The Houston Rockets, fresh off of an impressive 3-1 preseason, begin their 2022-23 campaign Wednesday night in Atlanta. The Hawks have massive expectations this season after trading for Dejounte Murray to pair with Trae Young and signing De’Andre Hunter to a four-year, $95 million extension. While the Hawks are gunning for a home playoff series, the Rockets have more humble aspirations, namely, not finishing with the worst record in the league.
The Rockets are less concerned with racking up wins in 2022-23 than they are with developing their young core, and their starting lineup should represent that. Squeezing out a few more wins by relying on veterans would be a wasted opportunity to accelerate their young players’ growth.
The Rockets starting lineup should be...
The Rockets starting lineup should be Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green in the backcourt, Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason on the wings, and Alperen Sengun at center. Green and Porter possess unique shot-creating abilities, Smith and Eason are defensive terrors, and Sengun is one of the best passers at the center position.
Will a lineup straight out of the 21st century be competitive on a nightly basis? Probably not, but this group learning each other’s games and going through the ups and downs of an NBA season will give them invaluable experience.
The other benefit of riding the young core together is it will crystalize who truly belongs in Houston for the long haul. Take the Sixers as an example. It wasn’t until Joel Embiid’s fourth season and Ben Simmons’ second season that the two even played a game together. While injuries were largely to blame, it was clear from the get-go that their styles and talents weren’t a great match on offense.
The Sixers were slow to react because the pair were so talented that they were able to win at a high level in the regular season, but in the end, they wasted three prime seasons of Embiid and Simmons trying to make two different puzzles fit together. If they had been able to see the pair early in their careers, before they were All-NBA level players, it would have been much easier for them to make a move that increased their championship odds.
For the Rockets, it might become apparent that Green needs to be the lead ballhandler over Porter or that Sengun’s lack of defense isn’t worth the offense. Neither of these developments would be an indictment of their respective talent. It would just give the Rockets a chance to move them for equal talent that fits the roster better.
When will we see the 21st Century Rockets?
The Rockets will likely opt to keep Tari Eason on the bench to start the season and play Eric Gordon or Jae’Sean Tate as the nominal small forward. Gordon is still an elite floor spacer, but at 33 years old, he’s unlikely to be a key part of the Rockets’ next playoff push. Tate has well-defined strengths and weaknesses that make him a fantastic player off the bench, but only a starter for a team with otherworldly offensive talent or is actively pursuing Victor Wembanyama.
At some point, the Rockets need to lean into the youth they’ve been hoarding and let the kids play. Why delay the inevitable? Let’s see Porter, Green, Jabari, Tari, and Sengun struggle and succeed together. This is the most exciting team the Rockets have had since James Harden blocked Lu Dort in the bubble, and that excitement is because of the youngins. Let’s see them liftoff together.