Since the Harden Era began in the 2012-13 season, the Houston Rockets have run through power forwards like a the Texas Rangers ran through pitchers last season. Since the threes-dunks-FT's philosophy has picked up steam, the team and its fans have always been gushing over the possibility of a stretch-4; a big man with range for days who rebounds and defends the post.
This has been a daydream from Day One. Simply put, that man just doesn't exist (excluding Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki and Serge Ibaka, who aren't going anywhere). I mean, Ryan Anderson is always hurt and too expensive, LaMarcus Aldridge only shoots 3's when he needs to against us in the playoffs and the rest of the league's great 4's either do their dirty work in the post, mid-post or down on the block.
If you want a big man who's a dead-eye from range then you aren't going to get the rest of the perks that come along with the average starting four (think Nene, if healthy, as the "average" 4).
With all the adjusting and readjusting done over the course of two and a half years, Daryl Morey may have finally found his combination of frontcourt bodies to aid Dwight Howard in the trenches against the many Western Conference foes, that are all packing heat inside.
Although the Rockets four-man interior group -- which we're not going to see healthy together this season -- of Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Josh Smith may be a short-lived combo in Houston, as Smith is a free agent after the season. Jones and D-Mo need to be extended before next season if the Rockets want them to avoid restricted free agency in what will be a cash-bash summer of 2016 (there will be many consolation prizes being overpaid under the logic of "well, everybody's gonna make more now"), this unit is the best we've seen in Houston in a very, very long time.
During the 2012-13 season, which was Harden's first year in red and white, the Rockets used six different power forwards in rotational roles, which doesn't include Carlos Delfino, who would slide next to Chandler Parsons late in games when McHale decided to go small (which was all the time two years ago and too much of the time last year, although he went small with Jeremy Lin, Pat Beverley, Chandler Parsons and Harden next to Dwight Howard then).
The year started off with Patrick Patterson holding the starting role and Marcus Morris, a second year converted small forward, backing him up. The combination was mediocre as Patterson averaged 12 and 5 while improving his long-range game, shooting 37 percent from distance, while Morris averaged 9 and 4, hitting 38 percent of his bombs. Yeah, those three-point numbers are better than what Houston's 4's are hitting these days, but the lack of an interior or post presence was a problem.
So, when the trade deadline came around, Morey made his moves. He shipped Patterson to the Sacramento Kings for Thomas Robinson in a multi-player deal, while sending Marcus Morris to the Phoenix Suns for a couple of baseball cards and a sack of marbles -- clears throat -- Petey ("Lloyd, Petey didn't even have a head").
In short, Morey turned to the youth, relying on Robinson along with another pair of less-heralded first-year bigs in Jones and D-Mo to get the job done. Donuts jumped into the starting role first and committed so many fouls I almost started to feel bad for him. After that failed, Houston went two-big with Greg Smith shifting over to the 4, once again trading one set of skills (outside shooting and athleticism) for another (rebounding, rim protection and post presence).
At the end of the year, a few things were clear:
- Thomas Robinson was a too short to be a starting NBA power forward. He still is.
- Terrence Jones had serious talent, but physically he wasn't ready to bang with the big boys.
- Donatas Motiejunas was... Well, we didn't know anything. We knew the dude had a wide-reaching skill set, but he needed to adjust to the speed of the game in the worst way, which led to all sorts of problems.
- Greg Smith just didn't fit the team's spread-it-out philosophy and was better suited for a backup center role (which he didn't hold for long).
Things got less complicated the next year, as Houston headed into the 2013-14 season with the doomed idea of starting Omer Asik next to a newly-wooed-to-Houston Howard as T-Jones and D-Mo waited in the wings.
Before November was over it was clear that the Howard-Asik front court wasn't effective, making way for Jones to enter the starting lineup, where he improved each month and showed serious promise. Motiejunas provided some depth, but he once again struggled to find his niche, with his diverse skill set proving to actually be detrimental.
By the time the season was over, Jones seemed like the 4 of the future, but faith was running and patience were running low on D-Mo and his potential, although there were enough flashes to keep him around.
Then, we got to this year, starting out with Jones as the starter and D-Mo coming off the bench. Jones posted double-doubles in two of the Rockets first three games, but in the fourth game he left early. As we know, Jones sat out over 40 games with a scary nerve problem, but his injury made way for the emergence of D-Mo. Finally, Donuts put his skill set together, using his widened frame and an assortment of shimmies and shakes to become one of the league's better post players, while upping his three-point accuracy to 37 percent, an impressive clip for anyone, especially a 4-man.
But with Jones sidelined for half the season and D12 constantly randomly missing games around a pair of prolonged absences, Houston needed to upgrade its backup forward spots, as Kostas Papanikalou -- who has had his own injury issues -- and his 35 percent shooting weren't getting it done.
In comes newly-bought-out J-Smoove, who philosophically wasn't a good fit as his propensity to shoot the 3 often and poorly (a terrible combination) had hampered him from being a productive player for years.
Yeah, there were some struggles early on, but as we watched Smith, we started to note some of his unheralded qualities. Yeah, the guy is out of control at times and is seemingly the Juggernaut of the NBA, completely unable to stop his feet from going forward after he picks up a little momentum, but he's also an incredible passer and a decent defender.
Pretty much, he does everything somewhere between mediocre and well, and his 33 percent three-point shooting really isn't all that bad (33 percent of 3s is the equivalent of 50 percent on 2's, simple Moreyian philosophy).
Then, Jones returned, looking like Hanley Ramirez in Red Sox camp (have you seen him? My God, he looks like Bonds in '96; someone check his helmet size!). It took Jonesy a little while to get his spring back, but once he got it, it was clear he didn't only improve, but also that he was fresh. Since he returned to the starting lineup, Jones has averaged 14 points, eight boards and two blocks per game, while also flaunting a kick-ass, don't-f-with-me-on-the-court disposition that I wish would rub off on Dwight, and improved post defense.
As the season winds down, it looked like we would finally get a glimpse of the best big-man rotation in recent history for the Rockets. Although there were only 96 minutes to give to these four guys, this was looking like one of the better frontcourts in the West. The diversity of lineups McHale had at his disposal were staggering.
Donuts' back injury changes all that. Joey Dorsey might get playoff minutes. Amazingly, Clint Capela, under a different coach, might deserve playoff minutes. But this isn't the devastating foursome we were looking forward to.
But that doesn't mean we can't look ahead to next year. It seems as though the way of the NBA now is taking it season by season; there is no guaranteed long-term success. Players age quickly, young guys grow up, get better and get paid, and injuries throw off careers and ruin seasons (those poor Thunder).
Whether J-Smoove returns next year -- or whether the Rockets want him to -- is up in the air, but that's the way Morey operates. He'll be shrewd and he has no problem sending one guy off and replacing him with another. I mean, that's what the guy has done ever since he came to Houston. In today's NBA, with all the contracts shrunk to a maximum of four years without Bird Rights, there is no long-term success with a common core of six or seven guys.
All you can do is take it one year at a time, and although the Rockets will be hard-pressed to make it out of a Western Conference that flaunts a Goliath (Golden State Warriors), a surging defending champ (San Antonio Spurs) and a pair of hungry contenders (Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers), Morey has done all he can to give this year's team a chance.
He did his job, now let's just sit back. The injuries to Donuts and Patrick Beverley may have robbed the Rockets of what could have been the ideal situation: the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, a first-round matchup with the Mavericks, home court against the Spurs, Grizzlies or Clippers and not having to face Golden State until the conference finals.
That could still happen, but we'll have to see how the next two days develop. Either way, Morey should be commended for finally putting together a big man rotation to be proud of.