This is a breath of fresh air. An article about how the Houston Rockets can improve their immediate win total? Beautiful.
This has been everyone’s favorite Rockets season in a while. That doesn’t mean it’s been perfect. The Rockets can’t lose at home, and they can’t win on the road. Jalen Green is Malik Monk*. Jock Landale is Todd McCollough - post-Charchot-Marie-Tooth disease (Google it). The Rockets’ bench can’t score.
Is there anything they can do about that?
*I’m not selling my stock. It’s called writing, folks. Green should turn it around, but he’s been disappointing.
Is the Rockets’ bench broken?
Here’s a stat that might surprise you: the Rockets’ bench is eighth in plus/minus at +1.1. This isn’t a major problem. Still, the Rockets are 28th in bench points per game at 27.8 points per game.
This (more or less) jives with expectations. The Rockets are deep. There are at least nine players on this roster who deserve rotational time. It’s just that the Rockets have doubled down on defensive players, and they’re a bit light on offense. When Alperen Sengun sits, this offense tends to collapse.
Perhaps that’s where the answer lies.
A staggering contrast
Ime Udoka has tethered Sengun to Fred VanVleet. If you look at CleaningtheGlass, the sample size of lineups featuring one without the other is small.
They’re hardly even worth discussing. Swap Aaron Holiday in for VanVleet with the starters (Green, Dillon Brooks, and Jabari Smith Jr.) and the Rockets are -12.7 over 46 possessions. There’s no empirical evidence suggesting that staggering Sengun and VanVleet would be effective.
Yet, it’s worth some consideration. There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, having VanVleet pilot the second unit for spells ought to improve their production. That’s the short-term benefit. At the same time, some long-term benefits could come from this as well.
Sengun is having a wonderful season. It doesn't look exactly how some thought it might. Sengun is making hay as VanVleet’s pick-and-roll partner.
That’s fine. Udoka isn’t using Sengun like a glorified Deandre Jordan. He’s able to flash his creativity in the short roll. These aren’t traditional pick-and-rolls. Still, it might be sensible to run more actions where he’s on the low block or the elbow, operating more strictly as the offense’s hub.
Sub VanVleet out a bit earlier, bring Holiday in, run the offense through Sengun, sub Sengun out, and run the offense through VanVleet. That’s one solution to the bench’s point-producing problem.
Until Amen Thompson returns, that is.
Rookies ready to contribute?
This is less of a “solution” because it’s out of the Rockets' control. Amen Thompson has been injured, and he’ll be back soon.
Let’s be honest - that’s not guaranteed to help with this problem. Thompson has all the potential in the world. There’s no limit to this kid’s ceiling. Still, he didn’t look prepared to carry an NBA second unit the last time we saw him. The remainder of Thompson’s rookie season should be a roller coaster. There will be flashes of brilliance, but he’s unlikely to be a consistent option.
So is Cam Whitmore. With that said, giving him some more runs feels like a potential solution to this problem. His role will be more scaled down than Thompson’s. Udoka won’t ask Whitmore to run the offense - he’ll ask him to space the floor and attack closeouts. Whitmore can probably do that.
Is there anyone else around the NBA who could do the same?
Is it time for trade talks?
Here we go. Break out the pitchforks. How dare anyone suggest that any NBA roster change - ever?
Sure. Only, the Rockets are going to make a trade this year. Go ahead and lock that in. At the very least, they’ll be sending Victor Oladipo and some draft capital out for a roster upgrade.
It doesn’t have to be a scorer. A floor spacer would do. It’s fair to assume that Thompson would have an easier time running the second unit if someone (anyone) on this second unit had real three-point gravity.
We’re not going to run through a gambit of trade options here. That article already happened. I will name one target - my favorite target.
Alec Burks of the Detroit Pistons. He’s perfect. Sure, the Rockets could use a backup big. The buyout market could suffice there. Jeff Green has been a great option. He’s limited as a non-traditional big, but he’s bulky enough to handle a reasonable percentage of his assignments. A Nerlens Noel would do the trick. Floor spacing is a higher priority.
Burks provides it, but he’s not a shooting specialist either. Burks gives you a little bit of everything. He’s a plus defender and a solid secondary playmaker. He may be available too. If you haven’t noticed, the Pistons aren’t having a hallmark season.
They’re gasping for air.