The Houston Rockets (33-29) hold a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz (32-29) for the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, but there are three role players on the team that need to step up in order for the Rockets to perform like a team of a higher seed.
Head coach Kevin McHale received production from role players like Marcus Morris, Cole Aldrich and Toney Douglas before the trade deadline hit, but a couple of trades really shook up his rotation.
With the new rotation still a work in progress (it's nearly there, however), there are a few role players that need to step up and perform from now through the playoffs.
The Rockets will have a tough road ahead of them in the Western Conference playoffs.
The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers are three of the most dangerous teams in the NBA and, if the playoffs were begin today, Houston would play Oklahoma City in the first round.
The Rockets have proven that they can beat the Thunder. On Wednesday, Feb. 20, Houston defeated the defending Western Conference champs 122-119. That ranks as one of the biggest wins for the Rockets thus far this season.
If the Rockets are to beat the Thunder (or any of the other dominant foes in the West), then there are a few role players that will have to step up.
Without a balanced attack from the starters and bench players, the Rockets won't make much noise in the playoffs.
Athletic power forward Thomas Robinson was the biggest name brought in at the deadline by general manager Daryl Morey. The rookie began the season with the Sacramento Kings, though he did not receive ample playing time to prove his skill set in the NBA.
He'll be given that chance with the Rockets, but that time hasn't come just yet.
He's averaging 16.5 minutes per game in Houston (up from 15.9 in Sacramento), scoring 5.5 points and grabbing 3.8 boards per contest. Projected over 36 minutes, those numbers are pretty good for a rookie.
If Robinson steps up and assumes starter's minutes at power forward, the Rockets can easily be one of the more formidable teams in the West.
With Jeremy Lin and James Harden running the show in the backcourt, up-tempo forwards Chandler Parsons and Robinson have the potential to put up big numbers.
Lin and Harden are a very explosive backcourt. Having Parsons and Robinson as safety nets in the mid-range area can be the difference between bad shot selections and wide-open jump shots.
Robinson's still being eased into the Houston rotation by McHale, and it may not be very long before we see him as a regular.
For now, he's simply a role player that has the potential to make a huge impact on this team and the rest of the Western Conference.
Terrence Jones, a guy the Rockets invested the No. 18 pick in last year's draft on, has been a huge disappointment in his rookie season.
Not only has he played in just 11 games this season (including none of the last five), Jones has played a majority of the season with Houston's D-League affiliate.
Coming into the season, he was expected to compete with the likes of Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson for minutes at power forward. The production of both Morris and Patterson definitely hindered Jones' opportunities, but his play certainly didn't help.
In the 11 games he's played, Jones has been essentially a non-factor. He's shot just 38.2 percent from the floor in 8.3 minutes per game, putting up 3.1 points and grabbing just 1.6 rebounds.
Jones is hardly the athletic specimen that Robinson is, though he certainly isn't an un-athletic power forward. This athleticism was a major selling point on him entering the draft, but he has appeared over-matched in his limited NBA career.
He has a ton of potential but has seemed too raw of a talent so far this season. If he can emerge here in the season's final stretch, he can become a huge asset off the bench for McHale.
You can never have too many athletic big men in the NBA, and having Jones at least performing decently could bring some major versatility to the table.
Donatas Motiejunas has played exceptionally well starting at power forward lately, but having Robinson/Jones at the 4 would allow him to move back to his natural role backing up Omer Asik at center.
Robinson and Jones could presumably then split minutes and provide the Rockets with fresh legs throughout the entirety of a postseason game.
Jones needs to find his game before the season ends, as the versatility he could provide the Rockets is invaluable.
James Anderson has fallen out of favor a bit of late, though anybody playing shooting guard behind James Harden should assume he won't be getting all that many minutes.
After beginning the season in San Antonio, Anderson has played in 17 games with the Rockets. He's been pretty decent in 7.9 minutes a game off the bench, shooting 34.6 percent from beyond the arc and 43.2 percent overall.
It's crucial that he continues this production, but it would be even better for Houston if he could pick it up just a bit.
Of the three listed, which player needs to step up the most?
While Harden is playing 38.4 minutes per game, having a guy that can adequately fill in for the remaining 10 or so minutes is extremely important. It's unfair, of course, to expect a guy like Anderson to put up Harden-esque numbers, but capitalizing on his opportunities is essential.
Lately, Anderson hasn't really done that. McHale's decision to cut his minutes lately could be, in part, because of that, but also because Aaron Brooks is back in the mix off the bench.
The Rockets really lose an element of their offensive attack when Harden moves to the bench. Parsons, Lin and Asik, while all good players, cannot match his production alone.
Having Anderson pick up the slack just a bit on offense in the playoffs would be the perfect situation for McHale and the Rockets.
In no way am I expecting Anderson to score 10 points per game; I'm simply expecting him to capitalize on open shots and make the baskets that count. If he can do that, he will be an invaluable member of the playoff rotation.