There is a saying in sports that you can’t lose your job due to injury. Terrence Jones, though, may be about to see his rotation spot disappear almost entirely as a result of a peroneal nerve contusion which is beginning to feel more like a perennial nerve contusion.
He began the season as the starter, but after four games, he suffered his injury and has since been in the long, slow process of recovering.
It’s not that Jones played badly before he was hurt. In fact, he seemed about to enjoy a breakout season. He was averaging 14.0 points with a 55.2 effective field-goal percentage, 7.5 boards and 1.8 blocks in 29.3 minutes. His 19.1 player efficiency rating (PER) is still third-best on the Rockets.
But while he sat, he first watched Donatas Motiejunas start having a breakout season of his own, averaging 11.4 points and 6.0 rebounds as a starter.
While Jones’ numbers are slightly better, Motiejunas’ defense has been an asset. ESPN.com indicates his 1.29 Defensive Real Plus-Minus compared to Jones’ 0.82.
And with Motiejunas’ ability to play either the 4 or the 5, it’s easier to fit him around the other bigs, as I wrote previously.
Smith has since—at least temporarily—been relegated to the bench without complaint.
But it’s unlikely he’d sit with being dropped from the rotation entirely. As a sixth man, he has been pretty sterling, averaging 18.0 points, shooting 50 percent from the field, grabbing 6.7 rebounds and distrusting 2.3 assists. The Rockets are plus-32.9 in those situations.
So now it’s hard to look at the Rockets and figure where Jones fits in when he gets healthy.
The last word on when he might return came on Christmas Eve, when coach Kevin McHale told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Another big thing that’s happened, Terrence Jones has been able to run on a treadmill. Terrence Jones has been able to do some stuff that honestly he hasn’t been able to do since that thing happened. I was excited just to see Terrence with a smile on his face. He ran on the treadmill. He ran on the floor. He’s been jumping a little bit.
Eventually, he will be better, and when he is, what do the Rockets do? His talents are too great to waste away on the bench. There are a few possibilities.
The first is to try and shuffle some positions around. Jones has played some 5 in his career. He logged 17 percent of his time as a center in 2012-13 and 9 percent last year. But it’s hard to imagine how that works. If he’s playing with Motiejunas, then he’d be better playing the 4. If he’s playing with Smith, then the Rockets would be undersized at both positions.
Another option is to have him play the 4 and move Smith to the 3. Smith has plenty of experience playing small forward, but that encourages his horrendous three-point shooting, and I think we can all agree that’s not a positive thing.
There are ways to wiggle things around and work in minutes for Jones, but it’s hard to see him getting more than 20 per game, and even that’s an optimistic projection.
He’s just too talented to keep sitting on the bench for the bulk of the game. So he may become a very nice trade chip.
On Dec. 19, the Rockets received Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved in a three-team transaction, using the trade exception they obtained when they dealt Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers. Players obtained in a trade exception can’t be combined in a deal for 60 days from the date they are acquired, but that time will expire one day before the trade deadline.
So, Jones could be combined with either Shved, Brewer or both in a trade still this season. Add in the New Orleans Pelicans' protected first-round pick, which the Rockets got in return for Omer Asik, and there’s a pretty sweet package which can be used.
The three contracts combine for $9,603,236. By rule, they could bring back 125 percent plus $100 to that. That comes up to $12,104,045.
Alternatively, they could include Kostas Papanikolaou instead of Brewer and bring back a player worth $12,223,000. Or they could include all three and bring back just north of $18.1 million.
Toss in another small contract, and the Rockets could land Deron Williams, for example. If the Suns start falling out of the playoff picture, the Rockets might look to land Goran Dragic, whose contract is expiring. The Pelicans' pick, Jones, Shved and parts to make the money work would make for a tantalizing offer.
As an established, starting-caliber power forward who has one year left on his rookie deal, Jones is a pretty juicy piece to include—juicy enough to be the difference in an agreement being reached.
If the Rockets aren’t finding a way to get Jones sufficient playing time, there's a good chance he ends the season elsewhere.
The Rockets could still use a second shot-creator. If they can acquire one by dealing from a position of strength, they probably will. It’s not like general manager Daryl Morey has a history of hesitating on the trade trigger.