Mike D’Antoni has always liked small rotations, and it was only a matter of time before he discovered, after a few weeks of tinkering, what his cast in Houston would shape up to be.
It seems we have an answer. Since Patrick Beverley has returned, the Rockets have played with 10 men: James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Corey Brewer, Sam Dekker, Nene and Montrezl Harrell.
Over the last seven games, K.J. McDaniels has seen the floor just once, for five minutes in the Rockets’ first blowout win over Portland. That game was also the last action for Tyler Ennis, who also saw five garbage time minutes in Beverley’s season debut. Bobby Brown, we hardly knew ye: he’s played just 22 minutes all year.
Here’s the thing: it’s working. Even Corey Brewer has turned his season around, and now that Beverley is back, Two of Bev, Gordon and Harden are always on the floor. When Harden goes out, now this is happening.
James Harden has assisted on 56 of Clint Capela's 94 baskets. HOU revamped Bev + bench lineup a tidy +13 in 30 minutes (Yes, small sample)— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) November 28, 2016
According to NBA.com’s lineup stats, the four-man group of Gordon, Brewer, Dekker and Nene, in 45 minutes, has a 108.3 offensive rating and a 93.5 defensive rating. That foursome has the third-best defensive numbers of any four-man group for the Rockets that’s shared the court for 40 minutes or more, behind the same group with Harden in Brewer’s place and Brewer, Dekker, Gordon and Ennis.
Basically, the bench is playing great together. And consider Dekker, Gordon and Nene are all new pieces this year, basically, there’s no reason to think they’ll regress much when they’re still learning how to play with one another.
Once again, this leaves a certain athletic Alabama native on the outside looking in. The Rockets have been 8.6 points better with K.J. off the court than when he’s been on. That’s a flawed stat — most of his minutes have come with the bench early on, which cratered when Harden sat — but the fact is he hasn’t been that helpful of a player.
We’ll never know what happened with K.J. last year. Brewer was a mess, and the Rockets were falling hard, and a potential catalyst for change was nailed to the bench. This year is different.
The Rockets are jelling. Mike D’Antoni has the pulse of his team. He never considered benching Brewer, and his confidence has turned into the Greyhound’s, who is flying around the court like it was two years ago again. Sam Dekker is a far better shooter than K.J., plays the small-ball 4 and his size and athleticism mix, while tilted more toward size than K.J.’s crazy athleticism, is just as potent.
Everything can still change. The Rockets are just 17 games into their schedule, and Harden, Beverley, Gordon, Ariza, Dekker and Brewer are all healthy right now. You’d have to figure if any of them went down, McDaniels’ minutes would go up from zero.
It also might be time to realize that the most likely use Daryl Morey will get out of K.J.’s deal, which is $3.3 million per year this season and next, is via trade, maybe for a future pick, trade exception or anything he can get in return. Maybe this happens if Donatas Motiejunas signs, or it just happens anyway.
It’s bittersweet. I’ve made my passions about K.J. known from the start. But you can’t say Mike D’Antoni didn’t give him a chance this year: he’s played an average of 13.5 minutes in his 11 appearances. It’s not a tun of run, but it was real. And although he had some awesome plays, like below, the body of work was nothing to write home about.
I hope K.J. finds some NBA minutes eventually, but if he does it for the Rockets this year, it will be because of injury. And I’m finally OK with that.