The Houston Rockets' road woes continued on Wednesday night as they started off their six-game road trip with two straight losses after falling to the Bulls in overtime 124-119. The Rockets trailed for most of the night, behind by eight at halftime and by 11 going into the fourth quarter. Alperen Sengun, the Rockets’ best player, did not make a field goal in the first half, as Houston struggled on both sides of the ball. One of the few bright spots early was Cam Whitmore, who continued to make the most of his limited minutes.
Whitmore has been the Rocket's best points-per-minute player and best shooter coming into the game, although in a limited sample size. The sample size was a lot larger for Whimore versus the Bulls, as Ime Udoka changed up the lineup to end yesterday's game, which led to Whitmore playing a career-high 33 minutes. Those 33 minutes led to a career in points as well, with Whitmore finishing with 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting.
Whitmore’s good play throughout, along with Jabari Smith, who finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds, kept the Rockets in striking distance until Sengun went into superstar mode and helped Houston come all the way back from 16 points to send it to overtime. Unfortunately, the Rockets did not score in the last 2:50 seconds, as the Bulls finished the game on a 10-0 run to come away with the victory.
Despite the loss, Whitmore continued his strong play and, in my mind, should be the starting small forward until Dillon Brooks is back in the lineup. Here is why.
Why Cam Whitmore should be the starter until the Rockets are healthy
Having Tari Eason or Brooks hurt by themselves would be a huge blow to the Rockets, but to have both players out at the same time has left a huge hole in the Houston defense, which you would expect. But something you may not think about is the three-point shooting.
Eason has improved his three-point shot to over 36 percent this season, and Brooks is shooting a career-high 40.8 percent from beyond the arc. You are now missing not only two of your best defenders but two of your best shooters as well. The lack of outside shooting has been a huge problem recently, and that is one of the many areas where Cam has excelled.
In limited minutes this season, Whitmore is shooting over 42 percent from three, which is great for any player, but especially a rookie who is known for his athleticism, not necessarily his outside shooting. The Rockets were already a middle-of-pack shooting team with Eason and Brooks, and now, with them both on the bench, the three-point shooting has plummeted. In the last three games, the Rockets are shooting 31.7 percent from beyond the arc, and last night, their lack of shooting put them in a huge hole.
Will Whitmore continue to shoot over 40 percent with more minutes? More than likely, no, but his shooting form and ability to rise up over defenders shows that shooting above average from three-point range is sustainable and something the Rockets sorely need right now.
Not only is Whitmore a good shooter, but he is relentless in going to the basket, and no one can stop him on the fast break once he gets above the rim. Again, this is something the Rockets do not have enough of with their current roster. Yes, Whitmore will still make rookie mistakes, something Udoka has pointed out, but the positive aspects of his game way outweigh any mistakes he might make.
Of course, if Whitmore is your starter going forward, that means someone will have to go to the bench, and I think it's pretty obvious at this point who it is. Jae’Sean Tate is one of three players who has been on the team the longest and still can be a valuable player, but not as a starter and not playing 25 minutes a game. Whitmore has solidified himself as a better overall player and more impactful, especially on the offensive end.
It has been a struggle for Whitmore to see minutes until recently. However, he is no stranger to adversity, as he has dealt with challenges going all the way back to his days in high school. He had to fight through major injuries in high school and college, and of course, falling out of the lottery and to the Rockets at the number 20 pick.
He started the season playing primarily in the G-League. Even when he was called up to the Rockets, he spent most of his time collecting DNPs or only playing garbage time minutes. Despite all that, Whitmore never complained and continued to work on his game. His minutes were sporadic for most of the season, but all that changed with the injuries to Eason and Brooks.
The question now will be, does the Rockets coaching staff finally make a move to elevate Whitmore to the starting lineup?
I have asked that question all season in different ways to Udoka, who unsurprisingly has been vague on when Whitmore will see more minutes, but it seems he has forced the Rockets’ hand and made that decision easy.
We will see what Udoka decides on Friday as the Rockets travel to Detroit for their only visit of the season to take on the Pistons.