The Houston Rockets currently sit in fourth place of the Western Conference with a 49-23 record. With 10 games still left to play, Kevin McHale’s club has already outperformed last year’s modest 45-win record, but is an extreme long shot to come out of the West.
Last year, current starting power forward Terrence Jones, who is averaging 11.9 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, rarely saw the floor. The 18th overall pick of the 2012 NBA draft played 24 games in the D-League last season, posting impressive averages of 19.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, but appeared in only 19 games for Houston as a rookie.
Despite Houston’s lack of talent at the four — Patrick Patterson, Greg Smith, Marcus Morris and fellow rookie Donatas Motiejunas all started games next to Omer Asik — Jones didn’t start a single contest for the upstart Rockets in 2012-13, and wasn’t able to crack the rotation until late in the season.
Given Jones’ success this year, the question has to be asked: Did McHale and general manager Daryl Morey do this year’s squad a disservice by not giving T-Jones big minutes as a rookie?
Well, it couldn’t have hurt, right? Before the 2013 trade deadline, McHale split the time at the power forward position between Patterson and Morris, with neither player distinguishing themselves as a future piece. Morey dealt both Patterson and Morris at the deadline, but failed to bring back a clear-cut upgrade at the four. The rest of the year, McHale mixed and matched Asik’s frontcourt partner, with Smith emerging as the best option, starting the final 10 games of the season.
This year, McHale initially tried the twin-tower look with the incumbent Asik and free agent signee Dwight Howard starting side by side. However, eight games into the season, it was clear that the Rockets needed to make a change; Jones was just what the doctor ordered.
I feel like if Morey and McHale had a mulligan, they would have put their faith in Jones from day one. Even before ripping up the D-League, it was clear that Jones had the potential to be a one-of-a-kind power forward. Jones possesses a ton of guard skills, proving to be more than just an adequate passer and ball handler. Even better, he can hit the 3-ball, finish with either hand near the basket, and is a superb athlete.
During the 2011-12, lockout-shortened season, McHale handed the starting small forward job over to Chandler Parsons in the seventh game of year, which was seen as a surprising move given the fact that Parsons had so little experience. Parsons, who is now a third star on a top-tier Western Conference squad, definitely benefited from being thrown into the fire right away. Why wouldn’t Jones have done the same?
Obviously, Morey and McHale didn’t feel that Jones, who was two years younger than Parsons as a rookie, was ready for the NBA grind of a post player. That being said, it’s hard to imagine Jones being any worse of a post defender than he is right now; it’s clearly his (and the team’s) biggest area of concern heading into the postseason.
Yes, Jones has shown the ability to go head-to-head with the league’s elite fours, but he’s had trouble guarding stronger, more experienced post players like LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. There’s no one even remotely similar to guys like Aldridge or West in the D-League, where the tempo of each game is jacked up and perimeter players reign supreme, so it’s pretty clear that Jones is learning on the fly at the NBA level.
Jones is a fine young talent, but if he had a year of NBA seasoning already under his belt, that might be enough to catapult Houston into the Western Conference Finals or beyond. I’m a huge fan of Houston, but the Rockets’ chances of getting out of the West are slim (I’d say 10 percent at best). If Jones had broken out as a rookie, who knows how much better they’d be today.