After having spent three seasons wandering the wilderness of a prolonged rebuild and amassing a dismal 59-177 record in the process, the Houston Rockets used this offseason to take their first steps toward reclaiming some measure of respectability.
Houston dismissed coach Stephen Silas and replaced him with Ime Udoka. It invested heavily in free agency, signing guard Fred VanVleet and acquiring forward Dillon Brooks via sign-and-trade with the aim of adding grown-ups to a youthful locker room. The Rockets also shaved younger players from the margins of their roster and replaced them with veterans who should be of service.
The Rockets will open the 2023-24 season on the road against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday with what they hope is a sturdier, more reliable mix.
The roster upheaval has crystallized their core moving forward: guard Jalen Green, forward Jabari Smith Jr. and center Alperen Sengun.
How the Rockets develop around that trio will determine the transition from their rebuild. Their play this preseason offered hope that the immediate future will be brighter than the recent past.
“It’s been a really good camp for us,” said VanVleet, who won an NBA title during his seven seasons with the Toronto Raptors. “Definitely picked up on some things in the last week or two. Coach has thrown a lot at us and I thought that we did a good job of putting those things together. Obviously, the intensity and the schedule is here now in terms of game after game after game, so you’ve got to be able to adapt on a nightly basis.
“But I like where we are. We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us. It’s going to be up and down for sure — learning — but I think we’re in a good spot.”
The Magic are, ostensibly, one step ahead of Houston in the rebuilding process. Orlando missed out on a playoff berth for a third consecutive year last season yet made a late-season push for a play-in spot undergirded by the stellar play of Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero.
Their frontcourt, which includes Banchero, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr., features ascendant talent. Their backcourt has ample depth. The consensus is that Orlando has excelled at roster-building, and all that remains is coalescing while maintaining a steady pace of growth.
Perhaps on the cusp of a breakthrough, the Magic are faced with the primary challenge of leaning into their development now that they have made significant strides toward playoff contention.
“They (daily emphasis) will change a bit obviously with the opponent as they come in but you constantly want to make it about what we do,” Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley said. “Are we executing those things the way that we asked them to? And, are they following the game plan?
“We have our keys of what we want to accomplish this year when it comes to detailing our work, putting the work in every single day, playing with a sense of joy and energy — just making sure we’re playing for and covering one another. Those keys are always going to be there for us as our identity. It doesn’t matter (the opponent). It’s going to be about us.”