How Will the Rockets Rotation Change Without Eric Gordon?

Michael Shapiro

Considering the worst-case scenario regarding Eric Gordon's ankle injury on Tuesday night, a two-week absence is a fairly encouraging timeline as the Rockets prepare for the NBA restart. Both of Houston's MVPs appear to be nearing midseason form in Orlando, and the Rockets' seeding games won't necessarily be consequential given the current Western Conference standings. Mike D'Antoni and Co. should be able to weather the storm in Gordon's absence.

The Rockets sport a healthy crop of wing options to replace Gordon, though his loss is still a notable one. D'Antoni planned on moving Gordon into the starting lineup in the postseason, and the Rockets ideal closing five certainly includes the 12-year veteran. Gordon was a pivotal member of Houston's playoff runs in 2018 and 2019. The Rockets will survive without Gordon in the seeding games, but an extended absence could spell serious trouble in the playoffs.

So how D'Antoni go about replacing Gordon in the short term? The Rockets have no shortage of viable bodies to fill his minutes, with Danuel House, Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers likely to receive additional playing time. How D'Antoni arranges those minutes is the real question. 

Rivers is all-but-guaranteed to come off the bench in Orlando as Russell Westbrook's backup point guard. House is the most likely option to enter the starting lineup. The Texas A&M started in 47 of his 58 appearances this season, and he was effective in minutes alongside Houston's starting lineup. Units featuring House and Russell Westbrook outscored teams by 5.4 points per 100 possessions in 2019-20. That mark dipped with House next to James Harden, though Houston still posted a positive margin in those minutes. The Rockets won't need to make much of an adjustment if House joins the starting lineup. 

We shouldn't discount McLemore's chance of starting in Orlando, and not just because he was on the floor to begin the second half on Tuesday. The Kansas product has emerged as a dynamic offensive weapon in his first year with Houston, providing some serious spacing for the Rockets' superstars. But entering McLemore into the starting lineup may be more about completing Houston's rotation puzzle. Starting McLemore allows Danuel House to fill in as a backup forward, replacing either Robert Covington or P.J. Tucker during a first-quarter substitution. McLemore can't fill in for either pseudo big man off the bench, and Rivers is a natural enough replacement for McLemore if the Kansas product does indeed start. Houston's unconventional roster forces D'Antoni to play a game of rotation chess.

"I started [McLemore] for a couple [of] reasons," D'Antoni said after Tuesday's win vs. Boston. "One, it’s an easier rotation because [House] also has to backup Covington at the four, so it’s not as much of a change. [House] probably could start, but we’ll see what happens.”

There's no perfect answer to D'Antoni's starting lineup conundrum, though there are certainly capable options at his disposal. And the Rockets may not be tethered to their lineup on opening night. D'Antoni could very well tinker with his rotation until Gordon returns, trying to find the optimal option alongside a pair of superstar guards. The loss of Gordon is a significant one, but Houston still has the personnel to thrive in Orlando despite Tuesday's injury. 

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