The Rockets are ready to move past their rebuild

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 6. On April 9, the Rockets declined to pick up the fourth-year option on head coach Stephen Silas' contract, sources told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

HOUSTON -- Coming out of the All-Star break, the Houston Rockets knew they weren't going to be in contention for a spot in the NBA play-in tournament. They were 13-45, had lost seven straight games heading into the break, and were two weeks removed from trading disgruntled veteran Eric Gordon -- the team's fourth-leading scorer -- to the LA Clippers.

Still, they held a team meeting to establish a goal for the remainder of the season: to play their best basketball, setting a tone for the seasons to come.

"It gave us something that we can look at as our identity and something to work towards," Rockets guard Jae'Sean Tate told ESPN. "I think that we've done a great job of just focusing on that. ... We're definitely on the right track and we're beating some teams that are trying to make a playoff run. We're moving in the right direction and there's still a few games that we have left and I'm excited to just see how much more we can even get better."

The Rockets of today are far different from the team Tate joined as an undrafted rookie in 2020. That team was built around James Harden and Russell Westbrook and had made eight consecutive playoff appearances, advancing beyond the first round in each of the previous four seasons.

Houston had a new general manager in Rafael Stone and a new head coach in Stephen Silas. A new direction -- one that would take the Rockets to the bottom of the NBA -- soon followed. But now, after three seasons of rebuilding, the Rockets are ready to take the next step.

At 22-60, Houston finished with one of the worst records in the Western Conference and one of the bottom three overall, giving them a 14% chance at the No. 1 overall pick and the rights to draft Victor Wembanyama.

Regardless of whether the Rockets land Wembanyama -- or Scoot Henderson at No. 2 -- the team is ready for the losing to come to an end.

Tate, in just his third season in the league, is one of Houston's elder statesmen. At 27, he's the oldest player in the rotation and more than four years older than anyone else getting regular minutes. He has lived through the teardown and the rebuild thus far and is starting to see the signs from his teammates that things are about to change for the better.

"Just from my first year to now, it's just been a complete 180," he said. "Our record might not say it, but things around here are definitely different and trending in the right direction."

Jabari Smith Jr. runs down the floor at the Toyota Center with teammates chasing him. He's jumping up and down and turns to his rushing teammates and says flatly, "I'm a bad motherf---er" over and over.

Smith had just hit a 3-pointer to take a 114-112 lead over the New Orleans Pelicans with just 0.4 seconds remaining. Two days prior, Smith hit a pair of big fourth quarter 3-pointers in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I just feel like I'm just playing more free," Smith told ESPN. "Taking the pressure off myself and just enjoying the game. Trusting my work that got me here and just trusting myself. My coaches instilled that confidence in me and my teammates do too. So I'm just playing free and letting it fly."

Smith didn't expect to be one of the centerpieces of the Rockets' rebuild. For much of the pre-draft process leading up to the 2022 draft, Smith was projected as the No. 1 overall pick to the Orlando Magic. Instead they selected Paolo Banchero, and Smith slipped to Houston at No. 3.

For much of the early part of the season, Smith's stats reflected his struggles to deal with his unexpected draft day twist. Through the All-Star break, he was shooting just 38.9% overall and 30.3% on his triples. His confidence wavered.

"I knew it had the intangibles, but just coming into it and learning, knowing where to be on defense, soaking up stuff from coaches, teammates, and just learning through the mistakes, playing through the mistakes and just learning this league, it's just real different from college," Smith said.

Teammate Jalen Green has no college experience to compare it to. He came to Houston after playing a season with G League Ignite. If all goes according to plan, Smith -- the No. 3 pick in the 2022 NBA draft -- and Green -- the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft -- are going to be the foundational pieces that can take the Rockets where they want to go as a franchise.

When Smith hit the shot against New Orleans, one of the first people to greet him on the other end was Green. The two celebrated that night and showed a locker room that has grown together despite the losing they've endured.

"We know when we're playing terrible. We know when we're playing good," Green told ESPN. "We know when someone is going through it mentally because everyone in locker room knows everyone. So say you don't take a shot. It'll be like, 'Bro, what you doing? You not being aggressive, not being yourself. Get out your head.' Basically we say that to each other a lot."

In March, there were times where Green and the Rockets looked like they were figuring things out. They beat the Spurs in back-to-back games March 4 and 5. A little more than a week later, the Rockets toppled the Boston Celtics, Lakers and Pelicans for their first three-game winning streak of the season. And they ended the season on an encouraging three-game win streak, including a blowout win over the West-leading Denver Nuggets.

"I think everyone, including myself, finally put their egos to the side," Green said. "I think we're starting to trust each other and be happy for each other no matter what the situation is. If someone's going off, playing better, you know, I think everyone is just happy for each other and all supporting each other."

That support has resulted in stronger play, particularly from Smith, who is averaging 15.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and shooting 46.9% from the field and draining 36.6% of his 3-pointers while attempting 4.3 a game since March 4.

The player once projected as the No. 1 overall pick has grown more comfortable and it's something others are noticing as well.

Following a loss to the Golden State Warriors on March 20, Warriors forward Draymond Green was asked how the Rockets compared in March to the Rockets that Golden State played earlier in the season. He said the team was "a lot better" but went out of his way to single out Smith.

"Jabari's playing is so much better," Green said. "He's shooting it better, but he's just way more aggressive. He's attacking the offensive rebounds every play."

When Stone was asked if Smith was taking the shots he did against the Lakers earlier in the season, he spoke about Smith's confidence dip in the middle of the year and how learning in the NBA is hard. But at the end of his answer, he went back to how Smith plays the game.

"I think he was taking those no matter what because I think that's how Jabari is wired," Stone told ESPN. "But I do think that the odds of them both going in as he's caught up to the speed of the game and his confidence has kind of come back up this last month or so, I think, you know, the odds of those shots going in has increased."

Smith said that Green has been influential in his growth this season, with the second-year player constantly giving the rookie advice on how to improve.

"He went through his struggles last year," Smith said. "Him just telling me to stay with it, know that it'll get better. Knowing that the game will slow down and just trusting it, you know? He said it's not easy. He often refers to guys who also struggle with their rookie years. So just try to keep my confidence up and just telling me to have fun and don't let it break you."

Smith added it's been "fun" building a rapport with Green throughout the year.

"I feel like we've been growing closer off season, learning each other, learning each other's spots, just building that relationship off the floor, building that relationship on the floor," Smith said. "I feel like it's coming together."

The Rockets are young by design.

When Stone inherited the team in October 2020, Houston was at a crossroads. The trade that had brought Westbrook to Houston had left the team without many future draft assets, so Stone had his work cut out for him.

He picked up one extra pick in the deal that sent Westbrook to Washington (it was subsequently traded to OKC for Alperen Sengun, who averaged 14.8 PPG for Houston this season). Then came the big move to send Harden to Brooklyn for an even larger package of picks than Houston had given to Oklahoma City to get Westbrook a year earlier.

Now, with top picks Green and Smith already in house plus another high pick ready to join the team this summer, the Rockets believe they have the pieces in place to accelerate the rebuild.

"I think we're kind of coming to the end of the first stage of it," Stone said. "When my group took over, we didn't have draft picks and we didn't have cap space. We had a team that was kind of singularly built. It was built to play a single style of play based around kind of a generational talent. And so we kind of felt like we had the right set that starting at the bottom floor."

Through buyouts and other deals, the Rockets are carrying $88.3 million in dead money against the cap space this season, which all comes off the books in July, when the Rockets are projected to have more than $60 million in cap space.

The Rockets' only projected free agents are 34-year-old Boban Marjanovic, the recently signed 35-year-old D.J. Augustin and 29-year-old Frank Kaminsky.

Kevin Porter Jr., whose extension begins next season, is the only player on the roster set to make more than $10 million. Including the team option for Kenyon Martin Jr., Houston has 11 players under contract for next season and 10 of those players are 22 or younger.

"They need to continue to improve and they need to improve at a really great rate," Stone said of the team's young core. "That doesn't mean anybody needs to be an All-Star next year, but we need to see really good progression, which starts with really good work ethic. And to date, I have no complaints about how hard our guys work. That needs to continue. As they get older and their capacity for hard work grows, they need to then exceed that capacity. It's an exponential thing. That's the challenge for them."

It's a sentiment Tate -- the one Rocket under contract for next season who is older than 22 -- echoed.

"We just got a lot of hard workers. We got a lot of guys eager to learn. We got a lot of guys that are hungry," Tate said. "I think those are three elements that make a great team and a team that is eager and wants success, they just gotta stick with it. There's ups and downs in everything especially when you completely change an organization from top to bottom.

Still, the Rockets said they'll look to use some of that $60 million in cap space to add some veteran leadership to help their young core take the next step.

"We're definitely gonna bring in some veteran players this offseason," Stone said. "But that's largely because if you go draft a guy, they're not gonna be ready to play in the NBA with a one in a million exception. So we want to bring in people who help our guys and we know what we're getting. And, by definition, that's a veteran."

The Rockets rebuild hasn't been easy and despite the optimism within the organization, there's no guarantee it's coming to an end next season. The proof will be in the product Houston is able to put on the court.

Stone admits that it's been hard at times. He said people at this level in sports get into it because they are ultra competitive and he's no different. But in order to get to the level they want to be at, this stage was necessary.

Now, for Stone and owner Tilman Fertitta, it's time for the next step.

"Everything worth doing is at some level or another really hard," Stone said. "And, certainly I think every team and every organization would rather have unlimited success year over year, forever. That's not where we were when I took over. That realistically was not something I felt confident we could achieve. And so then the question becomes, 'What's your goal?'

"My goal, our goal, the Fertittas' goal, our organization's goal is to win championships. And so we tried to plot out what we thought was the best path to get there. And that's what we're trying to execute on."