According to Basketball Reference, Houston is the fourth youngest team in the league, with an average age of 24.5 years. Even among young teams, however, Houston’s is a special case: the Rockets are the least experienced team in the league, with the average player having just under two seasons of NBA play under his belt. How does Houston compare to other young teams in the league, both in terms of current status and future potential?
The other four teams that round out the five youngest teams are the Cavaliers, Hornets, Bobcats, and Trail Blazers. The first three teams have a combined 28 wins while the Blazers are a surprising 19-15, only slightly lagging the 21-14 Rockets. The Blazers’ shiny record, however, obscures the fact that they have a negative scoring margin of 2.6 points per game. Projected over a season via the Pythagorean Wins formula, this translates to a record of 33-49, compared with the Rockets projected record of 47-35 (positive 2.3 points per game scoring margin). Indeed, Hollinger sees the Rockets as a near-lock to make the playoffs (95% probability), while the Blazers have only a 23% chance, worse than the slumping Lakers. This season at least, Houston seems destined to be the clear winner among these five teams.
Winning more games this season, however, has its drawbacks. The Rockets are unique among NBA franchises in recent memory in that they have managed to skip the rebuilding phase and assemble a playoff worthy team composed of inexperienced players in a single offseason. Although Morey may not have realized just how good this team would be (I for one, thought the Rockets would be a bottom-ten team), the Rockets’ success this season essentially shuts them out of the OKC rebuilding model of acquiring elite talent through the draft. That route is still open for at least three of the aforementioned teams (Cavs, Bobcats, and Hornets), all of which seem lottery-bound for at least the next few seasons.
The Cavs have a transcendent talent in Kyrie Irving, a player who may end up being better than Harden in the long-run. Besides Irving and the currently-injured Anderson Varejao, however, Cleveland hardly has a useful player on its roster. The Bobcats are similarly devoid of talent, although Kemba Walker and Michael-Kidd-Gilchrest have proven productive so far. The Hornets have a major question mark in Eric Gordon (a potential All-Star with an extensive injury history), a likely future All-Star in Anthony Davis, and the “stretch-four” archetype in Ryan Anderson. At this point, it’s hard to argue that any of these rosters have anything near the talent of the Rockets. A few more years of high lottery picks might change the picture.
The missing piece here, of course, is what the Rockets decide to do with their cap space. With the likelihood of drafting elite young talent diminishing with every win, the primary means of significantly upgrading the roster is through free agency. The Rockets’ ample cap space, coupled with management’s proven ability to find value in mid-first round and even second round picks, means that Houston is well positioned to potentially join the upper-echelon of Western Conference teams currently populated by San Antonio, LA (Clippers), and OKC. Whether Houston will acquire or develop enough talent to contend for a title is up for debate, but for now, the future is as bright as it’s been since the peak of the Yao-McGrady era.