If there’s anything this summer has reinforced about the Houston Rockets, it’s this: Their roster situation is as fluid as anyone’s.
As general manager Daryl Morey continues to aggressively explore options to upgrade his squad, Terrence Jones should take notice. This is an organization that won’t rest until it has championship depth at each position.
The Rockets were happy with Jones when they drafted him. Morey spoke with the Houston media following the selection in 2012 (via NBA.com):
He’s really good in an up-tempo system and I think that’s a theme you’ll see that we added guys who know how to run and know how to fit into that kind of system. Terrence is a potential two-way player with his ability to defend, run the floor, face up at the big spot. So we really thought, by far, he was the best talent available when we picked at 18.
Jones may now be more of an asset than a part of his team's future, as it could be looking for trade options in its pursuit of free agent Carmelo Anthony or Minnesota's Kevin Love. His promise is potentially more useful elsewhere.
The University of Kentucky alum did break out with some surprising offensive production in the Rockets’ free-flowing system last season. His 54.0 percent shooting at a 19.1 player efficiency rating was impressive work, amounting to 16.0 points per game. He has rare speed for a 6'9" big man and capitalizes on it by driving. His post moves are also above-average.
His defense, however, was a concern all season, and those issues came to an ugly head in the postseason. Jones was torched by Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge in the first two games of the playoffs.
With Jones on him, Aldridge went off for 46 and 43 points, on 59 percent shooting over 59 shots. That, to say the least, is a ridiculous line. Jones was subsequently benched for much of the series, as the Rockets reverted to their "Twin Towers" lineup featuring Howard and Omer Asik.
Jones is just 22, but his lack of progress defensively has been worrisome to Rockets fans. It’s one thing for Harden to be a flake in coverage—he’s the motor to the team’s offense and can also often be hidden on the opposition’s least effective scorer.
But Jones, as a power forward, is meant to share recovery-defense duties with Howard and help minimize high-percentage shots near the rim. He’s at a crucial defensive spot for his team.
Jones’ offensive skills are nice but are likely replaceable, and the hole he leaves as a defender makes his net impact a negative by some metrics. ESPN’s real plus-minus measure has Jones as a plus-0.49 offensively and a minus-1.91 defensively, making for a final RPM figure of minus-1.42.
Some speculators, including Red94’s Rahat Huq, have already bumped Jones out of the starting five in the Melo hypothetical. Per Huq:
[Is] there seriously a sentiment that the Houston defense would actually deteriorate with Anthony replacing Terrence Jones in the lineup? Terrence Jones. Anthony is not by any stretch of the imagination a good defender. But apart from shot-blocking, he is not inferior to Terrence Jones on the defensive end.
Huq also makes the point that Aldridge, or any other big, didn’t need to expel a terrible amount of energy guarding Jones, whose scoring production mostly came as a result of the fast-break style that didn’t translate well into the playoffs for Houston.
A player like Anthony—or even one with 60 percent of his half-court scoring skill—could make the defense’s job a more complex, draining task. Without the full-court feasts typically only found in throwaway regular-season affairs, Jones hasn’t been that player.
Again: There’s still time for Jones to prove he has a higher ceiling to reach. Raising his three-point shooting from 31 percent (his figure in 2013-14) up to at least 35 percent—often considered the Mendoza Line of firing from deep—would go a long way.
But more importantly, Jones needs to learn better defensive discipline. Coach Kevin McHale hasn’t shown himself exactly to be a wizard at teaching it, so Jones might have to find it on his own. If he doesn’t do it this season in Houston, there’s a good chance he’ll be looking for better form elsewhere.