The Houston Rockets' younger players are being pressed into a greater role this year, and the team’s prospects depend very much on how well they respond. Can the kids step up and meet the demand?
In order to free up cap space to go after Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or both, the Houston Rockets lost three of their more productive role players from last season: Chandler Parsons (arguably a star in his own right), Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.
Other departures include Aaron Brooks, Omri Casspi, Jordan Hamilton and Francisco Garcia.
The major addition was Trevor Ariza, but either through trade or draft they also gained Jeff Adrien, Clint Capela, Joey Dorsey, Alonzo Gee, Scotty Hopson, Nick Johnson and Ish Smith.
Based on ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton’s projections (subscription required), the Rockets gave up 18.2 wins in all and got back only 6.7. That comes to a net total of minus-11.5 and predicts the Rockets will have the second-sharpest decline behind the Miami Heat (although it should be noted that these were done before Paul George’s injury).
All-Stars James Harden and Dwight Howard will doubtless fill their roles, and the newly acquired Ariza will be draining spot-up threes and shoring up the perimeter defense. But those three players can’t do everything.
Filling that gap is going to require the younger players to develop their games, step up and deliver. Can that happen?
If you’re looking for a reason to be hopeful, general manager Darryl Morey has a history of drafting well. During his tenure, players who left draft night as Rockets (either by being drafted directly or having their rights traded) have exceeded expectations.
Based on win shares compared to selection slot, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, Chase Budinger, Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Isaiah Canaan have all performed better than their draft status.
By contrast, the flops have been fairly rare. Royce White’s fear of flying prevented him from having an NBA career. The returning Dorsey (33rd in 2008) and Marcus Morris (14th in 2011) are the only other players who haven’t justified their selections (although Morris found traction with the Phoenix Suns last year.)
So it’s not unreasonable that some of the Rocket’s picks will be able to exceed their SCHOENE predictions this year.
With the opportunity to step up, some of the younger fellas on this roster can shine, but in order to do so each has to work on specific aspects of his game. Three of them specifically can rise to the occasion: Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverley and Troy Daniels.
Foremost among them is Jones. Many of his Synergy Sports (subscription required) numbers on offense last year were just silly. Not the least of these was his overall 1.06 points per play (PPP). That made him the 26th-most efficient player in the NBA.
Coming off cuts he averaged 1.4 PPP, which ranked 21st. In transition he scored 1.37 PPP, which was good for 20th. Finally, on post-ups he scored .97 PPP, placing 26th. In essence, when he’s around the rim he’s an absolute beast.
But away from the restricted area he has some challenges, as demonstrated by his shot chart.
There are a few green areas from distance, but the total number of makes in those regions comes out to 17. The rate from three in the left corner is decent, but again, the number of attempts is quite small.
Jones’ numbers on defense are not so impressive, either. He gives up .89 PPP, which ranks behind 220 other players. Nor is giving up field goals to the tune of 51.3 percent at the rim particularly daunting to opponents.
Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote about the direction of power forwards in the NBA:
Some trends have emerged over the last three summers. The price of shooting at all positions has gone up. And one player type has become less and less desired, to the point it may already be a market inefficiency: the power forward who can’t shoot 3s and can’t protect the rim or provide real fill-in minutes at center.
There are good reasons behind the price drop. Protecting the rim is a necessity for any team with championship ambitions. If one big man can’t manage, the other has to carry the load, and real rim protectors tend to be large humans who hang near the rim on offense. That means any big man who can’t protect the rim defensively had better be able to get the hell out of the way on offense, working as a long-distance threat around the pick-and-rolls that dominate the NBA.
Lowe cites Greg Monroe, Tristan Thompson, and Kenneth Faried as examples, but without adding one or both of those aspects to his repertoire, Jones has the danger of falling into that same paradoxical category of player: too good to let go and not good enough to keep.
If he adds an expanded jump shot and better rim protection, Jones is an easy candidate for Most Improved Player next year. With his efficiency and a nearly guaranteed, significant boost over last year’s 18.3 usage percentage, a big jump in his 12.1 points per game should be expected.
Another player the Rockets will be hoping to see a boost from is Patrick Beverley, who was every bit worthy of his Second Team All-Defensive credit. His plus-1.29 defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) barely scratches the surface of his value. The otherwise porous team defense skews his numbers, even with the attempt to compensate for it.
He shined as an individual defensive player, yielding a meager .58 PPP in isolation plays.
On offense, though, he did not bring nearly as much to the table, averaging just 10.2 points and 2.7 assists per game. To a degree, that was because Harden is the primary ball-handler. And when Harden sat, it was generally Lin running the show.
Per NBAWowy, Beverley spent just 167 of his 1,751 minutes last season without either of the primary ball-handlers on the court with him. Even then, he logged a meager 14.7 assist percentage, which even fell below Howard’s 17.2 percent. Nor was he a particularly effective scorer, averaging just around 13 points per 36 minutes.
More responsibility for running the offense will fall on him now, and he’ll need to learn to produce either through scoring or passing. Doing neither is unacceptable.
On the subject of scoring, last year’s D-League addition and postseason hero Troy Daniels is the third player who could be a difference-maker for the Rockets.
Daniels has the makings of the league’s next great shooter. Between the regular season and postseason he made 20 of his 40 three-point attempts. His effective field-goal percentage overall was a cartoonishly eye-popping 70.8.
And while that’s a limited sample size, his D-League stint was equally insane. He made 5.0 treys per contest there. His true shooting percentage was 61.1. For a frame of reference, Stephen Curry’s was 61.0 last season.
Yes. Daniels can shoot. But can he do other things?
Only five of his 24 shots were self-created. He averaged just 1.9 dimes in the junior circuit. Even when adjusted for playing time, he had just 2.4 assists and 1.9 rebounds per 36 minutes in the big leagues. His DRPM with Houston was minus-1.51.
To Daniels’ credit, he knows that and is working on it. He told Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle: "I want to be the best shooter. I really do want to lead the league in a shooting category. I want to break records. I want to be a better defender. I want to be able to play at other positions. Overall, I just want to be more versatile."
Daniels’ goals are commendable. If his history is any indication, don’t dismiss the prospect of his achieving them.
It is doubtful the trio will make up the full difference left behind by Asik, Lin and Parsons, but they might make up half of it if they improve. And that’s where Morey’s comments about the offseason might seem less like an excuse and more like a reality.
Morey told The Loop with Nick and Lopez (h/t CBS Houston):
But the question is actually: is Harden Howard Parson, is that three a better championship odds than Harden, Howard and the team we can put together with a guaranteed lottery pick trade exceptions mid-level young team improving and continuing to be flexible [sic]? That was the very tough decision before us. But I can tell you this, in our opinion it was not close.
Not even close? That might seem like a stretch, but only if you’re looking at just the 2014-15 season.
Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report points out:
Plus, the Rockets will have an opportunity to chase another star in 2015, when the free-agency class is even more loaded with talent and the cap rises even higher. According to ShamSports.com, Houston is on the books for $44,788,089 next season without Ariza's contract.
By getting rid of non-guaranteed deals and declining all options but Terrence Jones', that number only rises to $48,802,332 when Ariza's $8.2 million is factored in. The Rockets have plenty of cap room, potentially enough for a max contract if the cap rises enough, and can still use Bird Rights to re-sign Patrick Beverley.
Say, for the sake of discussion, Eric Bledsoe ends up doing what Greg Monroe did and opts to play for the qualifying offer? Assume next year the Rockets sign him to a max deal.
Would a starting five with Bledsoe, Harden, Ariza, Jones and Howard be better than what Houston had last year? And would the improvement that Jones can make this year make him better next year than he would have been if the Rockets had kept Parsons?
Furthermore, with Beverly going to the bench, he would be more qualified to run it. He’d have a better backcourt chemistry with the improved and more versatile Daniels.
In other words, the supporting cast to which they add that third superstar should be improved. Then they can add another premier player to put them over the top.
What can be damaging is capping out without enough of a core in place. See the New York Knicks if you’re looking for an example.
Who will be the Rockets' most improved player?
And that seemed to be Morey’s point on The Loop when he said in reference to why he didn’t match the Parsons offer, "When you have your core that you feel like can be the championship core you can really almost pay anything to anyone. You’re just putting the final frosting on the championship cake.”
Paying Parsons would have been putting frosting on a half-baked cake. The “cake” here would be the rest of the roster. Consider this season as the proverbial oven to help it—in particular the younger players—to rise. Then next year it will be ready for the frosting.
Regardless who Houston signs then, the supporting cast will be significantly improved. So Morey’s long view is important to keep in mind. Growth from Houston’s new role players this season puts it closer to a championship, even if it takes another year.