Bruno Fernando is on track to return in the next few games which could raise questions about game time. When a team is 3-14 years old and has the worst record for two years in a row, you wouldn’t think playing time was an issue. It’s been an issue for the Houston Rockets since last year’s draft.
It started with Alperen Sengun playing most games 20 minutes per game, sometimes less. KJ Martin has seen his minutes fluctuate over the past year as the Rockets try to find minutes for him at small forward, despite still playing 30 minutes a night against Eric Gordon.
Playing time and development factor in the Rockets approaches John Wall with a suggestion that he comes off the bench so Kevin Porter Jr. could be the full-time point guard last season. This led to Wall not playing a minute for the Rockets in 2021-2022 and eventually being bought out. Nevertheless, the topic of playing time has now shifted to the 2022-2023 season.
The Rockets have been experimenting with lineups throughout the year.
The Rockets made the surprise announcement early in the regular season that Bruno Fernando would be the starting center over Sengun, a move that caused Rockets fans to lose their collective sanity.
The Rockets thought Sengun would get more contact with the second unit and Fernando would bring more defensive presence and Lob threat to the starting lineup. Fernando started well and showed real chemistry with Porter Jr., particularly in lob play and the ability to rid shooters of the screens he set up. But unfortunately the injury would make his time as a starter short-lived.
Fernando has missed the last 15 games but was a full participant in training Tuesday. This of course raises a few questions. Firstly, will Fernando resume his starting position and does that mean Usman Garuba’s minutes will be cut once Fernando is back? Garuba has played the best basketball of his career in recent games. He shows exactly why the Rockets got him in 2021 with one of their first-round picks.
Garuba is part of what Ryan Hollins has dubbed the “Goon Squad,” a cast that also includes Martin and Tari Eason. This trio has been the catalyst for several Rockets runs to get back into the game in the last few games they’ve played together. However, during yesterday’s practice, coach Silas explained that Garuba is a possibility in the power forward position.
Stephen Silas said Usman Garuba in the four alongside Alperen Sengun or Bruno Fernando is a possibility once Fernando returns to the lineup.
— Jackson Gatlin (@JTGatlin) November 22, 2022
That sounds great, but the question is, whose minutes does he take at Power Forward? We know it won’t be Jabari Smith, so that leaves Martin or Eason. Both players are among the most consistent players on the team, with Eason being one of the biggest steals of the entire draft so far. The playing time issue gets worse when you consider that Jae’Sean Tate has been out for most of the season and once he is back he is almost guaranteed playing time because coach Silas appreciates what he brings to the team.
As you can see, the Rockets have a lot of tough decisions ahead of them. Fernando is unlikely to be left out of the rotation as the Rockets have enough confidence in him to start him and give him a standard contract when he only had a two deal that came into camp.
I think most sane people know the first step the Rockets have to make, which is moving on from Eric Gordon. It benefits the Rockets by opening up game time and allowing Gordon to play for a team fighting for a championship, something he’s earned.
Until then, the Rockets will have to make tough decisions about who’s playing and who’s watching from the bench sooner rather than later. Fernando brings elements that the other centers don’t bring. He can play over the edge and is the best post defender of any Rockets center.
In all of this, it’s important to remember that Sengun and Garuba were first-round picks. As losses pile up, player development is more important than a perceived “better fit” when playing Fernando over Sengun or Garuba.