For the first month of the season, the Houston Rockets’ best man off the bench was Kostas Papanikolaou. But since they acquired Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, he’s dropped out of the rotation. Is he being wasted on their bench?
Before the Rockets landed Josh Smith on Dec. 24, the Rockets’ rookie had the fifth-most minutes for the team, per NBA.com/Stats. Since then, he’s averaging 12.4.
Papanikolaou’s greatest virtue is his passing. He can play either forward spot (and even started at shooting guard once in the preseason). He can run the offense from any of them. For a team that is only 18th in assists per 100 possessions, you’d think they could find more playing time for a guy who can do things like this:
The problem is the Rockets are loaded at all of them. They have Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith at the 4, Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer at the 3 and James Harden and Jason Terry at the 2. The first four men off the bench are Terry, Brewer, Smith and Jones.
Let’s see how they stack up statistically. In the following graphic, the first chart shows the comparison in per-36 minute production, and the second shows various measures of shooting efficiency. Click on the tab to see the corresponding data.
Of the four, Papanikolaou is both the least productive and the least efficient. To give minutes to him would be to take them from one of the higher-performing players. At the time the Rockets landed Smith, they had the league’s lowest-scoring bench. Since Smith has been leading the second unit, their reserves are third in plus/minus.
Furthermore, the Brewer-Jones-Smith-Terry combo is the most effective without James Harden the Rockets have. It’s sporting a beefy plus-18.0 net rating. Considering the Rockets’ struggles without Harden, adjusting the rotation just for the sake of working in a less-capable player doesn’t seem to have many benefits.
Finally, the thing Papanikolaou does best—his passing—is something that Smith provides equally well, but with all the other benefits that come with it.
With help in the present not being sufficient reason to include Papanikolaou, the best one would seem to be the future. But there, the Rockets have another issue. How do they even fit him in the long term?
Of the four current rotation players, Terry is the only one that isn't likely to be part of the squad next year. His replacement looks to be K.J. McDaniels, whom the Rockets acquired at the trade deadline.
In part, that’s because McDaniels is more of a shooting guard than Papanikolaou. He also appears to have a higher ceiling. Ergo, if the Rockets are going to work someone else in, it’s going to be finding minutes for McDaniels.
The only way that Papanikolaou looks to see extended minutes in a game is if one of the Rockets’ power forwards goes down. He played roughly 20 minutes on Feb. 10 against the Phoenix Suns and Feb. 11 against the Los Angeles Clippers when Terrence Jones was out. But other than those two games, he hasn’t topped the 20-minute barrier since Jan. 3.
So how can the Rockets avoid wasting him? It seems the best thing they can do now is to trade him in the offseason. While they are stacked at the 2, 3 and 4, they are in need of a point guard and a backup center. A player with the versatility and skills of Papanikolaou would command a decent price on the trade block.
Paired with the New Orleans Pelicans’ pick gained from the Omer Asik trade, which the Rockets are likely to have the rights to this season, Papanikolaou could fetch a nice fit at the 1 or the 5. That could be a player who could actually find time in the rotation and be a part of the future.
This isn’t a criticism of Papanikolaou; rather, it’s a testament of the in-season moves general manager Daryl Morey has made. The Rockets went from being the shallowest team in the league to one of the deepest, and Papanikolaou is the biggest “victim” of that transition. He’s only getting wasted because of Houston’s embarrassment of riches.