For the first time in awhile, the Rockets are betting on continuity. Their only big addition has been the troubled but talented Ty Lawson, who might not even start. The decision shows that the front office thinks internal growth and health should be enough for Houston to be a serious contender.
Things didn’t start on the right track on the injury front. Incumbent starting power forward Donatas Motiejunas might not be fully healthy to start the season after having back surgery. The upside of that setback is that it might allow the promising Terrence Jones the chance to get the minutes he needs to take a step forward as a player after an injury-riddled 2014-15 season.
When he was healthy, Jones was the starter next to Dwight Howard thanks to his ability to guard perimeter oriented big men and attack space on offense. Jones’s three-point shooting is still suspect, so he’s not the perfect complement to Howard, but his ability to put the ball on the floor when needed makes up for it. In 2013-14, only Paul Millsap, Thaddeus Young and DeMarcus Cousins (in a lot more minutes) had more drives to the basket among big men than Jones, per SportVU:
The shot is never going to be elite, but it seems to be coming along nicely as well. After shooting just 31 percent from deep in 2013-14, Jones improved his average to a respectable 35 percent last season. Granted, the sample size is very small and his stroke abandoned him in the playoffs, but there’s still hope he can become a solid corner shooter, at the very least. That’s all Houston needs.
His upside is not only limited to offense. Jones is 6’9″, but he’s bouncy and not afraid of contact. That makes him a decent rim protector for a power forward and a solid inside defender, which allowed the Rockets to survive when they had to go small with Jones at center next to Josh Smith. His quickness, meanwhile, allows him to stay with explosive power forwards and guards on switches. Look at him switching to Tony Parker and forcing a miss:
Jones has the tools to be the type of small-ball big who can shoot and make plays off the dribble at an adequate level while defending different type of opponents. As Boris Diaw and Draymond Green have proved, that versatility from a big man is very helpful for championship teams.
He’s not there yet, obviously. As good as he was for stretches last season, other times he looked lost. It was especially obvious in the playoffs, where the Rockets really struggled with him on the floor. Consistency is a huge issues with Jones, which is why having minutes, a defined role and expectations of production early on with Motiejuans out or limited could do wonders for him.
The Rockets lost Smith in the offseason. That leaves rookie Montrezl Harrell as the only other natural power forward on the roster behind Jones. The former Kentucky Wildcat will need to step up in big minutes for the Rockets to have a good start of the year. The pressure he’ll face isn’t comparable to the playoffs, but Jones will be under the spotlight.
In the first 10 games of the season, Houston is facing four upper-tier teams in the Warriors, Heat, Thunder and Clippers, and a solid division rival in the Mavericks. That stretch should provide a real test for Jones. If he can play within himself and continue to show the versatility that makes him such an intriguing prospect, coach Kevin McHale will have more lineup options. The Rockets could go big with Howard and Motiejunas, “medium” with Motiejunas and Jones or small with just Jones out there surrounded by Houston’s rangy wings.
This is a key year for Jones’s career. He’s eligible for an extension, but it’s unlikely a front office that values cap flexibility as much as Houston’s will offer him one. In fact, if he doesn’t live up to expectations, Jones’s name will surely come up in trade rumors. A good year would up his profile and turn him into the latest example of the modern power forward, while another disappointing performance might brand him as just another promising young guy with role player potential. With the salary cap exploding, the difference in salary in those two possible scenarios could be huge.
This is also a huge year for the Rockets. After much tinkering, general manager Daryl Morey has settled for a core that’s showed it has the potential to contend in the West. Anything other than another conference finals appearance could be considered a failure. Howard is set to become a free agent, and while he seems comfortable in Houston, a dozen teams will have the cap space to offer him a max deal if he opts out. Taking a step back is not an option.
Jones and Houston need each other right now. Unless the fourth-year power forward can build on what he’s done, the big-man rotation is simply not as good as the other contenders in the West. If he does, however, the Rockets go from hopefuls to bona fide contenders after the addition of Lawson.