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The Houston Rockets face seemingly endless possibilities when it comes to addressing the starting lineup for 2022. Jalen Green, picked No. 2 overall in 2021, is a lock to start at shooting guard. Reports from the team also suggest that Eric Gordon, despite his age at 33 years old, is likely to start on account of his 3-point shooting and defensive capabilities.
Of course, it should also be assumed whoever the team takes at No. 3 overall in the 2022 draft will start. Whether that’s Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, or Duke’s Paolo Banchero, their talent will be too immense for a rebuilding Houston team to keep them off the court.
After that, however, it’s a raging debate. While Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood would appear to be the frontrunners based on 2021-22 production, there are a lot of variables to consider. Let’s dive into it.
Much of the discussion revolves around the frontcourt. Christian Wood’s performance the last two years would almost certainly suggest that he should be in the starting lineup. Instead, Houston’s double-double center from last season is expected to be on the trading block due to questions over his defensive fit and contractual status (final season).
There are a wide range of opinions over how to approach second-year center Alperen Sengun and how quickly his offensive flashes of brilliance should be addressed. Similiarly, nobody can quite agree on how to use 2020-21 All-Rookie First Team forward Jae’Sean Tate. Tate’s high-energy play and defensive aptitude are certainly appreciated, but others point to his older age and relative offensive stagnation to this point.
Stephen Silas on Alperen Sengun's impressive night: "He obviously enjoyed being the starter."
Silas highlighted Sengun's impact on both ends, creating for others offensively, playing solid PnR defense as well as anchoring the team's rebounding when he was in the game.
— Jackson Gatlin (@JTGatlin) February 17, 2022
Point guard role
In all of this discussion, there somehow seems to be very little debate around the first starter on the floor. That’s at point guard.
Entering his fourth NBA season, Kevin Porter Jr. has finally found stability. After a mid-season trade in 2021 to the Rockets, Porter showed flashes of great play in 2022 and started 61 games. Rookie guard Daishen Nix, an undrafted free agent in 2021, is held in high regard by the team, with reports going as far as to suggest they view Nix as a “lottery talent.”
Despite this level of stability, there’s a different question that Houston might need to consider, depending on how things go on draft night. Do the Rockets even need a traditional point guard starting in 2022?
Are Daishen Nix ("lottery pick value") & Jae'Sean Tate as promising as the hyperbole?
Nix is 20, attached are his splits from the 16 regulars season games & the 3 playoff games last year
Tate will be 27 shortly after start of the season. He started 77 of 78 games last yr pic.twitter.com/31nwUtkehx
— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) June 11, 2022
Smith, Holmgren, or Banchero?
If Chet Holmgren or Jabari Smith are the pick at No. 3 in the first round, they likely slot in quite nicely alongside a starting guard duo of Porter Jr. and Green. Chet’s veratility between the block and the perimeter would compliment their games, while Smith’s elite outside shooting and defensive playmaking would make for a stronger starting five.
Duke’s Paolo Banchero, however, is almost unanimously projected as the selection. The 6-foot-10 forward operated as one of the primary ball handlers for the Blue Devils and had a usage rating of 27.5%. Draft pundits describe Banchero as the modern “point forward” and someone who will enter the league with an immediate ability to score the rock.
If selected, Banchero’s presence suggests that Houston could reallocate its minutes to both strengthen the team as a whole, as well as create a more well-rounded starting five. That might allow the Rockets to play around and experiment with the point guard position.
Banchero and Jalen Green
Everything that Banchero does will likely be in conjunction with Jalen Green who, as a rookie, had a 23.7% usage rating while averaging 17.3 points per game. This is a number that is expected to rise as Green truly comes into his own during his second NBA season, when he could easily challenge for well over 20 points per game in scoring.
— Bradeaux (@BradeauxNBA) April 4, 2022
It may be in Houston’s best interest to run the offense through Green and Banchero and allow their ball-driven players to do what they do best. Removing the traditional point guard, in this sense, could allow the team to start Gordon at shooting guard, rather than at one of the forward spots. That could also allow them to plug in a more defensively oriented forward — with more size and bulk — next to Wood or Sengun.
This could protect their more offensively oriented center and potentially allow for more of a defensive anchor on the court.
New role for Porter Jr.?
Meanwhile, Porter Jr. could be allowed to totally wreak havoc against second units. He could still play over 25 minutes per game in this “sixth man” role and spend time with the starters for stretches. For a bench rotation that’s going to feature players like 2021 first-round picks Usman Garuba, Josh Christopher, and other less developed talents, Porter’s presence could go a long way towards creating better looks for them.
Many suggest that the difference between Banchero as a starter and Banchero as an All-Star will be how he learns to read the floor at an NBA level. Why not allow him to learn during his rookie season, while the Rockets still have no playoff aspirations? The same can be said for Green, if he is to become more than just a scorer in the league.
Improving the net defensive capabilities of the starting five and the scoring potential of the secondary unit could lead to better net differentials, and ultimately more wins, for the 2022-23 Rockets.
It’s possible Porter Jr. isn’t amenable to this situation, but he would be massively incentivized to perform in a contract season. Houston will have the rights to Porter Jr. in 2022 restricted free agency and may look to extend him before the season starts. After some behavioral incidents, general manager Rafael Stone may want one more season to see what he has, both on and off the court, before making a long-term investment.
In the end, taking Porter Jr.’s talent, scoring aptitude, and his 24.1% usage rate to the second unit and allowing their true investments in lottery picks like Banchero and Green to operate together could be a worthwhile strategy in both the short and long-term.
Optimizing the rotation
Houston struck gold to get Porter Jr. with a second-round pick, and they’ve done so twice since in finding top-three lottery selections leading to Green and soon another top rookie. It’s up to head coach Stephen Silas to optimize the rotation and make all of these pieces work together.
Though it would be a bold strategy to go without a starting point guard, it could be one that takes the best advantage of the young talent that is currently on the Rockets. We’ll see what direction the team goes.