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Can Isaiah Hartenstein crack Rockets’ nine-man playoff rotation?

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On the heels of the NBA restart, the Houston Rockets should include the young big man in their post-season rotation in Orlando.

Houston Rockets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

There was a short period during the 2019-20 season where Isaiah Hartenstein was on top of the world. With Clint Capela battling a heel injury, the 7’0” big man took full advantage of the opportunity at hand. Inside the Toyota Center on a New Year’s Eve night, Hartenstein posted a then-career-high 16 points and 12 rebounds as the Houston Rockets took a 130-104 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

Following the win, Mike D’Antoni announced during his post-game press conference that Hartenstein had become Houston’s back-up center for the remainder of the season. He credited Hartenstein’s basketball IQ, energy, and offensive skill set as the reason for his decision.

Six weeks later, Hartenstein instead found himself suiting up for the Rio Grande Vipers inside the halls of Bert Ogden Arena — a result of falling out of the Rockets’ rotation.

The promising words, once uttered by D’Antoni, instantly turned to criticism. He deemed Hartenstein’s defensive limitations and personal foul antics as the cause for his diminished role.

With the NBA set to resume on July 30, the league is encouraging teams to sign replacement players amid the COVID-19 pandemic. All 22 teams participating in the start-up are permitted to sign free-agents or convert two-way players into full NBA contracts.

However, rather than bringing in an outsider who does not have time to learn Houston’s system, D’Antoni should use the eight-game regular season as a way for Hartenstein to make his way back into the rotation ahead of the 2020 postseason.

Breaking into the Rockets’ playoff rotation seemed to be a long-shot for Hartenstein. Not only does he has to improve his defensive IQ and penchant for fouling, but the Rockets have not played a traditional big man since fully committing to micro-ball in February. Although successful with small ball, the numbers prove that the Rockets are a better team with Hartenstein than without.

In a small sample size where the 22-year-old center appeared in a career-high nine consecutive games, he averaged 7.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.0 block in 15 minutes of play. Hartenstein produced three games recording 10 or more rebounds during the nine-game stretch, with his best performance coming in a 30 point victory over the Timberwolves.

Houston also averaged a 109.3 defensive net rating with the big man in the rotation in comparison to their small-ball experience (112.2 DEFRTG). Although he does not make a sufficient difference offensively, the presence of Hartenstein as a big man moving to the bucket enables James Harden to perform at his best.

Since the switch to micro-ball, Harden has struggled to adjust. He no longer has a potential lob threat or a pick-and-roll screener, which has allowed the defense to collapse the lane when attacking the basket. With Hartenstein, their opponents will be at the mercy of Harden — given his ability to generate scoring opportunities for himself or his big man with the ball in has hands.

The most vital attribute in Hartenstein making his way back into the Rockets rotation is his size. Houston has a tough road ahead of them given their potential playoff matches against some of the league’s best big men.

The Lakers are the largest team in the West with a frontcourt of Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee, while the Mavericks and Nuggets possess two of the most gifted centers in Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic. With the exception of McGee, Hartenstein may not match up well against any of those guys on paper, but a successful defensive outing using his height and stature in a game or two may be enough to swing a seven-game series in favor of the Rockets.

In a conversation with Kelly Iko of The Athletic, D’Antoni explained that using a nine-man rotation will give the Rockets their best chance of winning a championship in what will be an anomalous post-season in Orlando, FL.

D’Antoni states he will consider altering the nine-man rotation on a game-to-game basis, but says the top five players will likely be his main contributors. Regardless of who the Rockets face, it’s inevitable that five of the nine players will include: Harden, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker barring injuries.

Nevertheless, three of the next four players are just as predictable as D’Antoni’s main contributors, with Danuel House, Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers providing relief off the bench. Jeff Green will likely get some opportunity from D’Antoni to fill the remaining void in a potential nine-man rotation, but Hartenstein could be a more suitable option, even if just on a part-time basis, to increase Houston’s odds of holding the Larry O’Brien trophy come mid-October.