CHICAGO — There were hundreds of open seats at Wintrust Arena available, but Rockets head coach Stephen Silas preferred to stand and observe.
Close by, watching the first scrimmage of the day at the NBA Draft Combine were Rockets assistant director of player personnel Chuck Hayes, Rio Grande Vipers head coach and reigning G League Coach of the Year Mahmoud Abdelfattah and National Basketball Coaches Association executive director David Fogel — with Rockets basketball operations staff member Ed Pinkney seated a few rows down.
Of course, there were lighthearted conversations among the four of them — catching up on general offseason happenings — but the majority of Silas’ attention was geared toward the action on the floor. For the past few weeks, that’s all Silas has been able to do. He’s been consuming as much playoff basketball as he can, taking some much-needed time off to decompress from a long season and checking in on his young players. The Rockets have a plan for the future, and Silas has been given the full backing of the team and front office.
Silas, heading into his third season as head coach, discussed with The Athletic the last few weeks, the upcoming draft, building a bond with Jalen Greendefensive goals and more.
(Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
We’re weeks removed from the end of the regular season. How have you been able to decompress and get some time away from the game to gear up for another season?
I’ve been spending my time in the gym, watching our guys get better, watching our guys work. We’ve got a bunch of guys in the gym. This time is fun, watching them get back in shape, watching them work on things that they weren’t able to work on during the season. Watching them kind of explore and also spending time off the floor with them is important. As much as I wanted to get away and decompress — which I did for a little bit — I just love being in the gym. So, if we’re gonna have guys in the gym, and John Lucas is gonna be there and our other assistant coaches are gonna be there, I’m gonna be there, too.
Anyone that’s stood out to you early on? Maybe physical or on the floor?
Not so much. But it’s great to have our rookies from last year there, and all four of them — or five of them, including (Daishen) Nix — there. That leads to us getting better. I haven’t noticed anything as far as them developing any differently because it’s only been, like, a month. And they took a lot of time off, as well, so they’re slowly trying to get themselves back into the grind mode.
You’re a basketball junkie and have watched a good amount of playoff ball. What have you seen from those games? Anything to take back to your guys?
It’s the defense to me. I mean, these teams are holding people under 100 points. Teams are struggling to find ways to score. If you look at the four teams that are playing right now, they’re all good defensive teams. They all apply a lot of ball pressure, and they are good at helping and recovering. For our guys to look at one, (it’s) the intensity that these teams are playing with, but also, the defense is important for them to understand. This is how you get good, and this is how we’re going to improve as a group.
Any tweaks you want to make schematically or combinations you want to try this season?
Yeah, there are some things that I’ve seen. I’m not gonna get too far into it. But you see that the teams that are having a little bit more movement on the offensive end are being more successful. If the defense just stands there and locks into teams playing spread, pick-and-roll the whole time, they’re going to shut you down. So, teams are playing with a little bit more movement, and that’ll probably be something that we do. On the defensive end, teams are helping and recovering, protecting the paint and protecting the rim. We have to be better at that, as well.
Houston finished in the top 10 in the percentage of points from the paint, free-throw line and 3-point line. What do you take from that, understanding that, yes, you’re still a young team, but you guys know the most efficient way to play?
I think it speaks to our structure. It speaks to the learning curve of our young guys, how they picked it up, took it and ran with it. Especially that last little stretch where we were missing a bunch of guys, but the guys who stepped in played fast and were able to get the ball into the paint and play well. There’s gonna have to be a carryover from that to this coming season as we add layers to what we did, because last year, as I said to you a bunch of times, we were basic. Hopefully this upcoming season, we’ll be able to go over that stuff the first couple of days of training camp and then move on to a little bit more detailed, more complicated stuff.
The bond with Jalen Green is extremely important. Year 1 was the intro, but Year 2 is even more important. How have those conversations been and what are you looking for him to do?
The conversations have been great. We’ve spent time together, which is always good, and you develop a relationship that way. For him, it’s a couple of things — getting his body to where he feels like he is strong and ready for an 82-game season. I don’t think any rookie can come in and say from Day 1, I’m physically ready season for an 82-game because you don’t know until you go through it. He’s going through that and has been working hard this summer on his body, which is great. And also, not putting too much pressure on himself to fulfill expectations or whatever. The only expectations he has to fulfill are his own, and those are high enough. That’s what I love about him; he has high expectations for himself. He’s easy to coach and he’s easy to get on. He knows I played him well toward the end of the season, but Year 2 is going to be harder, and he’s ready for it. He’s ready for it, which is great.
Toward the end of last season, you had to use a different rotation than the one we had seen for most of the season. Once training camp rolls around, the veterans will be back. How do you combine the two, everything you learned about the young guys at the tail end with the veterans you already know?
It’s gonna be interesting. I think we have the right guys that can do it. We have good guys, and they all want to win more games and know that it takes sacrifice on everybody’s part. Not just the older guys, the younger guys, too, so it’s gonna be a little bit different. But for us to be successful, everybody’s going to have to sacrifice. That’s just the nature of being a good team, selflessness and we have guys who can do that.
Before you took the job, the word is that you knew how to get the best out of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Now it’s a different tune with Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green. What are the schematics of that pairing moving forward and how can you get the best out of both of them together?
I think you saw it toward the end of the season where they were both very aggressive with the ball, but also not playing selfishly at all. The ball was moving, and we were getting a bunch of assists; we weren’t turning it over as much. And they were playing well together. So, building on that, getting the ball moving from side to side, but also making sure that everybody else is getting involved, too. It’s not just about those two guys; it’s about the whole group functioning well on both ends of the floor.
With the chance of adding the Nos. 3 and 17 picks in this year’s draft, you’ve shown that this is an environment that cultivates young talent and where they can feel welcomed. How are you excited about potentially adding two more good players?
It remains to be seen. I’m super excited about this coming season, for sure; I can’t wait. But as you said, who knows what will happen with the future, the roster, the draft picks and all that stuff? It’s exciting to have an influx of talent with our group. Who knows what it could be? But I can’t wait.
One of the goals last season was to lead the league in pace, playing fast and furious. Any specific ones for this upcoming year?
I want to be a better defensive team. 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.
Hearing you say that, do you find yourself watching more defense these days? Naturally, you’re an offensive-minded guy, but from seeing you over these past two seasons, the key to earning trust and minutes under you is by playing defense.
One hundred percent. I’ve been watching a lot of defense. I’ve been watching a bunch of different teams, I’ve been studying a lot, talking to my staff, and we all know it’s a priority of not just our group but our organization. You know, we want to be a top team in both, and sometimes it’s easier to be a good offensive team when you’re young, just because you’ve been getting buckets your whole life. But when you’re young, you have to concentrate on the defensive end, and there’s got to be a big-time focus on it. So, that’s what’s coming.
You have a chance of adding a good prospect to this mix. What are you looking for?
That’s really on Rafael (Stone). We’ll work on it together and kind of see what comes, but as far as what I’m looking for, I have complete trust in Rafael and his ability to put a good team on the floor. It’s my job to coach them.
(Photo by Rocky Widner / NBAE via Getty Images)