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Terrence Jones is Houston’s Catalyst

With James Harden operating at MVP levels and Dwight Howard on the shelf once again, the Houston Rockets have grabbed plenty of headlines this season. However, very few of them have related to third-year big man Terrence Jones. In fact, the biggest story surrounding the Kentucky product this season was his peculiar nerve injury that cropped up in early November and had Jones wondering if his career was over. However, after missing nearly 40 games in a row, Jones returned to action on Jan. 28 and has become a vital contributor to the Rockets.

After starting 71 games for Houston last year, Jones has picked up right where he left off. In fact, his per-36 minute numbers are nearly identical:

via Basketball-Reference

via Basketball-Reference

He’s a high percentage shooter that struggles from the free throw line and is below average beyond the arc. Jones really excels at rebounding and blocked shots, where he’s upped his averages to 9.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes from 9.1 and 1.7, respectively. This uptick in blocked shots is the most notable difference from last season, but it can be easily explained in context.

With Howard healthy for most of last season, Jones played 91 percent of his minutes at power forward and just nine percent at center. However, Kevin McHale has increasingly used Jones at center this season and found great success. With Howard out for the entirety of the 16 games he has played since returning from injury, 46 percent of Jones’s minutes have come at center, per Basketball-Reference.

Jones has thrived at the 5, blocking more shots than ever before and maintaining efficient offense by cutting down on three-pointers. After taking 20.2 percent of his shots beyond the arc his rookie season, Jones cut back to 14.2 percent last season and is down even further to 11.2 percent this year. Even at a career-high 31.8 percent, the Rockets gain little from Jones shooting threes because he’s so efficient near the hoop; he shoots nearly 70 percent from within three feet, via Basketball-Reference.

Harden has the biggest on/off court impact on net rating on the team, but Jones is a close second. Overall, the Rockets have a 103.4 offensive rating and a 99.7 defensive rating for a net rating of 3.7. With Jones on the court, the offensive rating leaps to 107.8 while the defensive rating drops to 97.1. Jones’s 10.7 net rating is higher than both Howard (6.9) and Harden (6.8), who rank second and third on the team. In fact, Jones’s offensive rating is higher than Harden’s and his defensive rating is lower than Howard’s. Simply put, the Rockets are playing their best basketball when Jones is in the lineup:

via NBA.com/stats

via NBA.com/stats

While the addition of Josh Smith seemingly pushed Jones further down the depth chart, it has instead opened up more potent lineups for the Rockets in the wake of Howard’s prolonged absence. Coach McHale has experimented with all sorts of combinations of Houston’s abundance of talented wing players. Per NBA.com, four of the five most-used lineups with Jones at center have significant positive net ratings and the fifth is exactly zero.

In 61 minutes, the lineup of Jones, Smith, Harden, Jason Terry and Corey Brewer has a net rating of 24.2. A Smith-Jones-Brewer-Terry-Trevor Ariza combination has a net rating of 9.1 in 49 minutes, which is especially key for a Houston team that has an overall net rating of -5.3 when Harden leaves the floor. Jones, Terry, Ariza, Harden and Donatas Montiejunas have a net rating of 17.0 in the 32 minutes they’ve shared the floor. Looking through the lineups, it’s clear that Houston has thrived with Jones at center.

Although it seems clear that the Rockets need to give their back-up center minutes to Jones when Howard returns, he has also thrived at power forward next to Dwight. The two have barely gotten to play together this season, but Houston’s two most-used lineups that include them have net ratings of 42.2 and 18.0, via NBA.com. Both lineups include Howard, Jones, Harden, and Ariza and either Isaiah Canaan or Patrick Beverley at point guard. The lineup with the insane differential can’t be recreated as Canaan is now in Philadelphia, but Houston has murdered opponents in the short minutes Howard and Jones have played together.

Re-integrating Howard with Jones will allow Houston to throw out highly advantageous lineups at nearly all times. Howard and Jones have thrived together while Jones has been fantastic when shifting down to center and playing next to Josh Smith. If Howard can get healthy, Smith and Jones can keep the bench afloat for the short stretches that Harden has to sit. A healthy Howard could rocket Houston to serious contender status with its new-found wealth of lineup combinations that emphasize both offense and defense.

Terrence Jones is a key part of that.

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