Should Jeremy Lin be playing so many minutes?
With every edge needed in the stacked Western Conference, the Houston Rockets ought to tweak their rotation to maximize its effectiveness.
Despite some early growing pains working Dwight Howard into Kevin McHale's schemes, the Rockets have jumped out to a 23-13 record. Howard is now playing effectively in the post on both ends, while the high-octane offense is running opponents out of the gym as usual, powering the team through the unforgiving West.
The conference is so stacked that Houston can't rest on its encouraging play so far. Houston still sits in a tie for fifth place, five games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Seven of the 15 teams in the West are above .600, so the mandate to keep improving is real.
Daryl Morey doesn't have to make any more acquisitions for the Rockets to get better. It can be as simple as adjusting the minute distribution and incorporating some guys into the game plan even more.
Houston's most-used lineup, per NBA.com, features Terrence Jones as the small-ball power forward and outscores opponents by 12.7 points per 100 possessions. That's a testament to the Rockets' spacing, but with Jones hitting less than 30 percent from beyond the arc, they can do better.
Omri Casspi, a natural small forward playing the 4 in Houston, has offensive versatility that excellently complements the primary pick-and-roll attack. As Zach Lowe of Grantland points out, Casspi doesn't produce only by hitting his corner three-pointers but also by attacking off the dribble to further break down the defense and create other scoring opportunities.
That ability to keep the offense moving as a secondary option makes Casspi invaluable to the second unit, which makes it hard to argue for him to start over Jones. Nonetheless, you can't ignore his 7.7 net rating, tied for second on the team and trailing only James Harden.
Casspi is also one of only three players on the Rockets with a defensive rating below 100. That can partially be chalked up to his playing against the second unit, but he's a heady team defender who has the speed to help when the guards make mistakes on the perimeter.
Giving him Jones' role might not be best, but even if Casspi keeps coming off the bench, he deserves some of Jones' minutes.
So, who's the other Rocket tied for second in net rating?
That would be Patrick Beverley. The Rockets are scoring 107.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and allowing just 99.7, which is easily the best defensive rating among Rocket point guards.
Houston's offense runs a tick more efficiently when Jeremy Lin is in the game, jumping to 107.8 points per 100 possessions, but the defense lets up 104.1 points when he's playing.
Beverley is firmly at the top of the Rockets depth chart at his position, but he and Lin have played nearly an identical amount of minutes this season. The starter has 31.5 minutes per game, while his backup gets 30.2 minutes. If you look at total minutes, Beverley's lead is just 788 to 786.
Of course, Houston's frenetic pace has something to do with this. Spearheading the speedy Rockets offense is very taxing for a point guard, so giving the second-string point guard major minutes keeps the starter fresher.
That said, Lin's spells on the court aren't that helpful if he can't replicate Beverley's defensive contribution, and Lin has never shown an ability to stop anyone. Even if Beverley's efficiency declines slightly with a heavier workload, giving him some of Lin's minutes couldn't hurt.
Francisco Garcia is by no means better than James Harden or Chandler Parsons, but this is a matter of the long-term sustainability of the rotation.
Even after battling through a sprained ankle in December, Harden has played 38.7 minutes per game this season, while Parsons is right behind him with 37.9 minutes. Both of them are in the top four in minutes per game this season, and Houston's up-tempo style means that time is tiring.
While the Rockets can afford to stretch Beverley out more at the point guard position, the efficient strategy would be to exercise more restraint on the wings. Harden and Parsons are both performing at a high level now, but they need to be able to maintain that play into the postseason.
That's OK, as Garcia gives Houston a nice defense-and-threes option off the bench.
At 6'7", Garcia has the size to defend small forwards off the bounce, with the awareness and just enough quickness to chase shooting guards on the perimeter. Next to Harden or Parsons, Garcia could take the more difficult wing assignment and maintain the spacing.
He needs one of those dynamic wings alongside him for the offense to work, but with two Rockets in need of more rest, that shouldn't be a problem.
The defensive improvement should help offset any slippage on offense, and the team will be better off in the spring for the tweak.
Between his bruised thigh and talk of trade demands, plenty has been keeping Omer Asik away from the court. It is essential the Rockets overcome any distractions and get their second center back.
Fortunately for them, Asik is saying all the right things about his eventual return, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reports:
I never talked (about the trade request or possibility) before; I’m not going to talk now. ... I’m just trying to get back on the court and get healthy. That’s it. I feel much better. I never had pain. It was just the swelling. That was the weird part. The swelling … is down.
Of course it’s difficult. I always want to play. It’s hard for me to watch the games, but it is what it is. I just want to feel good and play.
When Asik has been on the floor this season, the Rockets have allowed just 96.9 points per 100 possessions. He's one of the premier rim protectors in the NBA, and considering Houston doesn't have another one besides Howard, his presence in the middle is vital.
Ideally, Asik would come off the bench when he's ready to play again. The offense works best when Asik doesn't share the paint with Howard, limiting the room available for post-ups and drives inside.
Houston doesn't really need Asik to score at all. As long as he keeps points off the board and lets the rest of the Rockets score as they have, this team will be significantly better off.
Even with Howard and Asik both healthy, Greg Smith should still get playing time.
Standing 6'10" and not an elite leaper, Smith is not the shot-blocker Houston needs to support its small-ball lineup on defense. Nevertheless, he's game to bang bodies inside, working for rebounds and finishing effectively on the other end. Through nine games, Smith is shooting 62.5 percent from the field this season.
All of his playing time has come with Asik hurt, so it's unclear whether Smith will get marooned on the bench or sent to the D-League when the Rockets are at full strength.
But when you consider the back end of Houston's rotation, the Rockets could use another physical big rather than another smaller guy.
The Rockets are loaded with wings, so they don't need to give Ronnie Brewer minutes over someone like Garcia. Donatas Motiejunas is a true 7-footer, but he has shot 34.5 percent this season and doesn't have the bulk to hold up defensively.
Small doses of Smith will help keep the more prominent centers fresh, even allowing McHale to play multiple bigs together if the opposing matchup demands it.