The Houston Rockets are better than you think they are—so long as a few players take important steps forward in their upcoming campaign.
Roster fluctuations that occur in free agency can be somewhat illusory. The Rockets have been mocked for striking out on Chris Bosh and losing Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik this summer. More big names have gone out the door than have come through it in Houston this summer.
Trevor Ariza, for example, is hardly a starry acquisition. But he’s a demonstrably better player for Houston than Parsons was, as he can defend on the perimeter better than anyone on the team and shoots a higher percentage from the three-point line. Houston hardly needs another self-sufficient scorer like Parsons, even if collecting those types is what shapes popular perception about a team.
The losses of Lin and Asik, however, demand that a few players already on the team make the jump in 2014-15. Asik’s defense and rebounding, and Lin’s offensive spark off the bench, were crucial for Houston at various junctures last season. Their productivity will be visibly missed if the team’s youth doesn’t step up to replace it.
An often overlooked talent, Terrence Jones is just 22 and showed a boatload of promise in 2013-14, his first season as a starter. From RealGM’s Jonathan Tjarks:
At 6’9 250 with a 35' max vertical, Jones has the physical measurements and athleticism of a lottery pick. If he had come out after his freshman season of college, he likely would have been taken in the Top 5, which would have dramatically altered the perception of him around the league. His numbers as a freshman weren't much different from those of Julius Randle. Jones has elite ball-handling ability for a player his size, a quick first step and the ability to finish at the rim or find the open man off the dribble.
Jones has been the forgotten silver lining to Houston’s future for a while now. Skeptics point at his lack of defensive development as a pro thus far, but the list of defensively disciplined 22-year-olds in the NBA is far shorter than Muggsy Bogues. As a rebounder and scorer, Jones is already a nice complement to Dwight Howard. Now he just needs to stick his man more consistently for the Rockets to move on this year.
Doing what Asik did is not in the cards for Donatas Motiejunas. He’s a different player. For Houston to get past losing the luxury of Asik’s Dwight-ian defense and rebounding off the bench, they’ll have to prepare for an altogether different kind of impact from Motiejunas, who’s next in line as a reserve big.
The 23-year-old Lithuanian has unusual dexterity for a 7-footer. He’s comfortable dribbling, passing and creating long shots for himself the way a good wing should be. By allowing “D-Mo” to blossom as himself, the Rockets can capitalize on some serious mismatches. There’s not a lot of big men who are comfortable, defensively, in the kind of space Motiejunas can find.
Motiejunas’ player efficiency rating was just 10.76 last season—a sign of a player who hasn’t found his spot just yet. But he’s a remarkable talent, and if he can take the next step this season, Clutch City won’t be spending so much time scratching its hands about this offseason.
The Rockets’ young point guard has hardly had a chance to prove himself as a pro yet. He played in only 22 games last season, averaging 11.5 minutes per contest. His numbers, including a measly 9.57 PER, were not impressive in that time. But practically no one thrives in the NBA until their sample size on the court grows and they get the opportunity to play through their mistakes over longer minutes.
Canaan is quick as lightning and has a knack for creating and making shots in the paint while on the move. He’s also a comfortable jump-shooter. Like Lin before him, Canaan is a score-first guard. He may not create a cultural sensation, but if Canaan improves enough this year, he can certainly help to temper the sting of the lopsided deal that sent Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Finally, we come to the most belabored criticism in all of Rocketsland: James Harden’s defense. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Harden defended “like a banshee” at Team USA camp in Las Vegas. As we know by now, this wasn't the case for the Rockets last year.
The Rockets don’t need Harden to be Andre Iguodala. But his defensive real plus-minus was a staggeringly low minus-2.84 in 2013-14. In order for the team to take the jump, its most important perimeter player needs to get at least closer to zero with that mark. It’s a fairly modest feat, and one he seems capable of despite the resonating negative feedback from a season spent as a sieve.
Getting over such impressions is just what growing pains in the NBA are like. While the media and fan narratives around the Rockets say the team took a step backward this summer, that talk will quiet quickly if these players make good on their potential and mature this year.
Advanced Statistics courtesy of ESPN.