The Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz: Two rebuilds going in opposite directions (for now)

Rebuilds can take on many different forms. Some are successful. Others, not so much. For the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets, the beauty of rebuilding is in the eye of the beholder. Both franchises are here as a result of dealing away cornerstone pieces and are now left with the task of restoring their organizations to their former glory.

During Thursday’s Rockets-Jazz game, beat writers Kelly Iko (Rockets) and Tony Jones (Jazz) sat down to discuss the nuances of two rebuilds, its different layers and looking ahead.


iko: Apparently Lauri Markkanen is the second coming of Larry Bird tonight. (Markkanen finished with 49 points in a 131-114 Jazz win).

On a more serious note, these slow starts are a microcosm of Houston’s current dilemma. At the start of this campaign, both of these franchises were deemed to be rebuilding. The Jazz were high up everyone’s list as the league’s likeliest seller and the Rockets were there, too. Three months in, Houston is down at the bottom of the Western Conference, while Utah is still fighting to stay in the playoff picture (they’re 10th in the West as of Thursday). What’s been the secret to their refusal to bottom out?

Jones: This is probably a layered thought, but here it goes.

The first thing is the Jazz didn’t want to bottom out. They collectively see this as a three-year rebuild, where they have the draft capital from the Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell trades to be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline and the NBA’s offseason.

They also wanted to keep veterans simply to ensure this team could act like a competent NBA team. The biggest difference between the Jazz and the Rockets isn’t talent disparity. It’s experience, on and off the floor. Even if the Rockets strike gold and get the number one pick, they will bring that player onto a very young roster. Too much youth just doesn’t lead to much winning at the NBA level.

Most importantly, the Jazz found Markkanen, who has sped up their rebuild. He is probably a lock to appear in the All-Star Game in Salt Lake City in February, and he’s been one of the most improved players in the league.

What does Houston want to get out of the second half of the season?

iko: I think Eric Gordon said it best: improvement. Because this is Year 2 of the rebuild (technically Year 3 since they traded James Harden early in the 2020-21 season), this is the critical juncture where the Rockets need to see tangible progress. On a micro level, the Rockets have certainly improved in some areas; rebounding and clutch situations come to mind. But the cons outweigh the pros. The offense is largely stagnant. The lack of transition defense is glaring. The turnovers are excessive. These are each signs of a young team, but there has been no sign of an upward trend in any of them.

It’s an interesting situation for head coach Stephen Silas and his staff to figure out. For example, Jae’Sean Tate’s return has been helpful in speeding up the team’s pace and gluing different parts together but it has added to the uphill battle Silas and his staff di lui have fought to figure out minute and finalize playing rotations. Silas’ first-quarter ejection from Wednesday’s game in New Orleans offered a succinct visual of his internal frustration level.

How has Will Hardy handled things in his first year on the sidelines?

Jones: While I would vote for Brooklyn Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn to actually win Coach of the Year honors, I think Hardy should be a finalist for sure. He inherited a locker room full of new faces fighting for new contracts and/or to even stay in the league, and he’s molded it into a cohesive unit.

It’s been impressive to watch Hardy’s handiwork. The Jazz have been competitive every night, have improved in many areas since the beginning of the season and are in the thick of the postseason race. Hardy’s biggest accomplishment this season is forcing his front office to consider something few expected they needed to think about: whether to be a buyer or a seller at the trade deadline. Ultimately, the Jazz are still far away from the destination they want to eventually reach, but they are maximizing what they currently have.

What’s been the biggest surprise for the Rockets?

iko: I guess you could point to their rebounding. Improving on the boards was a real point of emphasis last season that was amplified by the roster’s apparent lack of big men. Enter rookies Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason. The latter in particular has proven to be a godsend on the glass; the man is literally glued to the basketball.

But the reason for optimism on a larger scale, despite current results, is seeing the team address an area like rebounding that needed fixing. That improvement can transfer to other areas. It just might take a bit more time than expected.

We can’t forget the game in front of us tonight. Markannen is absolutely lighting it up. Is he a mainstay in Utah? Or is his price just increasing for a February trade?

Jones: Oh no. The Jazz want him to be with the franchise for a decade.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

‘Yeah, you’re our guy’: How Lauri Markkanen has become the No. 1 option for the Jazz

He’s in the second year of a four-year contract that pays him less than $17 million per season, which is dirt cheap relative to his production. He’s just 25 years old, so he still has three years of improvement left in his arc before he hits most players’ prime year. In my opinion, it would take a package similar to Cleveland’s offer for Donovan Mitchell to get the Jazz to even think about moving Markkanen. He’s a franchise building block.

I chuckle every time I see his name thrown around in a trade debate on Twitter. The Jazz believe Markkanen is a No. 2 guy on a title level team. They know they need to get a No. 1, but they think he could be an All-Star-level player for years to come if he keeps this up.

Speaking of veterans, let’s talk about the only vet of consequence on Houston’s roster: Eric Gordon. What do the Rockets want to do with him?

iko: It’s the age-old “will they or won’t they” with Gordon, right?

I think this is finally the year a trade gets done, though. Gordon has never been afraid to speak up, but he’s letting his frustrations show even more than usual this season. He’s still a serviceable player, and I think he can really help a contender in the right circumstance (looking at you, Phoenix or Lakers). He remains a quality floor spacer, solid ball handler and capable defender. As long as he stays healthy, there’s a place for him on a good team.

But as long as he’s still in a Rockets uniform, he’s going to play. After all, he’s still Silas’ guy, the longest-tenured player on the roster and someone the front office still respects. But if teams keep knocking on the door, eventually someone will open it. Some teams have been keeping tabs on his situation for a long time. I reported a few weeks ago that Houston is more inclined to trade him than at any point during this three-year rebuild. We’ll see what happens.

Besides Gordon, I don’t see Houston being huge sellers at the deadline. (That’s my own opinion, aggregators).

What is Danny Ainge thinking up there in Salt Lake City, though? Can the Jazz get aggressive and try to make a postseason push? Or do they opt to play it safe and build organically.

Jones: They will definitely be in a lot of conversations over the next five-plus weeks. Because they have so many pieces, I think they will be one of the teams that will potentially control the deadline leaguewide. But the Jazz don’t want to chart a course, per se. I think if they get a trade that makes sense for them, they will do that trade, whether it enhances their ability to be a playoff team this season or sets them on a lottery course.

Either way, the Jazz’s front office is quite happy with what the team has accomplished so far. This has been a good first half of the season.

(Photo of Tari Eason and Lauri Markkanen: Logan Riely / NBAE via Getty Images)

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