Going into the 2014-15 season, depth was the Houston Rockets' biggest concern. Behind what looked like an excellent starting five in Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard, only power forward looked to have a capable backup -- if you believed in Donatas Motiejunas, which many Rockets fans didn't. Jason Terry didn't look like an NBA player after a lost season, Joey Dorsey was slated to get big NBA minutes, etc. It was a mess.
2015-16 is going to start out a lot differently. The Rockets have a host of options to turn to, with widely varying skill sets. There are question marks everywhere, of course, as there are with any NBA bench. But the first question for head coach Kevin McHale is one that he'll spend the first month or two of the season figuring out: Who's going to play?
Guards: Patrick Beverley/Ty Lawson, Jason Terry
Lawson is still very much a wild card, as he's likely facing some form of suspension from the NBA after multiple DUIs. And of course, he'll be fighting his alcoholism the rest of his life. Between he and Patrick Beverley, Lawson's clearly the more talented and accomplished player, but it's not so simple as penciling him into the lineup. There's also the question of fit, as James Harden is the de facto point guard when he's on the floor.
If Patrick Beverley can keep incrementally improving his three-point shot (and figure out how to throw a proper entry pass without bleeding time off the shot clock), then he's arguably the better option in the starting lineup due to his defense. Lawson would be perhaps the best bench guard in the NBA, and he'd be able to carry a lightning-quick second unit if he's right.
If Lawson is the starter, Beverley would add a credible shooting threat off the bench to complement what is otherwise a speedy, if not particularly rangy, bunch. And of course, his defense is overqualified for the bench.
Jason Terry gave more to the Rockets than anyone thought he would or could last season. He kept himself in impeccable shape and remained a great outside shooter, but at 38, he should be counted on less. He's the kind of professional whose minutes won't need to be managed to keep him happy, so now that he's down a rung on the ladder (relatively), hopefully he stays ready when McHale needs him. McHale loves his veterans, so Terry will see some minutes.
Wings: Corey Brewer, K.J. McDaniels, Marcus Thornton, Sam Dekker
Corey Brewer is the best and he'll be used in pretty much the same way as last year, as a greyhound to be unleashed as if chasing an electric rabbit up and down the court. He'll be the first wing off the bench to spell Ariza or Harden. Behind him is a giant bag of shrug emojis.
K.J. McDaniels showed a ton of raw potential in his half-season with the Philadelphia 76ers, with a block rate higher than any non-big man in the NBA and some interesting driving and finishing ability. The man can produce a highlight:
Then the Rockets traded for him, and McHale promptly sat his ass down on the bench for the rest of the year. My guess is that it was a combination of McHale not wanting to waste time integrating him into the rotation and Daryl Morey wanting to depress McDaniels' value for his impending free agency. The latter part, if it is true, worked, as McDaniels is back.
There's no way McDaniels will spend this season glued to the bench. He had to get some assurances from the Rockets that he'd get playing time this year or he wouldn't have signed. It will be fascinating to see what he can bring to the Rockets this year. He should help Brewer run opponents into the ground, but his half-court offense needs to develop.
Thornton, if McHale sticks to his veteran guns, might see a fair chunk of playing time. He's only 28, and a career 36 percent shooter from three-point range, but he doesn't have much of a defensive pedigree. He's bounced around the league, but hasn't played for a winning team before, so how he fits on the court and in the locker room remains to be seen. He could also be this year's Francisco Garcia, a veteran who looked like he might have a minor role early on but fades quickly. He's got more to bring to the table than Cisco, though.
Dekker, in all likelihood, will spend most of the season on the D-League shuttle between RGV and Houston. He's got a lot of talent and a versatile skill set, but even if he was ready to be an NBA contributor from day one, this is not the kind of team that would give him that opportunity barring injury.
Big Men: Terrence Jones, Montrezl Harrell, Clint Capela
Sure, I guess there's a chance that T-Jones starts over Motiejunas, but it's a small one. Jones had a rough 2014-15 season, with large chunks of time missed due to injury. He looked great while on the court, until he ran into a steam train named Blake Griffin in the playoffs. He's active on the boards and has great block numbers for his position, and he's slowly growing his range.
He's a little undersized to bang with the best power forwards in the NBA, but he's got enough game offensively to give the Rockets a real scoring threat in the halfcourt, even with Harden off the floor. With Jones in place instead of Josh Smith as the first big man off the bench, the second unit will look very different, and more reliant on the smalls to get the ball into the open court. Jones is good on the run, and a good finisher in space, but he's not the ballhandler and distributor that Josh Smith was.
Clint Capela was a revelation in the playoffs last season. Sure, his free throw shooting made Dwight Howard look competent, but it was plain to see that the sky's the limit with this kid. He can jump out of the gym, both for blocks and for huge dunks:
With Joey Dorsey gone, Capela will be Dwight Howard's primary sub, although probably not as frequently as Donuts sliding over to the five with Jones coming in for Howard. Capela's already a plus defender, though lapses in judgment and rotations will happen. After all, this is only his age-21 season. But he's already a pick-and-roll destroyer, with the finishing ability you see above and surprisingly good hands. Seriously, he can actually catch the ball, something Rockets fans no longer take for granted after watching too much Joey Dorsey for one lifetime.
Harrell's another D-League candidate, but he might find his way into more playing time than Dekker because the Rockets don't have as many bodies down low as they do out on the wing. Additionally, while Dekker looks like a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, Harrell has one demonstrable skill: rebounding. He can grab boards with ferocity, and if McHale falls in love with his energy, he might fight his way into the rotation sooner than people think. Of course, he has to get on the floor to do that, so we'll see.
Once again, the Houston Rockets head into a basketball season with their bench an open question. Unlike last season, however, the question is a pleasant one. Plenty of talented and/or experienced players, not enough minutes to go around. You might say it's one of them good problems.