The Houston Rockets want to get better defensively. Head coach Stephen Silas has been beyond clear regarding his biggest frustration with the 2021-22 team that finished last in the NBA with a 20-62 record.
“I want to be a better defensive team,” Silas said. “We just have to be, and for young guys, that’s hard. Hard for them to grasp the defensive end and be able to anticipate what’s coming. To see a set develop and know where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there and be there on time. I want to improve on the defensive end. ”
Last season, Houston finished with the worst defensive rating in the league at 116.4 points per 100 possessions, and they were No. 28 (of 30 teams) in defensive rebounds at just 32 per game. In contrast, the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, who are playing in the NBA Finals this month, finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in defensive rating. They were both top five teams in defensive rebounding, as well.
Despite any shift in basketball towards the offensive game, it’s good defensive teams that are finding the most success. The Rockets just did not have a lot in common last season with these veteran-laden, disciplined teams that ran circles around the rest of the NBA.
When forecasting Houston’s future, one current problem is that their probable big-ticket acquisitions do not necessarily project them to be much better defensively. Duke forward Paolo Banchero appears to be the likely draft pick at No. 3 overall in the 2022 first round, and his biggest knock as a prospect is how his defensive game transitions to the NBA level. Big man Christian Wood is under contract for another season in Houston, and he is considered a relative liability on that end, as well.
The Rockets are in desperate need to import defensive talent in one capacity or another. Somehow, elsewhere in the Western Conference, an interesting opportunity has emerged. While the rest of the league talks about how current Phoenix center Deandre Ayton could make a great pairing with Detroit and prized prospect Cade Cunningham, maybe Houston should take a look at the former Arizona Wildcat, themselves.
The Suns are clearly title contenders, but they suddenly find themselves in an interesting situation. After going down in a devastating Game 7 loss to Dallas in the Western Conference semi-finals, they’re at a crossroads in terms of what to do with the team. Many have argued that Phoenix should simply run it back and try again next season, while others say the NBA’s best regular-season squad has a responsibility to revamp and re-tool around All-Star guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
This leaves Ayton just sitting there while the Suns’ front office decides. The fifth-year center is set to become a restricted free agent later this month, and has reportedly yet to receive a contract offer from Phoenix.
He’s seeking the equivalent of a maximum contract, which — while well-deserved for his production — could limit the Suns’ ability to diversify their roster moving forward. Some might argue that Phoenix is better off seeking cheaper production at a position that is becoming increasingly less important in the NBA, and it also remains to be seen if much-maligned owner Robert Sarver will spend deep into the luxury tax.
If that’s a debate, it makes sense for the Suns to explore sign-and-trade possibilities, rather than risk losing Ayton for absolutely nothing. In such an arrangement, a cheaper young center in Wood may have appeal.
Someone on the open market, potentially the Detroit Pistons, will offer Ayton a maximum-salary deal. Last season, he averaged 17.2 points per game with 10.2 rebounds on a 63.9% eFG. He’s the definition of a great center and, at 23 years old, is bound to find a home somewhere.
There’s a great argument to be made that this “somewhere” should be with Houston and general manager Rafael Stone.
Ayton’s age fits perfectly alongside the rest of Houston’s young core, and his prime years should be similar to Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Banchero. In addition, he brings an ideal skillset that most of the other young players on the Rockets do not… Ayton is a fabulous defender.
He’s shown in the playoffs that he’s viable against any rotation and does not fall into the “Rudy Gobert” category of borderline unplayable in certain matchups. Just last year, fans watched Ayton play a great series versus Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2021 NBA Finals, and he was dominant versus the defending-champion Lakers prior to that.
On the offensive end, Ayton would open up sets for Green and Kevin Porter Jr. in the pick-and-roll game. While not as versatile on offense as Wood, he may actually serve to make Houston’s offense function better as a unit. In recent years, Ayton played alongside Devin Booker as Booker ascended from “good scorer” to an All-NBA caliber player.
In this hypothetical, it isn’t hard to imagine Ayton playing a similar role in the career trajectory of Green.
Due to his restricted free agency status and Houston’s lack of immediate salary cap room, it would likely require a trade for the Rockets to land Ayton. Offering up role players such as Wood and / or Eric Gordon – remember, JJ Redick recently blasted the Suns for passing him up at the February trade deadline— could give the Suns a big man replacement and a complementary sixth man to supplement Paul and Booker.
The Rockets are at a place in their rebuild where the emphasis must be on maximizing young talent and putting it in position to succeed. Acquiring a player like Ayton, a defensive minded center who is more than capable as a complementary scoring piece, could potentially help Banchero defensively and assist Green with elevating his game to the next level.
Plus, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 NBA draft is talented enough that nobody would be surprised if he still develops into more.
If Phoenix is truly set on moving forward from their former franchise center, the Rockets should do their due diligence before forfeiting his service to the likes of Cade Cunningham or a conference rival.