On the bench sits a man that is seldom used. When he does come into the game, something changes. The intensity picks up, the speed picks up, and the game seems to flow a little better.
Who just might be that seldom-used player? It's K.J. McDaniels! In the five games leading up to this weekend, McDaniels averaged just about three minutes a game and Rockets won one of those games. The four games before that, the second-year player had a much bigger role playing about 12 minutes a game. The Rockets managed to win three of those games.
Sunday against the Pacers, after a DNP against the Raptors, McDaniels played 13 minutes and was a +18. The Rockets still lost.
McDaniels will never admit it, but I will say it for him: The Rockets need to play him more often, and for longer stretches.
Earlier in the season, the Rockets rode with Corey Brewer, Ty Lawson and Marcus Thornton off the bench as they continued to mix and match trying to find the right group of players that would contribute consistently. But nothing would work for very long. They missed out on the chance to incorporate the younger players earlier in the year so they could be more of a factor now.
Now they have too many bigs to play, so Montrezl Harrell is back in the D-League. And the only role they seem OK with using McDaniels is to spell Ariza so they don't have to play him 42 minutes a game like they do with James Harden.
"As of right now I'm just happy to be on the court," McDaniels told The Dream Shake, "Just getting out there slowly more, and just learning that's my main thing."
The playing time does not, at least on the outside, bug him.
"We all have a mission that we want to accomplish, in order to get to that mission, we have to sacrifice," McDaniels said. "If I have to come in for 10 minutes, one minute, you know it don't really matter, I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help my teammates out, be there for them."
That is exactly what you would hope to hear from someone who knows he can help — he is not a distraction — but for whatever reason he remains the secret weapon on the bench.
I can understand why J.B. Bickerstaff is a little hesitant to use him for long stretches. His offensive game is something he's still working on. The three-ball just won't fall, but what he does do well is slash and get to the rim. He does enough on the offensive side of the ball that they can, or at least they could, find ways to use him.
In the four games when McDaniels was pulling double-digit minutes, the Rockets found something that worked: super small ball with McDaniels.
"When we go small, we have a lot of versatility, a lot of switches can happen, guys that can guard multiple positions and that's the good thing about playing small," McDaniels said.
When they go super small, it causes so many mismatches that other teams have a hard time keeping up. With a big, McDaniels and three guards the Rockets can fly up and down the court. The offense is spread out and James Harden can go to work.
If a team does decide to stay big, it can cause problems, especially on the defensive end. But if the Rockets continue executing on the offensive end, play the passing lanes and get turnovers on defense, teams will be forced to try and match with them. When a team does that, they are right where the Rockets want them.
The Rockets have so much athleticism up and down the roster, and it would behoove them to use it more often. They are at their best when they run and gun, but more often than not they try to match with another team they are facing rather than forcing a team to play their game.
Case in point: the last game against the Jazz. The Rockets slowed the game down and went big. At one point late in the game, they revisited the twin towers lineup. They had a chance to speed past a slow, grind-it-out Jazz, but they didn't and they lost.
Use super small ball more, exploit the fact that you can run past damn near every team in the league. And McDaniels should be a part of that.