It wasn’t the prettiest matchup, but the Houston Rockets got it done.
James Harden scored 26 points and made the key defensive play in the final minute as the Rockets beat the Utah Jazz 100-93 in Game 5 on Wednesday, advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals with a 4-1 series victory.
At Toyota Center after the Rockets closed it out, MK Bower of Field Level Media joins me to discuss:
Heavy investment in Kevin Porter Jr raises serious questions about Rockets front office
Soon-to-be-ex Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr was arrested last week for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, resulting in a fractured neck vertebra and a deep gash above her right eye after an attack at a hotel in New York. He allegedly woke her up by punching her repeatedly, strangled her and did not stop hitting her until she ran out of the hotel room screaming for help and covered in blood.
“This is a serious domestic violence case,” said assistant Manhattan district attorney Mirah Curzer.
First and foremost, I wish the victim healing. I don’t know what to say about the nightmare she went through. She and her family will forever be impacted. As for KPJ, if this is true, he doesn’t belong on the Rockets or in the NBA at all. He belongs in jail.
Secondly, this can’t be overlooked and just swept under the rug: Why did the Houston Rockets bank on and invest so heavily in this guy?
Kevin Porter Jr. being accused of crimes of this severity should not be shocking – at all. Before he even came to the Rockets, he had a long list of serious problems. He was suspended multiple times in high school. In 2019, he had a “conduct issue” significant enough that USC suspended the 5-star recruit indefinitely. He fell to the end of the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft because of his behavior liability. He was accused of punching a woman in the face in Cleveland. He also had a gun and marijuana charge later dismissed after getting into a car crash. He went into a tirade and got into a nasty confrontation with both the Cleveland coach and GM, resulting in the Cavs severing ties immediately and dumping him to the Rockets for nothing.
You could make the argument that initially giving Porter Jr. a second chance in Houston was praiseworthy, but the Rockets experienced KPJ’s anger management and immaturity issues firsthand on several occasions.
Former Rocket Austin Rivers said this week that this isn’t the first, second or even seventh issue with Porter Jr. and that Rockets “higher-ups” confided in him that they had no idea how to handle him.
“I remember talking to guys in the Houston Rockets organization, higher-ups, [and] they were having issues then,” said Rivers. “They were like, ‘We don’t know what to do with him.’ And that’s when he just got there from Cleveland!”
Porter Jr. was routinely a nightmare for Rockets coaches to deal with. On several occasions, he confronted and cussed out members of the coaching staff, saying they didn’t have the “credentials”, per source, a reference to the fact that him playing heavy minutes at point guard was a decision they did not control.
Once at a night out, Porter Jr. had a disagreement with a DJ over music choice and he snapped, smashing the DJ’s laptop to the floor. He needed to be restrained and removed. Rockets personnel and several of Porter’s teammates witnessed the incident.
Curzer also dropped a bombshell at the arraignment in saying that Porter Jr. has a history of abusing his girlfriend, who he had only been dating since early last year, his second season with the Rockets. Curzer specifically cited an incident in which KPJ allegedly rammed his car into hers.
There were dozens of maturity issues visible on the court to anyone paying attention. He refused to check out of games. He got into an argument on the bench with assistant Lionel Hollins. On numerous occasions, he would visibly shut down when he wasn’t passed the ball. I invite you to watch this video from a game against Memphis on March 20, 2022. Just listen to the Grizzlies broadcasters, particularly starting at the 1:40 mark, talk about what they are witnessing here:
Privately, people around the league would say they were baffled by the Rockets continued fascination with Porter Jr. Nobody could understand it.
That fascination starts with Rockets general manager Rafael Stone, who by every account over the last two years was the driving force behind the investment in Porter Jr. It has been no secret. Trading for him in January 2021 was seen by some with the team as his “Harden acquisition”, code for a signature move that makes an executive’s career, much in the way landing James Harden did for Daryl Morey in 2012.
For example, former Rockets head coach Stephen Silas never considered Porter Jr. to be a point guard, per sources — playing him there was a Stone mandate because the GM believed that is where his future lied.
John Wall also told us as much publicly when he explained the phone call he got from Silas about coming off the bench. He said Silas told him “This is what the GM wants,” adding again that Silas said, “Man, you don’t deserve that. You should be the starter. This is just what they want to do.” Wall was upset because he believed KPJ should have to earn the spot.
“I have a hard time finding anybody outside of the Rockets front office that believes that Kevin Porter Jr. is a starting point guard in the NBA,” said ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon in December.
There were plenty of warning signs about KPJ to the public too.
After Porter Jr. got into a heated argument in which KPJ “physically shoved” Rockets assistant coach John Lucas and quit on the team in the middle of a game against Denver in January of 2022, leaving the arena at halftime, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix famously wrote that the Rockets should “Cut Porter Jr. Waive him. Release him. Whatever. Eat what’s left of the $1.8 million he’s owed this season and the $3.2 million he’s got next and move on.” It became a source of mockery for Porter Jr’s fans, a line they would bring up after each game he hit a few threes or handed out some assists.
In February of this year, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, one of the most connected reporters in the league, flat out warned us that he was hearing awful things about the Rockets culture and locker room. He was blunt in what the Rockets needed to do — waive Kevin Porter Jr. outright and bring in a new coach and GM.
“Just cut him. That’s it,” said Givony of Porter Jr. “And you’re sending a signal to the league that we’re going to do things differently from here on out.”
“When you talk to people around the NBA about Houston, you just don’t hear good things about their culture, about that locker room. You talk to people that are on that team, and they are like, ‘We are a mess’,” said Givony. “Do people want to work with this organization? But you can change that fairly quickly if you come in, get rid of the bad apples and you change the coaching staff, and all of a sudden, you’re Houston. It’s the third-biggest city in America. There’s a history here of you actually being good.”
Porter came to the Rockets for “free” (in exchange for a top-55 protected second-round pick, which was designed not to convey), but he proved far from it as the Rockets continued to pour investment into him. Over the last 2-3 seasons, no Rockets player got more developmental capital than Porter Jr. – not Jalen Green, not Alperen Sengun, not Jabari Smith Jr. The Fertittas paid John Wall $85+ million over two years to sit at home so the team could groom Porter Jr. to be their future point guard.
Then they doubled down. With restricted free agency on the horizon and a seemingly non-existent market for KPJ’s services, the Rockets gave Porter Jr. an extension a year sooner – a contract that was presented as a four-year, $82.5 million deal. The deal was more team-friendly than that, putting team options in it after years 1 and 3. Going from the potential disaster that was initially reported to a deal they could escape after one season felt like a “win”, but the biggest question was why they wanted him long-term at all. The unprecedented nature of a contract that size with that kind of club control clearly showed the Rockets knew there was unique and significant risk here.
After KPJ signed the extension, The Athletic’s Kelly Iko summarized the Rockets view of Porter Jr. – “As has been [their] stance for months, the Rockets have maintained the notion that Porter is a priority and is considered a huge part of their core, along with Green and Jabari Smith Jr.”
The Rockets actions to kick off the 2022-23 season showed exactly that – that he was a priority. They benched Sengun to start the season, in large part to give KPJ a “lob threat” and defender in the starting lineup. They gave him the superstar “Harden Locker”. They introduced him last in the starting lineups. They treated him as the star and empowered him to be the self-proclaimed “Head Honcho” of Clutch City.
But the extension proved unwise and foolish. Porter Jr. never even made it to the first year of it. With over $80 million on the line, he snapped again. The Rockets signed him to one of the team-friendliest deals ever and still managed to both overcommit and overpay as Stone now scrambles to attach real assets to it to get another team to take it off his books.
Is it fair to question the judgment of the Rockets front office? Absolutely and without question. Whether you look at their ability to value character, evaluate risk, scout basketball, build culture, manage assets or allocate development resources, they failed at every level here. Why didn’t they act sooner? Why did they double down? Why didn’t they hold him accountable? Why did everybody in the league see it but them?
“We value the player and the person that [Kevin Porter Jr.] is becoming and are eager to invest in him and his journey,” said Stone after rewarding him with the extension less than a year ago.
The question you have to ask yourself now is, with all they knew and witnessed about Porter Jr. both on and off the court — why were they eager at all?
Three predictions for an important Rockets offseason
The 2023 offseason is critical for the Houston Rockets and here’s what we think will happen
We have almost arrived to the oasis.
For over two years, the “2023 Offseason” has been circled on the calendar as the turning point, the time when the Houston Rockets will switch gears and make winning a priority. With potentially $60 million in cap room and a top draft pick coming, this is the moment of truth that Rafael Stone and the Rockets front office pitched to the Fertittas when the rebuild began.
Does that mean the Rockets are going to magically start winning next season? Not necessarily. But it does mean we won’t see Daishen Nix run the point for 36 minutes in the name of player development. They want to win.
It’s very tough to know what will happen this offseason, given the unknown variables. The Rockets could land a top-two pick, which would bring them Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson, radically boosting their future. James Harden could opt to return, which also significantly boosts their near-term prospects.
But regardless of whether or not luck presents a “lifeboat” (Harden, Wemby, Scoot), here are some things I believe will happen.
Also, if you have been joining us in RocketsWatch all season, first of all, thank you! We greatly appreciate all the fan support this season. But if you’ve stuck around through a tough season, you know that none of this will come as a surprise. I have been talking about these predictions since January.
1. Rockets, Stephen Silas Will Part Ways
Stephen Silas is going to be let go this offseason.
The original plan was for Silas to coach this season and start the next, getting a shot once the Rockets were making winning their top priority. But the bar was low this season and he still fell short. There were several times where the team needed a stronger hand and it wasn’t there. The roster wasn’t built to win, but there is no argument to be made that coaching did anything to enhance the situation.
It’s important to point out that Silas got a raw deal, coming to Houston under different circumstances expecting to coach a veteran team. But this is the hand that was dealt and the Rockets have to play it. Silas may be a fine coach, but he’s not the right coach for this team and that’s all that matters at this stage.
Ownership was ready to move on by midseason, but a variety of factors have led to him finishing the year. But this is going to be it. They sorely need fresh eyes and a different voice.
Confidence Level: 100%
2. The Kevin Porter Jr. Starting Point Guard Experiment Will End
The Rockets got Kevin Porter Jr. for free from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2021, but he’s been anything but since.
Houston paid nearly $100 million to John Wall to stay at home so they could groom KPJ as their future point guard. They also signed Porter Jr to a team-friendly four-year deal despite the fact that a much more team-friendly restricted free agency was on deck.
Porter Jr. has gotten better and more comfortable at the lead guard spot in two-plus seasons, which could bode well for his future here, but it’s not near enough. He lacks ability to make advanced reads, which is one of the reasons the Rockets are dead last in corner three-point attempts. His tendency is to isolate, which is his strength, and that can create a lot of selfish basketball. In essence, the Rockets have been starting a pair of shooting guards.
The Rockets love them some KPJ, particularly Stone, so I’m not saying he’s done here. He could thrive in an alternate role, if he embraces it. But the Rockets want to make a leap next season, the first year they are on the hook to Oklahoma City for their first-round pick from the costly Russell Westbrook trade. You’re probably not going to make a bigger jump than by improving the on-court leader spot.
Confidence Level: 80%
3. Alperen Şengün Will Be Shopped
You either believe Alperen Sengun is the next Nikola Jokic or he’s a defensive liability that is too much trouble to build around. There doesn’t seem to be much in between.
Sengun is incredibly gifted offensively and is only 20 years old, so it’s very early. This is also the biggest offseason of his young career, where he won’t be preparing for EuroBasket and can specifically train for the NBA.
There is no evidence at all they are looking to trade him. I’m very much going rogue with this prediction. But consider:
1. Internally he has been viewed as possibly the worst pick-and-roll defensive big in the league.
2. They started Bruno Fernando over him to open the season.
3. They rarely run the offense through him (“ŞenHub”).
4. The Rockets are not well-positioned with future draft picks to trade and likely need to move a good young player if they’re looking at any significant deals.
5. They believe bringing in a center is a high priority (though that could be as a backup to Sengun).
To be clear, I’m not predicting Sengun will be dumped but rather we will hear his name floated in rumors. A lot could change — a new coach could see Alpi as key to the future, for example — but right now, given all the factors listed above, I would be surprised if Sengun is the centerpiece of this rebuild. I think he’s more likely the trade piece.
Confidence Level: 60%
Mike D’Antoni: The Rockets isolation offense wasn’t pretty, but it was effective
Former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni made an appearance on the Thinking Basketball podcast to discuss his career, and he went into his stretch with the Houston Rockets (2016-2020).
One of the big topics discussed was the isolation sets that the Rockets ran often and why they did it.
“If that one-on-one was not efficient, we wouldn’t do it,” said D’Antoni. “But it was doing, if I’m not mistaken, 1.2-something (points per possession) ridiculous. 1.16, for a long time, was the standard of the best offense an NBA team had. We kind of blew that out of the water a little bit (at) 1.20, but our isolation game was like 1.25, 1.24, so it was like — why wouldn’t we isolate?”
The former Rockets coach admitted it was not the most pleasing offense to the eye.
“People don’t like it,” said D’Antoni. “Aesthetically it’s not good. I don’t love it. I would rather pass the ball around. And if I had a team that didn’t have James Harden, guess what? We’d be passing the ball around… It wasn’t pretty. People can complain. But when you have the most efficient offense in NBA history, or close to it, why wouldn’t you do it? Just because you want to look pretty?”
D’Antoni talked about how good the Rockets second units were in the 2017-18 season because of Chris Paul, citing how often the Rockets boosted their lead or turned a deficit into an advantage when they turned to the bench.
“Chris was just a maestro at running our offense, and doing it a little bit (Steve) Nash-like,” said D’Antoni. “Harden had to do it like Harden did it, but both of them were good. Both of them were perfect.”
D’Antoni said part of the reason for the iso sets was he wanted to maximize James Harden and make him “the best player he can possibly be.”
“James is one of the smartest players — and there are a bunch of them — that I ever coached,” said D’Antoni. “I thought probably two or three years there, he had a complete mastery of the game. He went over 50 I don’t know how many times in a row. We were banged up one night and I said, ‘James, you might have to get 50 tonight for us to even have a chance to win.’ He gets 60 and we win. Stuff like that. He was able to do stuff (that)… just a mastery of the game.”
On how close the Rockets were to winning a title, said D’Antoni, “I thought we had it, the third year until Chris went down. Maybe not. Who knows, because Golden State had hearts of champions. Those guys are hard to beat. But I thought we had a good chance at it, that’s for sure.”
Why Alperen Sengun will come off the bench
With Bruno Fernando expected to start, here’s the plan for the Rockets second-year center
When the Rockets traded Christian Wood, it was crystal clear that Alperen Şengün was the new starting center for the Houston Rockets.
As we’re on the cusp of the Rockets 2022-23 season opener, there’s only one problem — he’s not.
Bruno Fernando is expected to get the starting nod at the five for the Rockets, leaving many to wonder why the second-year center out of Turkey is coming off the bench.
There are a couple reasons why.
First, the Rockets are trying to optimize their prospects, putting them each in the best position to succeed. In the case of Sengun, they want to leverage his passing skillset by making him an offensive hub. That’s difficult to do when you have ball-dominant guards in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., who thrive out of isolation and are trying to make progress leading pick-and-rolls.
Fernando is a much more limited player, but he fits better right now with the starters because he screens/rolls hard and plays above the rim as an alleyoop threat — it’s been fairly apparent in the preseason how the guards use him. While not a great defender, Fernando also is more of a rim protector than Sengun.
Secondly, Sengun needs to adapt more to the NBA game. The Rockets very much believe in his prospects — he’s only 20 years old — and they still consider him the best five on the roster. But the NBA is a much different game than EuroBasket, which is where he spent more of his offseason focus. The days of just dumping the ball into a post player seem to be dwindling in the NBA. He’s got to get quicker, stronger, tougher — but most important of all, he’s got to shoot the ball better from range.
In a culture where coming off the “bench” is considered a demerit (it shouldn’t be), you have to explain the reasons why — but keep in mind, his minutes will still be significant. I expect he will likely get in the 24-26 range this year, an increase over the 20.7 he got last season. He’s still going to have plenty of opportunity to develop.
My two cents: I give the Rockets props for doing this so early. It’s been apparent to me that the Rockets have multiple players who would be considered secondary playmakers, and to maximize their skills, they need the ball in their hands (imagine if the Rockets drafted Paolo Banchero … grateful every day that Jabari fell to #3!). This hopefully allows for that. Playing Sengun off the bench gives you an opportunity to play a variety of ways and also covers up a current deficiency at backup point guard.
I don’t want to watch Sengun follow the guards around — I want to watch peak Sengun running offensive sets.
Overall, I like it — let’s get the season going.
KJ Martin reportedly drawing interest on trade market
Rockets have had “ongoing talks” with Phoenix Suns about the third-year forward
According to Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports, the Phoenix Suns have had “ongoing talks” about acquiring Rockets forward KJ Martin while Portland and Miami are “two other known teams with interest in Martin.”
There has been talk of trading KJ since before the summer when his father, former NBA All-Star Kenyon Martin, reportedly sought a trade for his son. With the Rockets holding multiple picks in the draft, it appeared the writing was on the wall for reduced minutes for KJ.
Martin has looked like a trusted member of Stephen Silas’ rotation so far in preseason. KJ has played in all three games, averaging 11.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in 26.0 minutes, hitting 5-11 from deep.
At the same time, Jabari Smith Jr. is the future, Jae’Sean Tate seems to be the coaching staff darling and Tari Eason has exploded onto the scene. Minutes for KJ could be available but they will be hard to come by.
If the Rockets are going to trade KJ, what should be the asking price? My feeling is a “good” second-round pick (one that could be expected to be in the 31-42 range) would be the goal. If the Rockets were offered a lottery-protected first-round pick, I think that would be a steal right now for Houston.
What could make more sense is if the Rockets combined KJ Martin with a player like Eric Gordon, especially given the goals of suitors like the Suns, Blazers and Heat.