The brilliance of Marcus Thornton has been understated.
While posting an above-average PER, the player who is historically known as being inefficient and having poor shot selection is completely playing within the Rockets' system, just seven games into his Rockets tenure.
Since Marcus Thornton has moved into the starting five and the Rockets have abandoned the traditional two-big lineup, the Rockets have gone from 29th in offensive rating to 7th (I got that statistic from Jonathan Feigan's fabulous article for the Houston Chronicle).
Let's play the classic player comparison game. We haven't played it in quite a while on TDS.
PLAYER A: 16.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 39.5% 3ptfg, .542 efg%
PLAYER B: 16.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 40.5% 3ptfg, .553 efg%
Player A is Klay Thompson and B is Marcus Thornton. Through five games, Thornton is playing at the same level as the struggling Thompson, who most experts are quick to claim as a top shooting guard.
Of course, this is just one of Thornton's hot streaks and he will inevitably come back down to earth with a 3-13 shooting night.
I'm not saying Thornton is as good as Klay Thompson. That's ludicrous. But he is playing at such a high level right now and he has been such a big part of Houston's winning streak, it would be tough to expunge him from the starting lineup.
On the other hand, Terrence Jones has proven his worth to this team in the past and deserves some job security. I'm sure he wouldn't be too happy if his starting spot was taken by Marcus Thornton in the span of the five games he missed.
Jones, when healthy, is a solid contributor on both ends and on the boards. And the Rockets are in desperate need of some defensive leadership, even with Dwight Howard and Clint Capela protecting the rim. The Rockets are 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating and are allowing nearly 109 points per game. That's unacceptable for a team with the eighth-best defense in the league last year.
With Terrence Jones returning to the lineup tonight against the Brooklyn Nets, Rockets coach Kevin McHale faces a personnel quagmire: roll with Marcus Thornton's hot hand or return to Jones' traditional power forward play?
McHale's decision; however, is more complicated than the simple production of two individual players. It involves basketball philosophy and general strategy, too.
In a league evolving towards playing with one big man and four shooters surrounding him (this is not a new trend, the Magic did it in 2009 with Dwight Howard as the centerpiece), the Rockets have generally approached the game with a traditional lineup. There were times last year when they went small with Josh Smith at center, but the Rockets were at their best with Howard and either Donatas Motiejunas, Smith, or Jones beside him.
Optimally, the Rockets will have the capability of playing both small ball and traditional, two-big ball. The roster's versatility should, in theory, allow that, but it depends on the matchups.
"Sometimes, it's (about) matchups. Sometimes, it's do what we do. Sometimes, they have to match up with us," Kevin McHale said.
The main purpose of going going small or big is dictating the pace of the game. With Thornton, the Rockets can get up and down the floor, play with space, and jack a ton of threes. With Jones replacing Thornton, the Rockets improve defensively, can still run and shoot threes, but will have less space to operate on the perimeter.
"We've got to get better spacing, better movement. Our spacing has got to work in more coordination with each other. It's going to have a little bit different of a dynamic," McHale said. "They have to set more wide screens. They have to set more picks for others. Their man is just not going to guard them outside the paint. We have to take advantage of that."
Tonight against the Nets, the Rockets should ride the hot hand of Marcus Thornton. He's shooting lights out and until he chucks himself out of a game, he deserves playing time.
Also, by going small, that will force Thaddeus Young to try to keep up with Trevor Ariza or James Harden. Plus, starting Thornton allows the Rockets to ease Jones back into action.
The matchup with the slow Brooklyn Nets tonight definitely suits Thornton, but expect Terrence Jones to regain his starting position from the historically inconsistent Thornton in the long term.
Regardless of the starting five tonight, the Rockets should have no trouble handling the 0-6 Brooklyn Nets in Houston.