When training camps for the 2021-22 season begin in late September, every NBA team will have decisions to make. For example, the final roster spots are frequently debated, since teams can bring up to 20 players to camp but must reduce that number to 17 or less (up to 15 standard contracts and two two-way deals) by the start of the regular season.
With the rebuilding Houston Rockets, though, there are more bigger-picture decisions to be made in camp than for most teams. For starters, coming off a year with the NBA’s worst record, it’s not as if they have a defined starting lineup. Clearly, the development of young players is a priority for general manager Rafael Stone and head coach Stephen Silas.
Yet, there are also accomplished veterans on the roster like John Wall and Eric Gordon who deserve playing time. In addition, the Rockets can point to the fact that up until Christian Wood’s severe ankle sprain last season, they had a winning record and were playing good basketball — even after the forced departure of superstar guard James Harden.
Should they fall out of playoff contention during the 2021-22 season, the Rockets are likely to eventually give more minutes to younger players, no matter the results. That point is unlikely to arrive by the Oct. 20 opening game, though. Silas and Stone are likely to at least begin the season by focusing on what gives them the best chance to win.
Among bigger names, Wall and Wood are almost certain to start, assuming health. They’re expected to be Houston’s best players next season. It would also be a major upset if 21-year-old guard Kevin Porter Jr. doesn’t start, since he’s entering his third NBA season and is at a point in his development cycle where prospects tend to show more significant growth. The Rockets need to find out what they have with him.
Beyond those three, Silas and Stone will balance various factors such as on-court philosophies, rotation fits, the role of veteran leadership, and what’s best for the development of the 2021 class of first-round rookies (Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba, and Josh Christopher). Here’s a look at some of the potential debates at training camp.
Jae’Sean Tate eager to prove Rockets right for contract guarantee
Even in rebuild, Rockets see roles for veterans John Wall, Eric Gordon
Daniel Theis vs. Jae’Sean Tate
AP Photo/Nell Redmond
The case for the 6-foot-9 Theis, who signed with the Rockets this offseason, is that he’s bigger and more physical. He can guard traditional bigs in the post and allow Wood to play more on the perimeter, where he did show surprising success alongside Kelly Olynyk late last season. Bringing Tate off the bench could also allow him to serve as a facilitator of sorts for the second unit, which could be a need since both Wall and Porter Jr. — Houston’s top two point guards — are expected to start. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GkAwZBK3yo The case for the 6-foot-4 Tate is that he’s more versatile than Theis and is better at defending on the perimeter. It would also allow Wood to be the primary center, which is the spot he played for the majority of last season and is where Stone and Silas clearly envisioned Wood playing when he initially signed with the Rockets in November 2020. Starting Tate would also keep the second-year forward in a role that he’s familiar and comfortable with, since he led Houston with 58 starts last season.
Jalen Green vs. Eric Gordon
Carmen Mandato/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
First things first, let’s clarify: Green is the clear favorite to start. Being the No. 2 overall pick in a loaded 2021 draft brings massive expectations, and he did nothing to diminish them with a strong performance at summer league. The 6-foot-6 guard is widely viewed as the future face of the franchise, and the odds are that he will start on opening night alongside Wall, Porter Jr., Wood, and either Theis or Tate. Meanwhile, Gordon likely projects as the sixth man, which is a role that he’s had an enormous amount of success in throughout a distinguished NBA career. That said, Green is only 19 years old, and he did suffer a right hamstring injury in mid-August, which cut short his summer league stint. What if he’s not quite 100 percent by late September? What if the injury is re-aggravated, which isn’t all that uncommon with soft tissue injuries? What if Green’s extraordinary performance in Las Vegas was a matter of a relatively small sample, and he looks more human in the preseason? No matter what happens in training camp and the preseason, Green is enormously talented and brings excitement to the team, coaching staff, and fans. He’s going to immediately play at the NBA level, assuming health. The G League is not remotely a consideration. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYTQ8imX7Yc But, if Green struggles or has injury issues, it’s not implausible to see Gordon as an opening night starter. «EG» remains a very solid two-way guard, having averaged approximately 18 points per game last season, and it’s almost a lock that Gordon will be a better defender in 2021-22 than Green as a rookie. In this scenario, Green would still play substantial minutes, but perhaps as a sixth man off the bench to start the season. In theory, if the Rockets decided to start Theis in the frontcourt next to Wood, Tate could also become a factor in this debate. However, in any unlikely scenario where Green doesn’t start on Oct. 20, his promotion to the starting lineup isn’t likely to be far away. As such, since this position would be temporary, it would seem that Gordon is a better fit than Tate — since Gordon’s playing style is more analogous to that of Green and would make for less of a disruption once the inevitable change is made. The odds are that Houston starts three guards on opening night, and Green is the clear favorite to play alongside Porter Jr. and Wall. But at this early stage, it would be premature to entirely rule Gordon out.
NBA or G League for Sengun, Garuba, and Christopher
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Unlike Green, who was drafted at No. 2, Houston’s picks from later in the first round (Sengun, Garuba, and Christopher) aren’t coming from slots that typically lead to guaranteed regular-season minutes right away. There’s certainly a case where one or more of those 19-year-olds could play early in the season, but Silas isn’t likely to hand them minutes, no matter what. They would have to earn them in training camp. Assuming the Rockets eventually fall out of playoff contention in the 2021-22 season, as most expect, there will come a time that the team transitions its focus solely to the development of younger players — even if it harms their short-term chances of winning games. But that’s not likely to be the case from game one. If any of those non-Green rookies is in Silas’ rotation when the Rockets open up play in Minnesota, they would have to outplay a veteran in camp and/or the preseason. Should that happen, it’s a promising and welcome development. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6j0Q0kE7vg But if Sengun, Garuba, and/or Christopher don’t immediately earn a rotation slot, the Rockets will have to decide what’s best for their development. Stay at the NBA level, and they can practice alongside professionals, play occasional minutes in blowouts, and potentially earn a further look in the event of injuries. The other option would be to send them to Houston’s G League affiliate, Rio Grande Valley, and get them more minutes in a developmental environment. Since the Vipers are owned by the Rockets, they would play in a comparable system to the parent club, and one in which their development would be a clear priority. This would only be a temporary arrangement. The expectation from most around the league, and perhaps even the Rockets’ own front office, is that the team will eventually slide out of contention. In that scenario, all of the young prospects would increasingly play more NBA minutes. But in the first half of the 2021-22 season, it shouldn’t come as a shock if the Rockets decide that one or more of those prospects is better suited for the G League — where they can more consistently play big minutes and potentially improve some of their early career shortcomings. [listicle id=52511]