Everyone in the NBA has tendencies. Some of them are obvious and some of them less so, but they’re all there if you pay close enough attention. Anyone who has been paying attention to the NBA over the past 15 years or so knows that Mike D’Antoni has a tendency to keep a short rotation, and that said tendency becomes more exaggerated once his teams get into the playoffs.
With the Rockets re-establishing themselves as an upper-tier Western Conference contender over the past couple months, it seems like a good time to check in on Houston’s non-starter rotation guys in order to gauge which of them D’Antoni seems to trust (and how much he trusts them), and what that might mean for the Rockets’ playoff viability.
The Inner Circle
Austin Rivers, Danuel House, Gerald Green
Rivers has played nearly 30 minutes per game since arriving in Houston, and he appears to be a very good fit as the team’s fourth guard, and first off the bench. He can defend either backcourt position and is capable of playing on or off the ball for stretches on the other side of the floor. A decent portion of his time comes next to Chris Paul as the bench unit co-captain but he sees plenty of burn alongside James Harden as well, and the Rockets are kind of smoking teams no matter who he plays with. (They’re +4.7 per 100 possessions when he plays with Paul, +4.6 when he plays with Harden, and +11.5 when he plays with Eric Gordon.) Rivers is also capable of getting hot for a few minutes and stealing a bench-heavy stretch when Harden takes his breather, which is always a nice thing to have in your pocket.
House is essentially the forward version of Rivers. He can play the 3 next to P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela, or he can work as a small-ball 4 when the Rockets go small with Tucker in the pivot. D’Antoni sung House’s praises when the Rockets brought him back up from the G-League, and House has gotten 30 minutes a night while absolutely sniping away from the perimeter (24 of 48 from 3) since returning to the fold. He serves essentially the same function in this year’s rotation as Luc Mbah a Moute did last year, working as a connector piece between different kinds of lineups, but he’s perhaps a better fit for a D’Antoni team because rather than elite defense with little shooting, he provides competent defense with high-level shooting. And we know which Mike D prefers when push comes to shove.
Green was a somewhat surprising part of the rotation during last year’s series against the Warriors, but he has consistently been in D’Antoni’s good graces throughout this season thanks to his combination of shooting and flexibility on the wing. He’s played in 69 of the team’s 75 games this season and received double-digit minutes in 66 of them, and 20-plus minutes in 37. He’s in the rotation. It’s just a question of how much playing time he’ll see, given that D’Antoni is likely to ramp up the minute loads for Harden, Gordon, and Tucker, at minimum, and could do the same for Capela and/or Paul. Green is a bit different than Rivers and House in that he doesn’t bring the same level of defensive intensity as Rivers and unlike House is more of a 2-3 than a 3-4, which means he’s the closest of these three to being bumped to the outer circle
The Outer Circle
Nene, Kenneth Faried
Nene was Capela’s primary backup throughout last season and the playoff run, but for the most part, he did not play during the most important series of the team’s season. I expect to see a similar situation unfold with either him or Faried this year, depending on which of them D’Antoni chooses to use behind Capela in the early rounds against not-the-Warriors. Faried was simply fantastic filling in for Capela as the starter, but the Tuckwagon Lineup (Tucker at center with bench units) was too important to their relative success against Golden State for it not to maintain a heavy presence in the postseason. And since Capela is likely to be on the floor for 30-plus minutes himself, that probably squeezes the backup centers out of the rotation once we get into the series against certain matchups. None of this will stop one or both of these guys from contributing early on, but we should expect to see less and less of them as the Rockets advance through the bracket.
D’Antoni and Shumpert have a relationship going back to their New York days, and his ability to defend any perimeter position while not needing the ball in his heads to make the occasional offensive contribution makes him an excellent fit on this version of the Rockets. He started off this season like gangbusters in Sacramento, but as is typically the case with Shumpert, eventually began being nagged by various injuries and saw his shooting drop off a bit. He’s appeared in 15 of 22 possible games with Houston but connected from beyond the arc multiple times in just three of them and is shooting just 28 percent from deep overall. He’s a nice piece to have if one of D’Antoni’s more reliable guards gets into foul trouble or if they’re struggling to defend a certain player and he wants to try a different look, but he seems unlikely to be in the main playoff rotation.
Break Glass in Case of Emergency
Gary Clark, Isaiah Hartenstein
If either of these two guys has to be on the floor during the competitive portion of a playoff game, the Rockets are probably in trouble.