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Jeff Van Gundy applauds Rafael Stone, Stephen Silas for Houston’s rebuild

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Though veteran NBA coach and current ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy was reportedly a finalist for the head coaching vacancy with the Houston Rockets in October 2020, that job went to Stephen Silas. But there don’t appear to be any hard feelings on Van Gundy’s end.

In a recent interview with ESPN Houston’s The Wheelhouse radio program, Van Gundy offered strong praise to both Silas and general manager Rafael Stone — who made the choice to hire Silas — for their work as stewards of the current rebuilding project in Houston.

“I’m not a huge fan of the total teardown, usually, because I think it often times happens prematurely,” Van Gundy said. “But in the Rockets situation, they were really left with no choice in the matter. (James) Harden and (Russell) Westbrook really left them no choice.”

Van Gundy elaborated:

Rafael Stone and his staff, even though they’ve had the worst record in the league the last two years, I think there are signs of talent and growth. They have hope. A lot of teams are just bad, and they don’t have hope. I think the Rockets have had difficult records, but they have hope.

I think Rafael has done a good job, and I think Stephen Silas has been unbelievable through this whole situation. Think about it. A couple years ago, he was brought in with the understanding that he had a championship-caliber roster, in many people’s eyes, with Harden and Westbrook. Then, because of factors totally out of his control, he takes over this massive rebuilding project.

Even going into year three, you look at the lack of experience on the roster, and they’re not going to win a ton of games this year. But I think Stephen’s steady hand will provide the leadership they need for a good year of growth.

There has been some good fortune, too. For example, the odds of Houston securing both a top-two draft pick (what became Jalen Green) in 2021 and a top-three pick (what became Jabari Smith Jr.) in 2022 were about 11 percent, according to the NBA’s revised draft lottery odds.

Green and Smith are now the foundational pieces of Houston’s rebuild, and Van Gundy liked Smith’s play at the 2022 summer league. “The things I like the most about him, he has size, shooting, and a natural intensity and energy,” Van Gundy said. “I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far.”

Beyond simply having good luck, though, Stone and Silas have each controlled what they can control. For example, Stone made a series of controversial decisions (such as not playing John Wall in the 2021-22 season and focusing almost entirely on future draft equity in the Harden trade) to maximize lottery odds, which have since paid off in a big way. Stone also pulled off a number of below-the-radar moves to bring in other talented young players around Green and Smith, headlined by the likes of Alperen Sengun, Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate, and KJ Martin.

As for Silas, he deserves credit for Green showing significant growth throughout his rookie year — and most importantly, ending it in a much stronger position than where he started. A historic scoring stretch late in the season led to Green making the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team.

There’s much more work to be done in the months and years ahead, as the Rockets look to climb up the Western Conference standings. But for now, in the early stages, Van Gundy and other league analysts seem to be impressed — and there are good reasons for that sentiment.

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