With training camp and the start of regular season fast approaching, now's the perfect time to take a closer look at how the Rockets compare with their fellow Western Conference contenders in the front court.
Despite the league's slow but consistent drift to a more perimeter-oriented game style over the last 20 years, having a skilled, tough and versatile group in the front court is just as important as ever. The ability to play in a wide variety of front court match ups and schemes to combat other squads is often what takes a team to the next level.
Ask the Golden State Warriors what front court depth and versatility meant to their title this season. Don't forget, their Finals MVP-winning forward didn't start a single game in the regular season. The Warriors very likely get Lebron'd in the Finals if not for the play of sixth man Andre Iguodala.
The Rockets do have depth in the front court and one of the best centers currently playing the game in Dwight Howard, but is it enough in a loaded West, or will the Rockets guards have to carry the load?
Howard coming into the season healthy for the first time in several years is the first domino to fall in the Rockets favor. The big man has been battling back, shoulder and knee injuries for the past three seasons, and his finally returning to full strength helped push the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals.
Dwight missed 41 games last season, and his numbers while working himself into shape take a definite back seat to what he did in playoffs, after declaring himself fully healthy.
Dwight averaged 16.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals with a 20.4 player efficiency rating and a 4.8 defensive plus/minus (DPM) in the playoffs. Compare that to 15.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 0.7 steals with a 19.3 PER and DPM of 2.1 in the regular season.
Howard's playoff run also added that trademark Dwight physicality, intimidation and athleticism that had been missing while he was battling back from injury. Remember this anyone?
There's no doubting Dwight Howard is the engine that makes the Rockets' front court train go, and if Dwight's postseason rebounding, defense, intensity and health carry over into this season, the Houston front court is certainly an elite one.
If Dwight Howard is the engine, Trevor Ariza is definitely the coal car. The small forward might get less recognition than the gleaming Man of Steel in the front, but the whole train breaks down without his dirty work. If Howard's superstardom is what makes the front court elite, Ariza's extensive skill set and versatility helps them match up against just about anyone during the nightly regular season grind.
What Trevor does night-in and night-out doesn't always show up in the box score, so his regular season averages were modest. His 12.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists , 1.9 steals and 35% shooting from three last year were all only slightly above his career averages and represented a dip from his previous year in Washington.
Ariza's advanced metrics last year were among his career best, however. His value over replacement, DPM and win shares were all the second best of his career. And his ability to guard three or four positions, depending on lineup, is unquantifiable by metrics or percentages.
He's the perfect fit alongside two superstars, a clear upgrade in chemistry and defense over the man he replaced last season and the Rockets' ace-in-the-hole when tinkering matchups with fellow Western Conference contenders.
The Rockets have two power forwards in a friendly battle for court time, and although both have shown immense promise and diverse skill sets, they've both also suffered from inconsistencies and injury.
Terrence Jones is the first man up due to Donatas Motiejunas' lingering back surgery rehab, and he'll be looking to exorcise the demons of two consecutive postseason stinkers.
Jones' first goal will be to stay healthy himself after playing in only 33 regular season contests last year due to a frightening nerve issue in his leg. His second goal is to improve on his regular season career averages of 11.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.4 blocks on 52.8 percent shooting and to keep those averages from falling off a cliff against the game's best opponents in the postseason.
His averages dropped in the postseason to 9.1 points, 5.3 rebounds 1.0 assist and 0.7 blocks on an atrocious 43.8 percent shooting. He was also barely better than a league average replacement player (total postseason VORP of 0.1 including a -0.1 last year) and had a negative total plus minus, showing thus far an inability to match well with the big boys.
Motiejunas, when healthy, has a clear edge over Jones in that he's the only Rocket who can create his own shot in the paint with a wide array of post moves and counter-moves.
But his game is also not without it's wrinkles. D-Mo, as we all know, struggles with his rebounding and rim protection. He only averaged 5.9 rebounds per game last season and just a miniscule 4.2 per game for his career. He also averages less than half a block per game for his career and ranks much lower in a recent rim protection analysis by Nylon Calculus than any legit 7-footer has any business doing. (Thanks to Orange88 for linking this in the comments of my last write-up.)
The two do offer front court versatility in that they've shown they can share the court together, with Motiejunas at the five, and still be effective while Dwight is resting.
But despite the immense potential, neither player has fully blossomed yet, and the team will be looking for one, or both, to do so before offering either an extension.
Corey Brewer remains the energy man off the bench at small forward, and like starter Ariza, has the flexibility to defend multiple positions and be a match up neutralizer, but he also has the ability to get absolutely scorching hot.
Brewer is, however, an erratic shooter, proven by his sub-30 three-point percentage for his career, but when utilized in smaller doses off the bench and given the freedom that Kevin McHale allows, he's one of the better spark plugs in the league.
Young Swiss player Clint Capela looks poised for significant bench contributions this season, as he tries to build off of a surprisingly effective postseason in very limited minutes.
Capela should get some extra run and a chance to show his development to start the season with Motiejunas still working his way back. He stands as the only legitimate back up to Dwight Howard at center while D-Mo recovers and likely even earns a start in the first game of the season while Howard serves a one-game suspension.
The Rockets also have some intriguing and talented, yet green, youngsters in K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. Harrell, specifically, should get an early chance to prove his rugged reputation when the Rockets start the season slightly shorthanded in the paint.
Despite their depth, the Rockets may miss Josh Smith, especially early on. His ability to play all three front court positions would have been useful while the Rockets settle in to the season's rotational minutes and await D-Mo's return.
And don't be surprised if GM Daryl Morey looks to add another front court player if one of his young pieces fails to develop fast enough to contribute. The teams's overall versatility will certainly be challenged when looking at the diverse front court lineups of some of the other Western Conference contenders.
The defending champs have Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green (and his obnoxious screams), Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Marreese Speights and newly acquired big man Jason Thompson.
The San Antonio Spurs went in an un-Spurs-like direction and added perennial All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge and tough veteran David West to an already formidable front court that also features Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Danny Green.
The rough and tumble Memphis Grizzlies will continue to grind it out behind Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Matt Barnes, Jeff Green and Brandan Wright.
The Clippers pilfered the Rockets' pockets in stealing Josh Smith and Chuck Hayes, and also snagged cagey vet Paul Pierce and backup center Cole Aldrich to add behind Blake Griffin and the returning DeAndre Jordan (sorry, Mark Cuban). One of last year's weakest front court benches (Glen Davis and Spencer Hawes and then pretty much no one) suddenly looks like one of it's strongest.
Don't forget about the Thunder with the return of megastar Kevin Durant to their front court, and he rejoins a team that's been stockpiling size. Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, Nick Collison, Mitch McGary and professional annoyer Steven Adams are all 6'10" or higher and will present a formidable challenge to anyone, Houston included, with that type of size and depth.
Even some of the second-tier teams feature tough front court match ups for the Rockets.
New Orleans may already have perhaps the league's best power forward in returning shot block leader Anthony Davis, and they combine him with ex-Rocket Omer Asik and forward Ryan Anderson, while Utah has one of the best young front court combos in the NBA with The Kraken, Rudy Gobert, and forward Derrick Favors.
So what say you, Rockets fans? Who has the best front court in the Western Conference? Who will the Rockets struggle to match up with and who do they match up with well?
Tomorrow we take a look at the back courts.