There’s been a lot of intangible discussion about the Houston Rockets over the last few years. Is this team developing a “bad culture”? Wouldn’t “veteran mentorship” benefit this group? Won’t one to three seasons of tanking destroy the careers of these naturally gifted young men forever more?
In 2023-24, we’re going to find out. It has long been my suspicion that these conversations will amount to much ado about nothing. The Rockets were always going to do what they did this summer: bring in a head coach and some veterans.
Most of those veterans were brought in to play major rotation minutes. “Uncle” Jeff Green is a little different. His primary value feels more like “veteran mentorship” than “basketball player”.
Is Jeff Green still a net positive?
Let’s not be hasty. Jeff Green was good enough for 19.5 minutes per game with the Denver Nuggets last season. If you hadn't heard, they had a pretty good season. Green was legitimately part of it.
Per CleaningtheGlass, the best lineup that the Nuggets ran featuring Green was +34.5. That’s outstanding. Unfortunately, the group played a whopping 46 possessions together. The lineup had Green alongside Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown and Christian Braun.
Yet, Green didn’t even need The Joker on the floor to have a few laughs. Swap him out for Deandre Jordan and replace Brown (not to be confused with Braun) with Bones Hyland, and the Nuggets were +28.3 over the same number of possessions. That’s right - Green was part of a positive lineup that had Deandre “Here for the Vibes” Jordan in it.
It’s not all good news. The most-used lineup featuring Green paired him with Zeke Nnaji, the Brown/Braun bros (sorry, I can’t get over it), and Jamal Murray. Over 88 possessions, that group was -18.2.
At the same time...Zeke Nnaji. I actually really like Nnaji - he’s one of the countless young players that I’d have tried to acquire if I were Rafael Stone over the last three years.
(Digression alert: I think Stone is a good-to-excellent GM, but if we’ve got one difference in philosophy, it’s in taking a flier on young players. Nnaji joins a group featuring illustrious names like Jordan Nwora, Cam Reddish, Bol Bol, and Dalano Banton that would probably be Rockets if I were in charge. I’d also have made a run at some good players like P.J. Washington, Onyeka Onkongwu, and Deni Avdija. Anyway....)
Nnaji and his youth are probably the culprits for that lineup’s performance. Otherwise, the Nuggets were a hilarious -57.3 when Green played with Thomas Bryant, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun and Reggie Jackson over 43 possessions. Fair enough. When the best offensive player in your lineup is either Jackson or Brown, you’re not scoring very many points.
The point stands. Green was part of some strong lineups for the NBA Champions last year. His 19.5 minutes per game were meaningful.
What does Jeff Green do well?
On B-Ball Index, three stats jump out for Green. He was in the 96.2nd percentile in their Defensive Positional Versatility metric, the 91.5th percentile in Rim Shot Quality and the 93.1st percentile in Stable Cut Points Per Possession. From the Rockets’ perspective, Green can essentially be Kenyon Martin Jr. with defense.
Offensively, we’ll probably see some of the same inverted pick-and-roll stuff that we saw with Martin and Sengun. Against the wishes of Father Time, Green is still one of the best dunkers in the NBA. A high percentile cutter/finisher will be an obvious benefit alongside Sengun when he’s on the elbow or in the high post - or even Jock Landale.
Defensively, Green can still guard three-through-five, as opposed to - with all due respect to Martin Jr. - zero-through-zero. So the Rockets signed a guy that can still go.
Will they even use him?
Where does Jeff Green fit in Rockets’ rotation?
This is where things get murky. The Nuggets had one objective last season: win games. The Rockets have competing objectives in 2023-24. The primary goal is to win, but there are still secondary goals that pertain to player development.
Jabari Smith Jr. is the presumptive starting four. Tari Eason still needs major minutes at that spot. Green is likely to jump Cam Whitmore in the rotation on a provisional basis, but that doesn't amount to much.
Perhaps Green will find some time on the floor as the third-string four and the third-string five. Although, minutes at the five spot could be scarce if the Rockets want to experiment with Jabari Smith Jr. there.
Interestingly, Green didn’t log a minute at center for the Nuggets last year per CleaningtheGlass. Basketball Reference says he spent three percent of his time there, but I can’t find a lineup on CleaningtheGlass. Either way, he spent an inconsequential amount of time playing the five in 2022-23.
In fact, the last time Green spent meaningful minutes in the middle was - you guessed it - with the Rockets in 2019-20. He actually logged 96 percent of his time there the last time he was in Space City. Of course, that was during the micro ball
Still, Green did spend 21 percent of his minutes at the five for the Washington Wizards in 2018-19. Remember: Green was in the 96.2nd percentile in Index’s Defensive Positional Versatility metric. He can guard fives, ergo, he can play some five.
Time will tell. It’s unclear how much burn Green will see next season. He was a good signing either way. If nothing else, his mere presence in the locker room will be a benefit for this mostly young Rockets team.
Even to a skeptic, that counts for something.