Going into the 2013-14 season, the Houston Rockets had two starting positions up for grabs. At the 4, upper management was hell-bent on keep Omer Asik happy and starting him next to the newly-acquired Dwight Howard, but everyone in the 21st century who understood spacing knew Asik wouldn't work next to Howard, which is why most Rockets fans knew Terrence Jones was destined to take over.
At the 1, Patrick Beverley and 2012-13 starting point guard, Jeremy Lin, were locked in a battle for the starting job. As we all know, Beverley, the lovable underdog, won the spot, leading to Lin's fan club (a large, uneducated fan club), losing their minds and crucifying McHale for being racist (which, of course, he was; why else would you start a defense-first point guard who plays like a rabid wolf over a streaky, shoot-first point guard who makes terrible decisions down the stretch and has trouble staying in front of quicker guards and bodying up with bigger ones? Yep, that's racism).
However, this year, the starting lineup is set, unless Donatas Motiejunas can somehow put all his disjointed skills together and become Super Mo, which is as likely to happen as me getting a call from Daryl Morey saying he's looking to fill out his D-League roster.
On opening night, we're all expecting to see Beverley, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Jones and Howard sitting on the bench when the PA announcer clears his throat and takes the mic.
On the other hand, who's coming off the Rockets bench (and his many minutes they'll play a night) is a mystery. Here's a comprehensive review of each bench position and the possible candidates to fill them.
Ish Smith, Isaiah Canaan and Nick Johnson
Smith had a successful season in Phoenix last year, setting career highs in games played, shooting percentage, minutes per game, and assists per game (on a side note, he hilariously shot 4.3 percent from distance last year... which wasn't his career low). That being said, the guy isn't anywhere near a top-tier backup PG, which is why Canaan could snag the job at some point during the season. Canaan's a bit undersized and looked like he had trouble adjusting to the speed of the game in the worst way, keeping himself in fifth gear at all times, but the kid's got guts, a solid jumper and an NBA body (in terms of thickness, obviously not length).
The most interesting option is Nick Johnson, who Rockets fans are hoping is another Parsons-esque second-round stud drafted by Morey. Johnson has a ton of game and even though scouts discounted his ability to play the 1 going into the draft, I see him as a potential difference-maker as a backup floor general.
Who gets the minutes? Early in the season Smith should get around15-18 per game backing up The Pest of the West (that's what I call Beverley, but no one else does; get used to it), but we know how fickle Kevin McHale is with his bench; Canaan will get his chance at some point, and if Johnson performs well in the D-League and neither Smith nor Canaan have a stranglehold on the job, he'll get his turn too. Also, Beverley, being the nuclear bomb he is, probably won't play 82 games, so someone will have to step up when he's wearing his shiny shoes (even though if and when he goes down, there's no doubt McHale will being pairing Harden with a wing at times in the backcourt).
Jason Terry, Kostas Papanikolaou, Troy Daniels, Francisco Garcia
Here's where things get interesting. If anyone is telling you they know who will be on the court the first time Harden and Ariza are on the pine together, they're lying. The Jet is known for being a Rocket killer, but it's a dubious proposition at best for him too regain his 2012-13 form at the age of 37. His leadership and basketball IQ will come in handy, and hopefully his championship pedigree will help Harden realize that accomplishing ultimate goal takes sacrifice (i.e you gotta play some defense, mang).
Daniels, like the newly departed Covington, is a chucker. However, because Daniels is a 2, he's called on to defend what's probably the weakest position in basketball, which will allow his suspect defense to go unnoticed for the most part (I'm not saying he's a terrible defender -- I'm just saying he's definitely not a good one).
Papanikolaou is the most the interesting body on the wing, due to the fact that he could play the ever-illusive stretch 4, which is talked about in Houston about as much as Atlanta talks about moving Al Horford back to his "natural position" of power forward (which, entering his seventh season, will probably never happen). Papa looks like he can defend a little, and his tenacity is definitely a plus. He could turn out to be a diamond in the rough, or his season could have a similar arc to Omri Casspi's last year, where McHale had a hard-on for him early before realizing his shooting numbers couldn't hold up and his maximum effort didn't translate into positive contributions.
For Garcia, I love the guy, and I really feel bad that he spent a good portion of his prime playing in the NBA's gallows of Sacramento (basketballs there's to stay! Great... Are Peja, C-Webb and Bibby coming back anytime soon?). Like Terry and some of the newly signed bigs, he'll push the youngsters, but I can't see him carving out a rotation spot.
Who gets the minutes? Early on, I think it'll be Terry and Papanikolaou seeing time, although Daniels may be ahead of Terry on the floor-stretching 2-man section of the depth chart. It'll probably be apparent relatively quickly if Terry has anything left in the tank and if Papa can guard the 3 spot anywhere near effectively (which I kind of get the feeling he will be able to), so expect an update on this within the first few weeks of the season.
Donatas Motiejunas, Jeff Adrien, Joey Dorsey, Tarik Black
After a successful first season as a starter, the heat is already on T-Jones to make the next step, and the same goes for the ever-frustrating, uber-talented D-Mo. I think these guys can be a great tandem at the 4, but it's time for them to prove it on both ends of the floor on a consistent basis. Hopefully, D-Mo can start this season with the shooting stroke he started to display by late December last season, so he can provide Houston with a stretch-4, allowing bangers like Adrien and Dorsey to crash the offensive boards. D-Mo has to keep himself out of foul trouble too, as his propensity to try to take lateral charges (who does that?) leads to inordinate amount of fouls.
Adrien, Dorsey and Black, who will probably spend a lot of time in the D-League, are all in a similar mold. They're effort guys; guys who live to show off their box-out skills, something Houston could use a little more of, especially from their bigs not named Dwight.
With more experience and legitimate depth behind Howard and Jones, the Rockets should see an improvement in their rebounding numbers... and their amount of bruises dished out by anything other than D12's flailing bows.
Who gets the minutes: I don't see D-Mo losing his job to Adrien anytime soon, and I give a slight edge to Dorsey (over Adrien) at the backup 5 spot. I figure 12-15 minutes a night for Dorsey, and somewhere between 10 and 24 minutes (I know, I sound like a cable guy who says he'll be there between 12 and six) per game for D-Mo, depending on if he's outplaying Jones.
The Bottom Line
Most people seem to be commenting on Houston's bench, saying it lost something with the departures of Asik and Lin. Personally, I'm not on board with that. Yeah, it'd be better if Asik was the Howard's backup if we were playing video games, but we're talking about a guy who played only 48 games last year due to a phantom injury (injured guys usually stay on the bench, right?) and didn't help stop LaMarcus Aldridge in the playoffs, especially early in the series. As for Lin... I'm all Lin'd out. He's Kobe's problem now. That also means that no one will be rushing the ball up the court at the end of each playoff game only to turn it over or brick a layup with absolutely no regard for the clock.
The competition for each second-string job is vital. It'll push youngsters like D-Mo, Canaan, Daniels and Papa Doc (or Big Papa; I'm pushing for Papa Doc... Or maybe Popa Noc? Ed. Note: It's Big Papa guys, just accept it) to improve, and if they don't, they'll find themselves replaced in favor or of veterans like Terry, Ish Smith, Garcia and Adrien.
Not Listed: Clint Capela
He's two years away from being two years away. Okay, maybe he's just two years away, but the point is that he makes Giannis Antetokoumpo seem overcooked (as in Capela is really, really raw; like, he was literally just sliced off the cow but looks like he'll make a good steak one day).