As the playoffs approach, here’s a look at the Houston Rockets’ best and worst lineups. Which combinations should bring optimism and which should cause panic?
In the playoffs, the margin for error shrinks tremendously. Teams can ill afford to give lineups that hemorrhage points significant court time. The playoffs are when teams give their best lineups the keys and see how far they can carry them. Every team, including the Houston Rockets, has lineups to cheer and lineups to jeer.
Here are the Rockets’ best and worst five, four, three, and two-man lineups based on their plus-minus per 100 possessions heading into the NBA restart.
The Houston Rockets’ Best Five-man Lineups
James Harden, Danuel House, Ben McLemore, PJ Tucker, Russell Westbrook Minutes Played: 46:29 +/- per 100 poss. : +40.5
Tyson Chandler, James Harden, Ben McLemore, PJ Tucker, Russell Westbrook Minutes Played: 30:41 +/- per 100 poss. : +37.2
The Rockets’ best five-man lineups have hardly played together, which is no surprise considering all the roster changes they have made this season. The combination of James Harden, Danuel House, Ben McLemore, PJ Tucker, and Russell Westbrook has been dominant and gotten the better of the opposition in just about every statistical category except for rebounding.
The lineup of Tyson Chandler, James Harden, Ben McLemore, PJ Tucker, and Russell Westbrook show that the Rockets have a dangerous traditional lineup to be utilized in individual matchups if necessary.
It should be noted that the Rockets’ micro-ball starting lineup of Robert Covington, Harden, Westbrook, Tucker, and House, in 163 minutes, has outscored opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions.
Next: Continuing the Lineups Breakdown
The Houston Rockets’ Worst Five-Man Lineups
The fact that Houston’s roster has changed so often causes for small sample sizes, but here are the worst five-man lineups when it comes to plus/minus numbers:
Robert Covington, James Harden, Danuel House, Austin Rivers, PJ Tucker Minutes Played: 32:51 +/- per 100 poss. : -26.1
Eric Gordon, James Harden, Danuel House, PJ Tucker, Russell Westbrook Minutes Played: 74:25 +/- per 100 poss. : -9.8
Of the Rockets’ two worst five-man lineups, the one that should inspire you to yell at your television in vain is the combination of Eric Gordon, James Harden, Danuel House, PJ Tucker, and Russell Westbrook.
What’s amazing is how switching out Eric Gordon for Ben McLemore can have the Rockets go from being +40.5 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents to being -9.8. The good news for the Rockets is that Gordon’s downright awful play this season might be a thing of the past due to him fully recovering from injury. If Gordon is back in any capacity, the Rockets will instantly eliminate some of their worst lineups.
Best Four-Man Lineups
James Harden, Ben McLemore, PJ Tucker, Russell Westbrook Minutes Played: 305:52 +/- per 100 poss. : +18.2
Robert Covington, Danuel House, PJ Tucker, Russell Westbrook Minutes Played: 167:06 +/- per 100 poss. : +12.9
The six men that reside in the Rockets’ best two four-man lineups are likely to be the most featured players come playoff time. What is most exciting is how potent the combination of Covington, House, Tucker, and Westbrook has been in such a short amount of time as teammates.
A lineup this good that does not feature your best player in James Harden is a godsend in the playoffs. These are the four guys you want to see out there when Harden is taking a breather.
Worst Four-man Lineups
Eric Gordon, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, PJ Tucker Minutes Played: 226:07 +/- per 100 poss. : -13.3
Eric Gordon, James Harden, Danuel House, PJ Tucker Minutes Played: 207:40 +/- per 100 poss. : -3.4
This season, Eric Gordon really knows how to ruin a party. A common thread between the Rockets’ best and worst lineups is the appearance of Gordon, which is utterly surprising based upon his previous contributions to the Rockets.
The lineup of Eric Gordon, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and PJ Tucker sounds like it should be producing like a world-beater, not a G League affiliate of the Knicks.
Best Three-man Lineups
James Harden, Ben McLemore, Austin Rivers Minutes Played: 348:23 +/- per 100 poss. : +16.1
James Harden, Ben McLemore, Russell Westbrook Minutes Played: 374:35 +/- per 100 poss. : +15.4
According to the data, the Rockets’ best lineups will almost certainly feature James Harden, Ben McLemore, and Russell Westbrook. Who features next to them should be determined by matchup, but it is comforting to know that the Rockets are not lost when Westbrook sits.
Playoff series are won by stars but they’re lost by rotation players. If Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers can keep this up in the postseason, the Rockets will have a puncher’s chance against any team in the Western Conference.
Worst Three-man Lineups:
Eric Gordon, Russell Westbrook, PJ Tucker
Minutes Played: 348:19 +/- per 100 poss. : -6.4
Eric Gordon, James Harden, PJ Tucker Minutes Played: 446:26 +/- per 100 poss. : -5.5
Eric Gordon is the HAL to the Rockets’ Space Odyssey. He should be vital to their success, but instead, he just tries his best to kill the entire crew.
Gordon has averaged almost 34 minutes per game for the Rockets over the past three postseasons. If the Rockets have aspirations of making a run to the NBA Finals, there should be a real conversation about how best to minimize his playing time when he doesn’t have it.
As mentioned earlier, an injury might be the real culprit for his lineup tanking ways but why risk it? Especially when there have been many more productive options.
Next: What the Numbers Reveal
A Surprising Revelation
At the beginning of the season, if someone told you that the Rockets’ second-most important player was Ben McLemore would you have laughed? Cried? Who? McLemore has featured in most of the Rockets’ best lineups, with his on/off +/- of +5.9 second-best on the Rockets behind only James Harden.
Best Two-man Lineups
James Harden & Ben McLemore Minutes Played: 931:05 +/- per 100 poss. : +12.5
Ben McLemore & PJ Tucker Minutes Played: 861:45 +/- per 100 poss. : +8.3
James Harden & Russell Westbrook Minutes Played: 1347:33 +/- per 100 poss. : +5.5
McLemore almost exclusively takes threes and he’s hit them at a 39.5 percent rate. The Rockets want to bomb threes and McLemore wants to hit them. It’s a match made in heaven, and as an added bonus, he’ll be back next season for only $2.2 million.
Harden and Westbrook haven’t been the Rockets’ best lineup this season but that should not raise alarm bells. First off, Harden and Westbrook have predominantly played against their opponent’s best lineups.
Second, for the vast majority of the season, the Rockets struggled to best maximize their two stars’ talents but with the commitment to micro ball, Westbrook has shifted to a new gear. If the Rockets had played micro ball all season, the combination of Harden and Westbrook would undoubtedly rank higher.
Worst Two-man Lineups:
Eric Gordon & PJ Tucker Minutes Played: 659:28 +/- per 100 poss. : -2
Austin Rivers & Russell Westbrook Minutes Played: 603:37 +/- per 100 poss. : -1.4
The silver lining of the Rockets’ two worst lineups is they are not that bad. At -2 and -1.4 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions, neither of these duos will absolutely kill you with their play.
Eric Gordon is the anti-Ben McLemore (2020 has people saying the strangest things) and the fact that Austin Rivers and Russell Westbrook aren’t playing well together is offset by how well the two have played with their other teammates.
The synopsis of the Rockets’ worst lineups is that Eric Gordon is in them. Gordon has been there for Rockets in big postseason moments, but that should come to an end this summer.
If he finds himself out there late in a close game, feel free to yell at the television and call someone an idiot. Either you’re right and the Rockets lose or you’re wrong and they win, but in both cases, you’ll have something to smile about.