Donatas Motiejunas may be the Rockets' starting power forward, but the future of the position is up in the air. - Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Rockets' small ball lineups continue to play late in games as young forwards struggle
Rockets fans undoubtedly remember the jabs in the off-season from opposing teams’ fans, television media and radio hosts, who jested the Rockets were the first team in league history to form an NBA roster solely out of power forwards. It was even funny for a while as the team's front office continued to acquire forwards with seemingly no real plan in sight.
But the joke got old real quick, and what may have been a funny situation a year ago is quickly becoming a legitimate concern for this franchise.
The problem has become more obvious in the weeks since Daryl Morey made bold decisions at the trade deadline to swap the mediocre Patrick Patterson for Thomas Robinson, the awful tyke with upside, and to essentially slice Marcus Morris’ salary off next year's cap total to receive an early second rounder from Phoenix.
No one had any delusions about this team suddenly getting better overnight as a result of trades which made them less experienced, but few probably anticipated how much more effective a small ball lineup with Carlos Delfino would be over lineups with legitimate power forwards. The roster's current power forwards may be better on the glass, but the team looks lost offensively at times with them on the court and seem worse defensively despite the additional height.
But this team cannot play Delfino against Blake Griffin or Tim Duncan in the postseason, and the Rockets definitely cannot expect to be contenders in the future playing a 6'6" shooting guard at power forward. So, how should they address the gaping hole at the position?
YOUNG POWER FORWARDS FLAWED
For starters, Houston has four young power forwards, two of which have an opportunity to prove themselves in the rotation over the remainder of the season.
On one hand you have the extremely offensively versatile Donatas Motiejunas, who runs the pick and roll as well as any big on this roster, has range out to the three-point line and an offensive post game reminiscent of other savvy Rockets post men Hakeem Olajuwon and Luis Scola. He's averaging 9.8 points and 3.2 boards a game over the last five contests, but despite gaining weight over last year in the Euroleague, he gets thrown around on defense like a rag doll, and there are far too many lapses in judgment.
I was the worst YMCA player ever in the eighth grade, and I never once had a lane violation. D-Mo recently had two in two straight NBA games. Wallace Shawn would find that inconceivable.
Practically a yin to Motiejunas’ yang, the newly acquired Robinson is all hustle, but extremely raw offensively. He rebounds at an exceptional rate for a PF, uses his length to block shots and terrorize passing lanes, and runs in transition on every play like he’s about to throw down a Sportscenter highlight. Robinson also possesses little post skill, gets beat far too often defensively and has yet to develop a mid-range game, something practically essential in this offense to provide spacing for Harden, Parsons and Lin dribble-drives.
Robinson has averaged a mere 4.0 points and 3.8 boards over his last five games, and he only topped 18 minutes once in that stretch.
If you combine their skills, they would make an extremely talented young prospect, but apart they are both flawed. Both guys have high ceilings and have shown brief flashes, yet are still liabilities in crunch time as McHale has consistently gone with Parsons and Delfino in the final minutes of games.
However, we know even less about Terrence Jones and Royce White, two players the Rockets’ front office knew would be projects when they were drafted. Jones is far more NBA ready than White and has at least looked competent in NBA games and dominant in the D-League. White? When he stopped raging on Twitter long enough to play games for the D-League, he’s been everywhere from eye-popping to a complete eyesore.
Don’t bank on either guy cracking McHale’s rotation this season, either.
It’s certainly possible, although extremely unlikely, either Motiejunas or Robinson will show signs of early stardom this season, but the likely scenario remains the Rockets being as sure about their starting PF of the future after this season as they were before the season began.
THE WAITING GAME
There are two ways to address the problem this off-season: sign someone in free agency or wait. The upcoming free agency class is hardly star-studded at the position, with three guys who will likely get overpaid for only slightly above average production in Josh Smith, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.
Smith scores with the offensive efficiency of a combo guard with an itchy trigger finger, Millsap isn’t good enough or consistent enough to warrant the type of contract he’ll end up getting and Jefferson is more of a 5 than a 4. Defensively, the Rockets are better off placing a cardboard cutout of Jefferson on the defensive end than asking him to defend opposing fours.
None of these guys is the Rockets’ answer. Besides, with only enough cap space for one max deal, Morey isn’t likely to blow it on a second or third tier star and put the team’s future in jeopardy. He’s far more likely to go after Dwight Howard. Technically, Dwight could play the 4, but not on a team with Omer Asik starting at center. Neither guy could hit a mid-range jump shot or a free throw with a gun to their heads. If Howard is a Rocket, then Asik won’t be, and the Rockets would still have a giant hole at the power forward position.
So this leaves only one option for the foreseeable future, and it’s one Daryl Morey has become all too familiar with: waiting. There’s always a chance, as unlikely as it may be, that one of the four PFs on this roster is a budding superstar waiting to blossom. If not, Morey will likely bide his time until one becomes available through trade. The Kevin Love pipe dream may seem more feasible by the next trade deadline, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh or other elite fours could be sporting new jerseys in the near future.
In the meantime, take a deep breath, get accustomed to watching a lot of Kevin McHale small ball late in games and pray for the next Tim Duncan to fall in the Rockets’ lap. The Rockets haven’t had an elite PF since Charles Barkley’s last good year in 1999, but that just means they’re due for one.