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Ime Udoka and the emphasis on earning minutes

A recent string of fourth quarter benchings for Rockets starters has paid dividends in the win column.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

“It starts with effort.”

Those were the words coming from Houston Rockets Head Coach Ime Udoka following the win against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night. I touched on it a little in the post-game recap, but I think it’s important to dive a bit further in when considering that the team’s two biggest stars, Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun, had front row seats through the entirety of the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t the first time for Green, his third such benching in 10 games. It’s been warranted considering the early season variances from Green, a third-year guard buzzing with potential, but lacking in consistency.

Udoka has clearly put his foot down and made it adamant that he will ride with whomever gives the team the best chance to win on a game-to-game basis. It can be an unconventional strategy when you consider the resources poured into high-end lottery picks, but it makes sense. While I still think developing these picks should be the main priority of the organization, I echo the sentiment of Udoka’s insistence on accountability.

How can he build rapport with a new team if he shows favoritism to guys based on draft status alone? It would be hard to preach those same accountability principles if he didn’t apply those in his own coaching strategies. Thus, necessary adjustments have been made.

Let’s also not act like player development should directly correlate to playing time. They aren’t always one and the same. There are other ways to develop players and they don’t always involve amplifying the issue at hand.

Udoka benched them for a reason, they weren’t playing well. Couple that with the fact that the supporting cast around them picked up the slack, benching Jalen and Alpy made the most logical of decisions. However, it’s not always the easiest of decisions...

The history of sports tells us that most coaches would rather try to fit a square peg into a round hole over and over rather than potentially piss off one of their stars. Whether it’s personal affiliations or pressure from upper management, I can't tell you how many times I’ve seen NBA coaches continue to let star-adjacent players shoot the team into the grave with 4-for-22 type of nights.

Those my friends, are what we call perpetual lottery teams.

While relegating more notable players in crunch time can become an ego blow to them, as they certainly also view themselves in the same light, we need to see more of it. It would make the game as a whole a lot better.

That’s why I appreciate Udoka doing what should be done. Giving a struggling Green the green light could have turned what was a one point game at the time into a loss. Sengun was also visibly frustrated from his lack of production against the Grizzlies tough interior forces. Jabari Smith Jr. played well in this particular game, but we’ve also seen him benched in the past for large stretches on the nights that his teammates have outplayed him.

In past seasons we would have seen these guys get rewarded with more playing time, even in the midst of poor showings, The problem with that is, how is one supposed to learn from their mistakes if they don't have to face the repercussions of making those errors?

The point could be made that it would be beneficial for the young Rockets to “play through their mistakes,” but that’s how you end up with the same record as the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards. How great do those situations look right now?

The Rockets aren’t in the business of waiting and seeing right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re out on development. These are still teachable moments. These instances are about “not letting a tough offensive night affect your whole game.” It’s about not having an off shooting night trickle over to the defensive side. It’s about building camaraderie amongst teammates and being thankful that there are other cards to play.

Regardless if it’s Jalen and Alpy finishing games, or Tari Eason and Jeff Green, the path to winning should be based on who has earned it over each game. Consistency is the key, and until the guys with the raw talent have firmly cemented that they are still capable of producing in suboptimal environments, it shouldn’t be considered a crime to not show them the same amount of leeway that more established vets such as Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks have been awarded.