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With Bruno Fernando returning soon, Rockets have some tough lineup decisions

With the current roster, the Rockets will not have enough minutes to go around.

Los Angeles Clippers v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

Bruno Fernando is on track to return in the next couple of games, which could raise playing time questions. When a team is 3-14 and has had the worst record for two years running, you wouldn't think playing time would be an issue. For the Houston Rockets, it has been an issue ever since last year's draft.

It started with Alperen Sengun playing most games 20 minutes a game, sometimes less. KJ Martin has seen his minutes fluctuate over the last year as the Rockets try to find minutes for him at small forward, even though they still play Eric Gordon 30 minutes per night.

Playing time and development factor into the Rockets approaching John Wall with a proposal for him to come off the bench so that Kevin Porter Jr. could be the full-time point guard last season. That led to Wall not playing one minute in 2021-2022 for the Rockets and eventually being bought out. Despite that, the issue of playing time has now moved into the 2022-2023 season.

The Rockets have been experimenting with lineups all year.

Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

The Rockets made the surprise announcement to start the regular season that Bruno Fernando would be the starting center over Sengun, a move that prompted Rockets fans to lose their collective minds.

The Rockets thought Sengun would get more touches with the second unit and Fernando would bring more of a defensive presence and lob threat to the starting lineup. Fernando started well, showing real chemistry with Porter Jr., especially on lob plays and the ability to free up shooters off the screens he set. But unfortunately, the injury would make his time as a starter short-lived.

Fernando has missed the last 15 games but was a full participant at practice Tuesday. That, of course, raises a couple of questions. First, will Fernando resume his starting position, and does that mean Usman Garuba's minutes will be cut once Fernando is back? Garuba has played the best basketball of his career in the last several games. He is showing exactly why the Rockets took him with one of their first-round picks in 2021.

Garuba is part of what Ryan Hollins has coined the "Goon Squad," a lineup that also consists of Martin and Tari Eason. That trio has been the catalyst for several Rockets runs to get back into games in the last several games they have played together. However, at yesterday's practice, Coach Silas stated that Garuba at the power forward position is a possibility.

That sounds great, but the issue becomes, whose minutes does he take at power forward? We know it won't be Jabari Smith, so that leaves Martin or Eason. Both players have been some of the most consistent players on the team, with Eason being one of the biggest steals of the entire draft so far. The playing time issue becomes even worse once you factor in Jae'Sean Tate has been out most of the season, and once he is back, he is almost guaranteed playing time because Coach Silas values what he brings to the team.

As you can see, the Rockets have a lot of hard decisions coming up. Fernando is not likely to be cut out of the rotation since the Rockets have enough faith in him to start him and give him a standard contract when he was only on a two-deal coming into camp.

I think most rational people know the first step the Rockets have to make, which is moving on from Eric Gordon. It benefits the Rockets by opening up playing time and allowing Gordon to play for a team competing for a championship, something he has earned.

Until then, the Rockets will have tough decisions to make sooner rather than later regarding who will play and who will be watching from the bench. Fernando does bring elements that the other centers dont bring. He can play above the rim and is the beest post defender out of all the Rockets centers.

Saying all that, you have to factor in that Sengun and Garuba were first-round picks. As the losses pile up, player development is more important than a perceived “better fit” when playing Fernando over Sengun or Garuba.