The 9-Man Rockets Playoffs Rotation

The 9-Man Rockets Playoffs Rotation

By: Caleb J. Duncan

Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni likes to keep things simple. Whether it’s shooting the three-point shot or when utilizing his own players. D’Antoni has made it clear they will most likely scale things down to a 9-man rotation for the playoffs and it makes sense when the Rockets’ biggest struggle this year has been consistency. They don’t want to throw players in for 5-8 minutes a game because it can be difficult for a player to get into their groove with such little playing time.

There are clear names that will make the rotation. James Harden, Chris Paul, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon are all starters and are easily a lock.

Eric Gordon has played decently in the starting rotation even though he has been kind of streaky throughout the year. He seems to be picking things up heading into the playoffs (minus Tuesday’s game against Milwaukee…). PJ Tucker remains the best defensive player on the roster and having Chris Paul and Clint Capela back and healthy can certainly take some of the burden off him. Yet the Rockets will need Paul and Capela to be on their defensive A-Game to contend with teams like the Thunder and Warriors. Capela’s been doing a good job of extending himself on the floor and playing with great athleticism as of late so there is that to look forward to and Paul seems to be back to his usual self:


And James Harden is… well he’s James Harden. While players like Paul George have unfortunately dropped from the MVP race, Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are seemingly neck and neck for the race. While the idea of gushing over Harden’s record-breaking year is tempting it’s not the focus here.

The bench needs to be heavily looked at because the Rockets’ postseason success will largely depend on if their bench can put forth meaningful minutes. It is still unclear which seed the Rockets will end up with. They still have a (small) chance to retake the second seed, but could easily fall down to the 6th or 7th seed with a couple swings of bad luck. Due to the ever-changing Western Conference playoff picture, it’s imperative the Rockets have a consistent group of players coming off the bench because they’ll need to be prepared to face a number of teams and it’s possible they won’t know their first opponent until the last game of the regular season.

Here is a breakdown of each Rockets bench player and whether they should fill up the remaining 4 spots for the 9-man rotation.

Danuel House Jr.

This actually isn’t a difficult choice at all. With Gordon now in a starting role, House has cemented himself as the 6th man in the Rockets rotation. It was worrisome there for awhile not knowing if House would return to the Rockets but converting his contract into an NBA contract was best for both parties. The long-term hope here is that House remains in Houston past this season.

Since House has returned to the lineup he has been playing lights out, especially from behind the arc. He is currently averaging 12.8 total points and 3.4 made 3’s since his return. This includes a game in which he made 6 3’s against Atlanta and went 4-5 from behind the arc against New Orleans.

House’s ability to shoot consistent 3’s and remain aggressive on defense will prove to be absolutely critical for Houston in the playoffs when PJ Tucker or Chris Paul need to rest.

If House can show up for the Rockets in the playoffs then they would be wise to sign him to a longer-term contract once the season ends, especially if D’Antoni plans to keep Eric Gordon in the starting lineup. Look for Harden and Paul to exploit the catch-and-shoot with House on the court as he has done very well in that position when Gerald Green has been ice cold as of late.

Gerald Green

Houston loves Gerald Green. The Houston native has fit in perfectly due to his ability to shoot 3’s and work off the catch-and-shoot. The problem is that Green isn’t really hitting those 3’s lately. Much like Gordon this year, Green has been incredibly streaky, but then again, he always has been. It’s a price the Rockets appear to be willing to pay because when he is on he is a huge kickstart for the bench.

Right now, Green is out with an adductor strain for about 7-10 days. This isn’t good for someone who is fighting for minutes on the roster right now. With that timeline, it looks like he should be coming back right around the time playoffs start. This means that Green will need to come back and start making his shots again if D’Antoni intends to use him.

Green is decent when it comes to getting to the rim and it would be wise for the Rockets to try and incorporate him in that sense while he works to get his 3-point shot back. His length alone could be a positive factor when it comes to rebounding.

Gerald Green makes a rare 2-point shot in the paint (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Due to Green being a staple for the Rockets right now it would be very surprising if Green didn’t make the 9-man rotation, but I would not be surprised if Gary Clark slips in and takes minutes away from him if those shots don’t start falling.

Gary Clark

Clark will not be part of the 9-man rotation to start the playoffs. His biggest chance to enter the rotation will be reliant on Green’s 3-point shot, but even then the Rockets may trust Green to get back on track versus putting Clark, a rookie, out onto the floor.

It’s possible that if someone is injured Clark slides into the rotation, but it would be a big risk for the Rockets to rely on him too much with such little experience.


Before Kenneth Faried arrived Nenê was the go-to backup for Clint Capela. However, after Capela tore a ligament in his finger it was clear Nenê would not be able to replace him for that long stretch.

Nenê has his age and athleticism working against him at this stage in his career. He is still a decent rebounder and a true center whereas Faried was more of a temporary fill in. Nenê doesn’t have speed and offensively he has been all but absent this season. Part of that is due to severely restricted minutes and him getting multiple days of rest (out of necessity).

Nenê has been a good bench player during the regular season because he can give you a good 10-15 minutes while Capela rests, but during the playoffs, the Rockets need high energy off the bench when their big man is taking a breather and Nenê cannot consistently provide that energy.

His size does work in his favor compared to Faried. While he isn’t fast, Nenê can still block and play defense in the paint against opposing centers, but the negatives outweigh the positives on this one. It is easy to imagine a similar usage of Nenê to Gary Clark. If an injury to Capela or Faried comes up Nenê’s minutes may spike, but D’Antoni has not been afraid to use a small rotation at times throughout the season and, depending on the matchup, he may feel more comfortable doing that rather than playing the 36-year-old Nenê. His best chance of playing during the postseason will be in garbage time minutes most likely.

Kenneth Faried

The power forward turned center for the Rockets has easily been one of this season’s saving graces. After the Chris Paul injury, Harden went into MVP mode and a large part of that was due to Capela’s presence on the floor. When Capela went down Faried stepped in for Houston in a big way.

Faried’s energy alone has made him valuable to the slow-paced Rockets. While his defense is not as good as anyone would like it to be he has proven to play efficiently at center while Capela rests.

It is unlikely that the Rockets will opt to use Faried as PF during the playoffs as his resurgence has been largely due to playing well at the center position. He is averaging 13.9 total points and 8.7 rebounds with the Rockets and he claims the Rockets gave his career “new life.”

In a recent interview, Faried said:

Me being on this team is a blessing because it gave me new life to my career. People see Kenneth Faried can do this and Kenneth Faried can do that. And Houston is letting him do this and letting him do that. So I give coach D’Antoni a ton of credit for that, and a ton of respect for letting, not just me but also James Harden be who he is, Chis Paul be who he is, Clint Capela be who he is. I mean, Austin Rivers, he’s got him over here letting him be who he is after everybody thought he was down and out when he went to Washington. But he’s back on track. Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker … think about where all these guys have come from. And now you’ve got a strong group that’s confident and knows how to get the job done. A group that knows what it takes to be in this league and is going to bring the grit and heart to the floor each and every night.”

Space City Scoop

Unfortunately, Faried is now dealing with knee soreness at the wrong time. He missed some time, came back, and is now missing multiple games again. He’ll need to be at 100% during the playoffs to be effective for the Rockets.

Austin Rivers

Rivers’ playing time has significantly decreased now that Paul and House are back. House looks to be the better defender, but Rivers does have basketball IQ in his favor. He’s smart, can run the floor, and has been a great backup to Chris Paul and James Harden.

His offense has been troublesome lately. While he was never an elite 3-point shooter for Houston his ability to get the layup and create pressure on opposing players helped catapult Houston into the playoffs. It cannot be stressed enough just how vital Faried and Rivers were to the Rockets’ success this year.

As a well rounded player the Rockets would be foolish to keep him on the bench during the playoffs. It’s fine that D’Antoni is giving Rivers and Faried more rest days now that House is back and Shumpert has been acquired, but it should be noted that during an injury-plagued season Rivers has been healthy which is incredibly important to an injured-riddled team as it proves consistency.

While his minutes will definitely be limited more so than they have been during the regular season Rivers will be crucial off the bench when Paul needs rest. After last year’s hamstring injury to Chris Paul, the Rockets will need to ensure they don’t overwork him. The organization has done a good job of limiting CP3 since his return this season and they’ll need to keep that going during the playoffs. This is where Rivers will fit in nicely.

Speaking to Marc Spears of ESPN, Rivers stated playing in Houston has made him the happiest he’s been in his entire career. Keeping him from playing in the playoffs could quickly change that sentiment.

Austin Rivers faces Steph Curry (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Iman Shumpert

The Rockets traded for Shumpert in order to add depth and defensive recognition to the team. It’s safe to say that Shumpert has done both of those things.

Defensively, Shumpert is doing exactly what he needs to do. After being towards the bottom end at the beginning of the season the Rockets have made huge jumps to be one of the better defensive teams in the league just before the season ends. Shumpert is definitely helping defensively while on the court as the Rockets are keeping opposing teams to just 104 points per 100 possessions. Capela, Paul, and Tucker are all doing great on defense as well so the addition of Shumpert has solidified the defense from the bench. Harden is averaging 2.1 steals and .8 blocks a game which puts the argument to rest as to whether Harden is an offensive weapon only. Shumpert has clearly helped push the Rockets over the edge in terms of defensive rating since his arrival.

Sadly, Shumpert is proving to be a big liability offensively. He’s averaging 3.6 total points a game on just 28.3% overall shooting. The question is whether that can be accepted due to how well he’s playing defensively. The answer is no. The Rockets are known for being an offensive juggernaut and while their lacking defense has been an issue at times when playing against teams like the Golden State Warriors, they have plenty of players on the roster who provide decent defense and can make their shots.

To be fair, Shumpert is being forced to shoot three’s more than he ever has been asked to. He has to hit those three’s though. As a team that lives and dies by the three, if you are not making the shots then there is no real way for you to produce.

It does not seem like adding Shumpert to the 9-man rotation would be a wise choice. The Rockets cannot afford to have a player on the court who can’t shoot. Shumpert will need to use these last few games to get into a shooting groove if he hopes to be utilized in the postseason.

Final Verdict

The 9-man rotation should look as follows:

Starting: James Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, PJ Tucker

Bench: Danuel House Jr., Kenneth Faried, Austin Rivers, Gerald Green

Fringe: Iman Shumpert, Nenê, Gary Clark

Shumpert, Nenê, and Clark should get playing time if there is an injury or during garbage time, but Shumpert and Nenê are way too risky to rely on in a postseason packed with tough opponents. Clark’s lack of experience keeps him out of the rotation, but hopefully the Rockets will be able to use him, if only a little bit, to give him that playoff experience.

Featured Photo Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

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