Now that August is around the corner and the corner NBA rosters are all but set. Barring a James Harden-style eleventh-hour blockbuster, The Houston Rockets’ current lineup will likely be the one they start the season with. A quick look at the depth chart raises a major question. Exactly how many minutes are going to go to the bench? Can the Rockets afford to rest starters? Can they afford not to?
The most glaring question is that of ex-starting center Ömer Aşık. Endless words have been spent pondering what his role will be in the coming season, and there’s no way to know without a psychic or a fortune teller, assuming even magic can peer into Daryl Morey’s brain. What’s clear is that Aşık will be asked to perform as Dwight Howard’s backup. Other responsibilities aside, everyone is keenly aware that Ömer Aşık can and will give Houston high-caliber defense every minute he’s on the court. Without a major defensive dropoff, how many minutes per game can Dwight Howard afford to rest?
And while Aşık may be the most notable player to come off the bench, he’s by no means the only one. Patrick Beverley has shown himself to be a capable point guard in the most difficult of times, earning himself starting minutes in the first round of the playoffs last season. The power forward position has so little dropoff in quality that it’s hard to predict which player will even start at that position. Francisco Garcia’s defense on Kevin Durant was above expectations in the playoffs, and he’s as capable of a spot-up shooter as you can ask for. The shooting guard position is the only shaky position in the Rockets’ rotation, with no clear favorite to spell James Harden.
Dwight Howard isn’t the only player who might get as much rest as he cares for, then. With any amount of growth from any of Houston’s wing options like Omri Casspi or Reggie Williams, Houston might have the option of resting their starters for quarters at a time. A lineup of Patrick Beverley, Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia, Donatas Motiejūnas and Ömer Aşık wouldn’t be a competitive starting five against any team trying to scrape the playoffs, but that’s a group that’s capable of hanging onto leads and besting other benches. The Rockets could decide to cap every player’s minutes at 30-35 and still put a quality team on the floor.
If you look at the third string, things get even more interesting. Aaron Brooks looked like a quality starting point guard as recently as 2010. Reggie Williams showed great promise, but then was buried in bad situations. Greg Smith Is a capable backup center-forward, much less third-string. Robert Covington and Isaiah Canaan are question marks of rookies. If the second string ever falters, there’s a third row just waiting for a chance to play.
Of course, all of this revolves around the starters. The first thing they’ll have to do is build leads. It’s reasonable to expect that against half the league, but there’s a large and varied field of playoff-caliber teams. The Southwest Division alone sports three teams expected to be playoff locks, including the current Western Conference Champion San Antonio Spurs. Plenty of teams have starting lineups that will give Houston trouble, and if the Rockets struggle to generate a lead, the bench won’t get a chance to hold it.
The other concern is just as important; will the starters want to play a mere half hour a game? Tim Duncan is happy to let Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich limit his minutes. There’s a trust there which has been built with championship rings and 50-win seasons. Houston has no such luxury yet. Dwight Howard has yet to play in a preseason game for Houston, and the longest tenured players have only been with the Rockets for two prior seasons. Head coach Kevin McHale has no playoff series wins with Houston under his belt, and may not be able to get Howard, Harden, or even Parsons to buy into a habit of low minutes.
This assumes, of course, that McHale would even prefer to curtail playing time for the starters. He’s shown a predilection for keeping starters on the floor for longer than expected, even in games which seem to be over. It’s possible that a potential Conference Finals run may affect McHale’s minutes calculus, but he seems unconcerned with cumulative fatigue in general. So far, his team has been very young and able to withstand everything but a pike of back to back back to backs, but this will change. Players will get older, even if they’re still young this year.
Of course, fatigue isn’t even the only advantage to low minutes. Minimizing time on court also minimizes chances of injuries, both everyday and unexpected. Some have claimed that fatigue helps cause ACL and achilles injuries like those suffered by Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant. There seems to be little proof behind the claim, but it’s certainly true that being off the court limits opportunities to get injured. Teams like San Antonio are keenly aware that injuries determine the fate of seasons, and limit minutes accordingly. The Thunder seemed invincible until a freak injury took down Russell Westbrook. It would seem wise to us the bench as much as humanly possible in the regular season.
What can we expect from Houston’s bench? In the long term, that’s a tool that will have to be used. Teams that experience long term success build good benches. The optimal plan must be to build double digit leads and let the bench hold on. Life in the NBA seldom goes according to plan, however, and coaches tend to rely on stars to right the ship. Howard and Harden have all the backup they need, but don’t be surprised if that rotation proves hard to crack.