We can hem and haw all day along about whether Dwight Howard puts the Houston Rockets in position to legitimately contend, but there's no doubt that he makes the roster significantly better on paper. And yet, it's that same "on-paper" assessment that might make you wonder about general manager Daryl Morey's master plan—at least if such a thing didn't border on heresy.
Who's going to play power forward?
Though there's not yet a clear-cut starter at the position, that could easily change sometime between now and the trade deadline. Despite reports and claims that Omer Asik isn't going anywhere, there's no way Morey's turning down an opportunity to improve his rotation. He even has enough assets to do so without moving Asik—in theory, anyway.
But speculation on the trade front is just that. Until we get a better feel for what Houston can do right now, it would be premature to make bold changes.
Besides, there's no one-size-fits-all model for lineups in today's NBA. One team's power forward may be another's center, and there are enough stretch 4s and tweeners to demystify our traditional positions and classifications.
That doesn't mean that Houston's rotation is entirely beyond reproach, though. Even if it doesn't need a proper "power forward," it still needs someone who fits next to Howard. In-house options include young guys like Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, as well as big guys like Asik and Marcus Camby. And if all else fails, the Rockets could just surround Howard with nothing but guards and wings.
Having options is one thing, but having options that actually work is another—especially for a team suddenly facing serious expectations.
An Unlikely Tandem
Morey recently confirmed that head coach Kevin McHale will use training camp as a laboratory to test lineups with Howard and Asik playing side-by-side (with Dwight playing more of a power forward role).
Now granted, none of us has seen said lineup in action just yet—but most of us probably don't need to.
Floor spacing isn't just about having three-point shooters spread around from side to side. It's also—if not even more so—about having big men who can step out to the mid-range just far enough to put defenders in a double bind: to step out and contest the shot or to sag nearer the basket to deter penetration?
Maybe training camp will reveal some heretofore unseen shooting ability, but 2012-13 certainly didn't—not for Asik.
And, shockingly, nor for Howard.
That's what it looks like when a mid-range game is so bad that you'd rather pass up an open shot than see what happens.
And it's not just bad news for driving lanes. It's also bad for Howard. Without a big man who can at least semi-reliably make shots from the elbow, there's no high-low game, no disincentive to Asik's man hanging around the paint and making Howard's life extra difficult.
Sure, this could be the summer when at least one of these guys starts making jumpers, and yes, it would make for one hell of a defensive wall.
But odds are that this lineup lasts only so long as Howard doesn't complain about it, which is to say not long at all.
If putting their two best bigs in the starting lineup isn't a sustainable solution for the Rockets, maybe it's time to see what some of the new blood can do. Thus far, the results have been mixed.
The good news about Donatas Motiejunas is that he's willing to shoot the three, thus theoretically spacing the floor for Howard much as Ryan Anderson did while the two were playing for the Orlando Magic. In fact, he was so willing that he hoisted up nearly two attempts per game in just 12.2 minutes of action—so willing that he kept shooting despite converting at an abysmal 29-percent clip.
So much for the good news.
The worse news is that the 22-year-old is still just a baby in NBA terms, having played limited action in just 44 games as a rookie. While he was more productive in his 14 starts, that production was uneven. Perhaps the very worst news about Motiejunas is that he ranked 65th in rebound rate among power forwards alone.
Howard's a phenomenal rebounder, but he won't collect all the rebounds by himself.
So what about Terrence Jones? There's still plenty to like about his physical tools and versatile skill set. He rebounds well for his size and passes more like your average small forward, if not better. Unfortunately, he's still a prospect in the fullest sense after playing around 275 minutes at the pro level last season.
To be sure, Jones found some seasoning (and success) in the D-League, and there's nothing to say that neither he nor Motiejunas can take one of those giant sophomore steps.
Unfortunately, there's also no guarantee.
Go Small or Go Home?
Sure to be the preferred option among those hoping the Rockets run down a title like Forest Gump, there's certainly a logic to going small and pretending 6'9" Chandler Parsons is a 4.
Unfortunately, adopting a lineup like that just creates new questions. Who plays with Parsons on the wing? Your options are Ronnie Brewer, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi and Reggie Williams—each of whom is probably only a marginal improvement over Houston's ostensible power forwards. Maybe that's still better than hoping for the best from Motiejunas or Jones, but it hardly affords Coach McHale the comfort of a consistent eight-man rotation.
Ultimately, it's not that McHale lacks options. It's that each of them is a second-best option, the product of contingency planning and making the most of what's on hand—especially for a club looking to win now.
Maybe Motiejunas and Jones will prove themselves abundantly capable in time, but time is a luxury these Rockets don't have.