If you really want to evoke some emotions in Rockets fans, you only need three words.
No, not “Harden requests trade”. For the most part, we’re over it. Not “Lillard for three”, either - although, those words still cut deep.
We’re talking about “Kevin Porter Jr.”.
Porter Jr. is divisive in this fanbase. It’s as easy to find a Rockets fan who thinks he should be the franchise player as it is to find one that would cut him tomorrow. Why is this?
There are psychological explanations. Porter Jr. has had some locker room trouble in the past. It’s human nature - if some people dislike something, it’s going to make other people like it more. Ask a millennial about cilantro and find out for yourself.
There’s also the matter of the package that the Rockets gave up to acquire him. It was practically nothing. There’s a need within some corners of the fanbase to feel as if Rafael Stone stole a superstar from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It makes sense. Porter Jr. was the first glimmer of post-Harden hope. In a season of (sorry) Justin Patton and Khyri Thomas, Porter Jr. was the real WOW factor. Lastly, there’s a simple reason - Porter Jr. is very good at basketball.
He’s just not a point guard. We’ve reached that conclusion definitively. The Rockets just acquired Fred VanVleet and Amen Thompson to handle point guard duties moving forward. Now, Porter Jr. can move into the sixth-man role that plenty of fans have been envisioning for him for some time.
Could Porter Jr. start this season?
Recently, Kelly Iko of The Athletic suggested that Porter Jr. could start at the two over Jalen Green. In a new era of meritocracy, there is a suggestion that Ime Udoka will start whichever of the two impresses him more in training camp.
Meanwhile, Porter Jr. was, realistically, better than Green last year. He was. The numbers tell us that.
Let’s just look at basic stats. Porter Jr. averaged 19.2 points per game on 56.5 percent True Shooting (TS%) last season. Green averaged 22.1 on 53.8 TS%.
OK. So Green was less efficient with more volume. That makes sense. Still, there are more arguments for Porter Jr. He’s a better defender. Pick a defensive metric, and Porter Jr. grades higher than Green.
Per Bball Index, there are more granular reasons to favor Porter Jr. Green was in the league’s 60.1st percentile in Off-Ball Shot Making. Porter Jr. was in the 95.9th.
We knew this, right? Porter Jr. is a better catch-and-shooter player than Green. That makes him a more complimentary player for others once divorced from his point guard role. With Fred VanVleet as a primary playmaker, the superior floor spacer should start.
Meanwhile, the Rockets’ focus next season won’t be on development. It will be on winning games. If Porter Jr. outperforms Green in training camp, he should start over him.
The Rockets should prioritize Green
Sure, the Rockets are hoping to win next season. If that goal comes entirely at the expense of the long-term outlook, what’s the point of even rostering Green? What’s the point of rostering Jabari Smith Jr. or Amen Thompson? Shouldn’t we be trading these guys to assemble a contending roster?
The Rockets have a balance to strike next season. Yes, decisions should be made with the primary objective of winning in mind. On the other hand, some perspective is needed. The Rockets won’t be title contenders next season, so the long-term view still matters. Deprioritizing Green is not what’s best for the organization, whether it’s what’s best for 2023-24 or not.
For what it’s worth, there are basketball reasons to favor Green. He was in the league’s 96.3rd percentile in Index’s Stable Isolation Points Per Possession metric. Porter Jr. was in the 88.3rd.
(As an aside, are you wondering how the woeful Rockets have a backcourt that grades so well in so many of these metrics? Well, Green and Porter Jr. graded abysmally in other metrics. Like, both under 20 percent 0in Overall Shot Quality abysmal).
That matters. This isn't going to be a heliocentric offense built around Fred VanVleet - no matter how much money he’s making. VanVleet is a true floor general. If Green is a better isolation scorer than Porter Jr., he might be a better fit alongside him.
Rockets need to consider potential
Still, there are broader and more significant reasons to start Green. This was the second overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Bringing him off the bench as a third-year player makes for some very bad optics.
It’s also unfair. Green is still on an upward trajectory. He should be allowed to explore his potential. On the other hand, the odds are a lot higher that Porter Jr. is roughly a finished product.
There are a lot of rationalizations around why Porter Jr. is somehow less experienced than he is. The reality is, he’s about to enter his fifth NBA season. In terms of projecting development, that’s substantially different from entering your third season.
I know. Porter Jr. has played multiple positions throughout his career. He’s missed games due to injuries. He was on a Cavaliers team that was stacked with quality young guards. We’ve heard it all, and I don’t mean to discredit any of it.
The fact holds - Porter Jr. is about to enter his fifth NBA season. This is his fifth off-season. His fifth training camp. If you look at this historic trajectory of NBA players, on average, it’s unlikely that Porter Jr. is going to make strides toward real superstardom at this juncture.
Green can still get there, but this is a pivotal season. If he can’t marry volume with some efficiency this year, his outlook gets considerably bleaker. The Rockets need to give him the opportunity to do so.
Personally? I think he’ll make the most of it. There’s another difference between Green and Porter Jr. - Green has an elite first step. He’s probably got a 99.9th percentile first step, and frankly, I’m not sure that he doesn't have the quickest first step in basketball. That’s a weapon. He’s also an elite vertical athlete.
By contrast, Porter Jr. is a very talented offensive guard. He just doesn't have outlier qualities. Sure, he’s a far above-average ball-handler. Does he have a top-10 handle in the NBA? Is Porter Jr. special, or just good? Green is at least athletically special. The Rockets should start him next season.
Sorry if that makes you feel bad.