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Alperen Sengun: The elephant in the room for the Rockets

Rockets, Alperen Sengun

Things are much better for the Houston Rockets at this point in the season than they were just a couple weeks ago. The team is winning, they’ve finally committed to a long-term starting lineup, and they’re no longer daily punching bags for talking heads. When the Rockets were on their 15-game losing streak, there was an opening for emotion-based decision making – as can naturally arise in that kind of situation. The 5-game winning streak has closed that gap and allowed the front office to make decisions with a long-term vision in mind.

And while many view veteran guard John Wall as an elephant in the room for Houston, that honor actually belongs to big man Alperen Sengun. I’ll do my best to explain why.

The Rockets are a much better offense now than they were before largely due to their improved floor spacing. Houston is playing a more open brand of basketball on offense and it starts with the lineup change they made. Daniel Theis, a once starter for the Rockets, has fallen out of the rotation completely. This is because head coach Stephen Silas has abandoned two-big lineups in favor of a modern five-out lineup. Sengun has become Christian Wood’s backup and while he’s excelled in that role, it’s clear to anyone watching that he’s overqualified for it.

Alperen Sengun (per 36 minutes):

17.1 points

9.1 rebounds

5.4 assists

2.2 steals

1.2 blocks

49.2% shooting from the field

40.0% shooting from three-point range

68.5% from the free throw line

Alperen Sengun is just an absolute monster and as someone who was really high on him during the draft process, he’s turned in a better rookie year than even I could have anticipated. Silas and the rest of the coaching staff are in a really difficult position. Sengun has been at the point of “Crap, he should probably be starting” for over a month now. However, Wood is probably the best player on the Rockets so you can’t bench him. And the Rockets have thrived since abandoning two-big lineups so you can’t exactly bring those back either.

Sengun’s need on the team has also increased since the Kevin Porter Jr. injury. There’s just no better playmaking option on the roster and Houston wisely started to use him more after Porter Jr. went down against the Magic. The short term solution is kind of simple: the Rockets need to increase Sengun’s minutes. Wood plays 31.7 minutes per game and Sengun should be playing every minute he’s off the floor (16.3 minutes per game). Additionally, the Rockets probably need to suck it up and play Wood and Sengun together in lineups again. The two have kind of been a mixed bag together.

The numbers will tell you it’s not a great idea (-12.4 per 100 possessions) and it’s probably right in the aggregate. The floor spacing is terrible and there’s just not that much foot-speed defensively in that frontcourt tandem. However, the Rockets desperately need Sengun’s playmaking right now so they’ll just have to tweak it to the point where it’s at least a neutral lineup. If you want to be optimistic about those lineups, Wood has been pretty adept about cutting to the basket when Sengun has the ball at the elbow. This should get Alperen Sengun up to about 20-22 minutes per game, which is fine in the short-term.

However, long-term, the Rockets need to start having an uncomfortable conversation about Christian Wood’s long-term placement on the team. At the start of next season, Wood will be 27-years-old and on the last year of his deal. If Houston wants to give Sengun the starting spot he probably deserves while avoiding paying Wood an exorbitant amount of money in 2023, now is the time to explore trading him. Wood is an awesome screen-and-dive big man with the ability to space the floor and an awesome contract. He can help a really good team and the Rockets may actually be able to get multiple first round picks back if they sell while his value is at an apex right now.

Christian Wood salary:

2021-22:

$13.67 million

2022-23:

$14.32 million

Trading away good players sucks for fans, but this is how rebuilds work. Alperen Sengun is more likely to be a part of Houston’s long-term future than Wood and it’s time for the Rockets to start thinking about ways to accommodate him as a franchise. He’s establishing himself as a building block piece before everyone’s eyes. Capitalizing early on his talent may be the smart play, even if it shocks some people at first.

The February trade deadline becomes more interesting by the day for Houston.