The Houston Rockets did quite a bit of tinkering with the roster this offseason and now we’re on the verge of seeing what that will amount to with preseason just around the corner.
We have a solid idea of what the Rockets rotation will look like going forward, but what about specific lineups for specific situations? Other than the projected starting lineup — Fred VanVleet x Jalen Green x Dillon Brooks x Jabari Smith Jr. x Alperen Sengun — Ime Udoka will be tasked with mixing and matching to find lineups he trusts the most. We know his coaching style is predicated on defense, so let’s dive into which lineup makes most sense on that side of the ball.
Best defensive lineup
Udoka will favor players that hold themselves accountable and are relentless on the defensive end. It’s a big reason why the team was hellbent on securing Brooks’ services, even when his stock seemingly hit the floor. His on-ball defense gives the Rockets a true lockdown guy in the vein of Shane Battier.
VanVleet also figures to be relied on with his vast postseason experience of pestering other guards. Concerns about his size and all the miles he endured under Nick Nurse are legitimate, but a hefty contract and some depth behind him at point guard will go a long way into invigorating a guy who has worked hard to get to this point.
If Smith is to grow into the type of two-way player that he was expected to become as the third pick last year, he’ll have to be given more opportunities to exhibit his talent. He had his ups and his downs last season, but his intensity never wavered. I see him being an asset here with the ability to not only be strong on the perimeter, but also improve in the post.
I’m also of the mindset that any great lineup that the Rockets have will ultimately feature Tari Eason Jr. in it. If I’m to keep buying into his Kawhi-like trajectory, I’ll have to keep believing that his ability to disrupt the other team’s offense will stay on a steady uptick.
So there we have it, a solid quartet of players capable of guarding up and down. They should have the wings on lock and the paint — oh crap, the paint...
I’ll admit that I didn’t forget about the fifth defender. I’ve been avoiding it. That’s not to say that we don’t have any other good players on that side of the ball. There are a couple of plus defenders that we could add to our quartet. The problem is that means we would have to go relatively small.
It will be hard to pull Jalen Green off the court for offense-defense substitutions, but his effort on defense still leaves more to be desired. If he can turn himself into a net-positive defender he will certainly be out there, but for purposes of this blog, we’re looking for the optimal lineup.
Amen Thompson will have some highlights this year, although it’s tough to project a rookie coming into the league as a defensive stalwart. If he catches on quick, could we see him take on larger assignments in favor of VanVleet? It’s tbd.
Other options include the likely seldom-used Aaron Holiday. He also figures to provide some energy off the bench, but it’s already tough to find the minutes for him as is. Cam Whitmore has the body to be a good defender down the road, but like Green he’ll have to show consistency over time.
All in all, I trust that the team will hold up one through four. It’s just the other spot that still worries me.
The shortest MVP in the past five seasons was 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo. To his credit, Jabari Smith guarded him well in one of their matchups last season as a rookie. However, shifting him up to center and expecting him to be the last line of defense on most nights of an 82 game season may be asking for too much at this stage of his career.
I’m not sure how interested I am in running one of those smaller lineups with Jae’Sean Tate as the fifth guy, so that leaves us with Sengun, Jock Landale, Boban Marjanovic and Jeff Green.
Bobi figures to be here for vibes and “in case of emergency break glass” situations so we’ll toss out that thought. Uncle Jeff somehow just keeps popping up places at the ripe age of 37 and I’m actually intrigued at a frontcourt of him Bari and Tari. The first-time champion is still serviceable, and while he’s not a longterm solution, I could see that trio being interesting in short spurts. However, the real debate will continue to be Sengun vs. Landale.
My heart wants it to be Sengun. It’s been apparent since Udoka’s introductory session that he’s not completely sold on Sengun, hence the Brook Lopez interest. Plus, it would be a deflating feeling if neither Alpy or Jalen make the necessary strides on defense to take their games to the next level.
However, that was five months ago and Udoka and his staff have surely been working with him in between Sengun’s FIBA play. A lot could have changed. In fact, a lot DID change. Sengun grew two inches this summer and that shouldn’t be ignored. We’ll have to see how that transitions to the NBA game.
On the other hand, Landale figures to be the better defender at this moment. He moves more fluidly on that side of the court and thankfully, it doesn't sound like the ankle injury he suffered earlier this Summer will deter him going into the season.
Udoka understands that neither of these guys will give him the level of rim protection that Robert Williams provided to him in Boston, but if they can take a page out of Al Horford’s book — still a tall task — that will go a long way into quelling the exasperation of getting spurned by Lopez in free agency.
Even at his ripe age of 37, Horford has managed to stay an effective defender as his athleticism declines. The undersized Horford still makes the Joel Embiids of the world have to work hard with his advanced knowledge of positioning and old man strength.
For those reasons, I believe that the Rockets big that has the best chance of emulating Horford in the 2023-24 season is Landale. While I’d love for Sengun to prove me wrong, I think a FVV x Brooks x Tari x Bari x Jock lineup will yield the best defensive output for Houston this season.
We may only see this lineup once in a blue moon, but on paper, I think this five-man combination can hold down the fortress.