said after the narrow loss to the Knicks. “We made mistakes that a young team is going to make. We need to learn and grow. We need to keep doing it. We’re going to be fine.”

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Youth alone cannot fully explain Houston’s hairy predicament. In the Harden trade, Rockets General Manager Rafael Stone prioritized draft picks and swaps over proven players. Victor Oladipo, the top returning piece in the deal, battled lingering health issues and was shipped to the Miami Heat for Kelly Olynyk at the trade deadline. Olynyk, in turn, signed with the Detroit Pistons as a free agent last summer. And shortly before the Harden trade, Stone sent disgruntled Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards for a first-round pick and Wall, whose shaky health, poor shooting and spotty defense make him a tricky fit in a youth movement.

That string of decisions helped the Rockets stockpile future draft capital and clean up their salary cap sheet, but it also thinned their talent base. As the last remaining holdover from the Harden era, the 32-year-old Gordon is a natural trade chip, but his contract — $18.2 million this season and $19.6 million next season — will complicate potential discussions at the deadline. Wall’s monster deal, which includes a $47.4 million player option for next season, makes him seemingly unmovable until at least next summer.

Given that real help doesn’t appear to be coming anytime soon, Houston has no choice but to take its lumps and start planning for the 2022 draft. If the Rockets finish with the league’s worst record, they will be guaranteed a top-five pick and have a 14 percent chance at the No. 1 selection. This year’s projected top picks, Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren and Duke forward Paolo Banchero, would complement Green from a positional standpoint. Houston also will receive another 2022 first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets or the Miami Heat.

In other words, this season should be the most painful in Houston’s rebuild. But as Harden ramps up for another postseason push and Houston begins its countdown to the draft lottery, Stone and Silas must confront an uncomfortable question: Will Porter, Green, Sengun and company develop quickly enough to avoid infamy?

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