The Houston Rockets still stand as dark horse NBA title contenders, but there are a multitude of questions plaguing them in anticipation of the playoffs. And the concerns about their bench production are as pressing as any.
Since Terrence Jones joined the starting lineup in the power forward spot, nearly all of Houston’s reserves have been inconsistent. With the exception of Jeremy Lin—who appears to be returning to form as a potent sixth man after a miserable February—no one’s been dependable.
Omri Casspi’s game has tailed off, Aaron Brooks has been traded and the team seems confused about how to use his replacement Jordan Hamilton. Francisco Garcia seems all but done as a Rocket, racking up 12 DNP’s over the team’s last 18 games.
The Rockets’ bench is in a state of transition. Omer Asik has looked stronger lately, and youngster Donatas Motiejunas seems to have emerged as a regular rotation member. Just how much time either sees in the playoffs will be a result of how Dwight Howard and Jones are performing, though.
Howard’s had his best season since his major shoulder injury in 2012, and is likely the most important factor in the Rockets’ success this year, so it’s hard to see him playing much less than 38 minutes per game in the playoffs.
Opportunities for Asik look slim in this reality, but they may increase if he impresses down the stretch—especially if he can prove effective when paired with Howard on the floor. This is a lineup tweak the Rockets thought they’d use a ton earlier in the year—in fact, the Rockets originally started the two together.
The pairing didn't work for the Rockets then, but they’ve thrown it out there more in recent weeks. This is perhaps because they expect the extra size to figure key against potential matchups like the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers—squads that can run quite physical duos at the Rockets and force them to live more in the paint.
Optimistically, Jones is ready for some playoff-level scrums. Realistically, the jury will be out on that front until we see the 22-year-old get his first heavy postseason minutes.
Asik may figure large if Jones isn't ready, and it’s encouraging for the Rockets that he’s now breaking out of his extended slump—caused by a mixture of resentment over losing his starting job to Howard, trade rumors and injury problems. He’s now putting in time with renowned roundball consultant Hakeem Olajuwon and looking like his old hustle-horse self when Houston calls his name.
And while Motiejunas continues to show promise in his time, he hasn’t looked entirely ready. Clocking a low 10.58 player efficiency rating at a pretty low usage rate over 14.6 minutes per game, D-Mo is a raw asset of unknown, still-shaping quality.
A 7-footer with above-average coordination and basketball IQ, he’s a potentially very valuable piece. Motiejunas can prove his value in the playoffs, as it seems coach Kevin McHale is happy with him in the rotation, but the Rockets may sag with him on the court. He's a very creative scorer who's yet to exhibit the kind of firm defensive principles the Rockets will need come April.
Hamilton, similarly, has shown good signs since coming over from the Denver Nuggets, and may be something like a replacement for Garcia. He's a more spry, creative ball-handler who fits more naturally into Houston's up-and-down style.
Alternately, Hamilton may get more time if Lin can't reprove himself more surely. Lin is the extra scorer and ball man Houston needs to relieve James Harden and Chandler Parsons and keep their pressing style at high velocity for all 48 minutes of the game. His presence was a big part of the Rockets’ success before his slump, and Hamilton seems to have been acquired partly as an insurance policy against Lin not getting his groove back.
But Lin's looked good in March, once helping lead the team with 26 points in a crucial March 9 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Playoff rotations shorten on all teams—they're distillations of the various experiments done throughout the regular season; whatever works best is what stays when the second season starts. So if the Rockets are serious about a championship, the time is now to get their bench concoctions consistent and right. The talent is there, but the time to prove the necessary savvy—and show us whether these backups are title material—comes when the post-season begins.