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Are the Rockets too reliant on Fred VanVleet?

Are the team’s wins coming at the expense of development?

Houston Rockets v Memphis Grizzlies
VanVleet is the Rockets’ best player. Is that a problem?
Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Time is a flat circle.

I’m not 100 percent sure what that means, but basically, time is a continuum. It’s the present right now, but in 10 seconds, it will be the future. Oh, look at that! It’s the future, right? No, it’s the present. But you said?

For the last three seasons, the Houston Rockets have been a future-focused team. The future is here - kind of? The focus has narrowed. The Rockets care about winning games again. So far, they’re doing a pretty good job of it at 13-9.

Yet, the Rockets won’t win an NBA championship this year. They just won’t. Whenever that’s a self-evident fact about a team, they need to be paying some mind to the future. Fred VanVleet is helping the Rockets win games right now.

Are they becoming too reliant on him?

Can the Rockets win without VanVleet?

Go follow The Chop Shop. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

As Frank tells us in this video, VanVleet’s on/off impact is staggering. The Rockets have a +10.8 point differential when he’s on the floor.

That’s fine. VanVleet was always going to be the best player on the Rockets this year. It also matters that a member of the young core is driving success too. Alperen Sengun’s +4.7 net rating is encouraging.

Jalen? Oh, Jalen. The Rockets are -11.6 points worse when Green is on the floor. It isn’t time to hit the panic button. On the other hand, your finger should be edging towards it. This is a problem.

It does not bode well for Green’s future that, in his third year, he is an (extremely) negative presence on the court. Yes, there are plenty of caveats. This is Green’s first season under Udoka. The instantaneous shift from tanking to win-now mode has been jarring.

Yet, these could all be reasons why Green doesn’t pan out. It doesn’t matter how the sausage is made. The bottom line is that currently, Green is a bad NBA player. Historically, players who are bad in their third year, more often than not, stay bad. It’s too early to give up on Green, but if we’re confining ourselves to reality, his outlook is getting bleaker.

Does VanVleet have anything to do with that?

Is VanVleet holding Green back?

This is a key question. The Rockets know that they have a star-caliber producer in their pocket in Sengun. That’s great. In a couple of years, he’s going to need a lead guard to play with who isn't VanVleet.

Last season, Sengun and Green developed a two-man game that looked like it could be the foundation of Rockets basketball for years to come. Most of those sets involved Sengun in the high post as a dribble hand-off hub. This year, they’ve been abandoned. In 2023-24, the Rockets’ offense has been defined by Fred VanVleet and Alperen Sengun in the pick-and-roll. The Rockets league the lead in possessions where a roll man finishes the play (9.3 per game).

Wins are wins. Udoka was hired to figure out what this group does best and lean into it. Still, it feels like the team’s reliance on VanVleet/Sengun pick-and-roll actions does alienate Green to an extent.

That’s not to absolve Green of blame. He can’t shoot. He can’t finish. Green doesn’t have enough counters to rely on his in-between game. I sound like Stephen A. Smith talking about Kwame Brown - but (for once in his life) Smith was right.

All hope is not lost. Green has time to improve. If he can’t, the Rockets have another potential lead guard in waiting.

Could transitioning from VanVleet to Amen Thompson be a problem too?

How will the Rockets pass the torch?

The Rockets will need some kind of succession plan. Thompson and VanVleet are almost diametric opposites.

VanVleet likes to shoot off of the dribble - Thompson can't. Thompson is a daring, creative passer - VanVleet is safe. Thompson is big, and VanVleet is small. VanVleet was undrafted out of Witchita State, and Thompson was a lottery pick out of Overtime Elite. You’ve met a lot of people named Thompson, and in all likelihood, very few people named VanVleet.

Still, the success that VanVleet and Sengun have had in the pick-and-roll should be largely replicable. Thompson’s shot may never come around, but he should be a much stronger finisher than VanVleet. With some tinkering, this could work. Sengun and Thompson could even run some inverted pick-and-roll actions to keep the defense on their toes.

It’s just worth noting that it won’t be the same. If the Rockets had, for example, traded down for Cason Wallace, they could copy their current offense and paste it into the next era. There will be an adjustment period as the Rockets shift from VanVleet to Thompson, assuming that Thompson even hits on predraft expectations.

With that said - thank God they didn’t trade down for Wallace. He’s great, but Thompson’s upside is immeasurably higher.

The Rockets will be fine

Rebuilding is typically messy. None of this is to say that the Rockets are making any egregious errors. Signing VanVleet and Dillon Brooks to shoehorn their way into the playoff picture was a better plan than, say, whatever the Detroit Pistons are doing.

Perhaps some minor adjustments could be made. VanVleet is currently leading the NBA in minutes per game (37.9). That partially owes to Thompson’s extended absences. When he’s ready to go, VanVleet could lose a minute or two per contest.

I don’t think Udoka should be making concessions to Jalen Green. Green was drafted to be an alpha scorer, right? A self-starter. So, he needs to start himself. The Rockets are trying to win. They’re not going to design plays for a 0-level scorer in hopes that he’ll develop into a star. They’d be putting the cart before the horse. Green needs to prove that he can get buckets before the Rockets lean into his ability to get buckets.

As for the VanVleet-to-Thompson transition, it could be bumpy. There’s a world where the Rockets surpass expectations in 2023-24 only to regress in 2024-25 because they’re exploring his game more. That would be acceptable.

Eventually, they’ll have to stop relying on VanVleet.