Joel Blank: Solving the problem of how much the Rockets starters should play down the stretch

Mike D'Antoni has to decide how much to play Chris Paul down the stretch.

To play, or not to play, that is the question.

Your 2017-18 Houston Rockets have boldly gone where no Rockets regular season team has ever gone before. With the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference wrapped up, they saw it upon themselves to do one better and have the best record in the entire NBA.  If that wasn't enough, on an individual level, they have also made it a foregone conclusion that James Harden will be the league MVP. Teammate Clint Capela should be the Most Improved player and Mike D'Antoni has a legitimate shot at winning his second straight Coach of the Year honor. 

With only five games to play in the regular season and nothing to play for, the team is faced with a catch-22. With all the injuries league wide, the smart thing to do would be to rest their starters and key rotational players to make sure that they are healthy and as close to a 100% as they can be heading into the post season. However,  After to the loss to the Spurs on Sunday, Mike D'Antoni said the team needs to play everyone in the rotation in order to keep their rhythm and chemistry heading towards the playoffs. There is a pretty solid argument to be made for both sides of this dilemma.

All it takes is one look at the injury report across the NBA right now to make the case that the Rockets should rest James Harden, Chris Paul, and for that matter, every starter and rotational player in the last 5 games of the season. Jimmy Butler's injury in Houston a few weeks ago took a team that was the number 3 seed in the Western Conference and sent them reeling to the point where they are fighting to make sure that they just get in the postseason. Butler had minor knee surgery and there is no way of telling if he will be able to play in the playoffs, and even if he does, how effective he will be? Similarly, Kawhi Leonard is back in New York rehabbing his right quad injury that has kept him out of all but 9 games this season. For more than half the season, San Antonio was able to stay in the top 4 in the Western conference. However, when LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been carrying the team on his shoulders all year, started to experience knee issues .It was too much to overcome and the Spurs also are hanging on for dear life to assure themselves another appearance in the postseason.

In the Eastern conference, injuries to Kyrie Irving and John Wall have huge question marks attached to any hopes of a long playoff run in Boston or D.C.. Kevin Love just recently returned to the Cavaliers and Tristin Thompson is still out, but hopeful for a return before the end of the regular season, All of that along with the total roster overhaul at the All-Star break has made everyone in Cleveland a little uneasy as they try to ride Lebron James to an eighth straight NBA finals appearance. Without Love and Thompson, the odds will be stacked against "the King" and his court of young Cavs. So as you can see, there is a lot of evidence that lends itself to the Rockets resting Harden and CP3 in the final 5 games of the season. Doing so would assure the team that their dynamic duo would be mostly injury free come the “second season” and avoid the huge letdown of losing a key peirce  at the most inopportune time.

The argument that supports coach D'Antoni's belief that the guys need to play in order to stay sharp for the playoffs is also an interesting one. Chris Paul has already missed 5 of the team's last 6 games and as good as he is, he needs to play to stay sharp and in rhythm with the rest of his teammates so that they can be as efficient as possible when it counts the most. James Harden has been struggling with his 3-point shooting lately and the coach believes it's because he has rested his star player and with that he has lost some of his rhythm in his shooting stroke. With a team that is predicated on uptempo, fast paced offense, accurate shooting from long range, efficiency on both ends of the floor and avoiding costly turnovers, it would seem as if too much rest could possibly make the Rockets rusty come playoff time.  We all know that in the playoffs, everything is magnified and every mistake is that more costly. The wrong play at the wrong time could cost you a series and prevent you from playing for or winning a title, so you better be sharp as well as healthy to have a shot at winning it all.

So what's the answer? What's the recipe for success for the Rockets to remain healthy and sharp at the same time? In my opinion, the answer is two fold. I would play the starters and the key rotational players a maximum of 25 minutes a game. I would keep the rotation the same for the most part until those minutes had been achieved, and I would make sure that the starters were always on the floor with players that they will be playing with in the playoffs. This would allow the team to stay sharp and maintain chemistry with out getting burned out or over extended. Secondly, I would maximize practice time to make sure that the majority of your high intensity,full court game situations were in a controlled environment with your teammates as your competition. This will ensure that you will protect your best players and you won't fall victim to overzealous players and teams playing hyper aggressive  as they fight for playoff positioning or to make a statement.

Obviously, there is no perfect scenario and you can't control everything. Injuries are going to happen and there is no way to prevent them 100%. You also can't play tentatively because that can force you to play a different way than you are used to playing, and thus, put you in compromising situations that can actually increase your chances of getting hurt.  Hopefully, the Rockets staff and coaches can come up with a plan to get the players some run while making sure they don't get burned out. Regardless, it's a great problem to have, even if it is uncharted territory for Red Nation.

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