The Rockets' front line will look very different this year. Gone are Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith. Donatas Motiejunas is possibly gone. He has yet to sign to his restricted free agency tender, and there was news coming out just yesterday that, according to ESPN's Calvin Watkins, the Rockets have not made D-Mo a serious long-term offer. The team obviously have their reservations about his health, his development or possibly both.
And that's where Nene comes in.
The Brazilian big man obviously has a different skillset than Motiejunas, but he'll be filling the same center/power forward swing position that was D-Mo's specialty (when healthy). And he'll have plenty of opportunity for minutes.
Contrary to what Bobby Marks of The Vertical has listed, in his much-too-early Rockets depth chart, it's doubtful that Nene is the starting center next year. The Rockets are way too high on 22-year-old Clint Capela to stunt his development in favor of the 34-year-old Nene, but with things looking somewhat thin after that, the veteran big man does have a chance to earn significant minutes for the Rockets this season.
After projected starters Capela and free agent acquisition stretch four Ryan Anderson, the Rockets have just the still unproven Montrezl Harrell, the defensively challenged Michael Beasley and rookie Chinanu Onuaku, who, quite frankly, looked mostly awful in Summer League play. Sure, small forwards Sam Dekker and Trevor Ariza could both see time at the four in certain small ball lineups, but neither are built for full-time work on the front line.
That leaves Nene to man a significant amount of the backup minutes, primarily at center, and he should be a good fit in the Mike D'Antoni system. He's not your traditional post-up center. He can run the floor, run the pick and roll and also knock down an open jumper.
Nene hit on 49.1 percent of his wide open jumpers last year and on 44.6 percent of his open jump shots, and there should be no shortage of those on the Rockets this year. And he ran the pick and roll 92 times last season, or one more than Dwight Howard did, in 14 fewer games and 12 fewer minutes per game.
He's never been a strong rebounder, averaging just 6.5 per game for his career and 8.3 per 36 minutes, but he makes up for it by generally being a strong defender. He's only had one season with a negative defensive plus-minus in his entire career, and his total mark of +2.0 is an above-average score.
The Rockets will need to limit his minutes. He's the opposite of a shining beacon of health, playing a full 82 games just once in his 15 seasons, and as he fast approaches the back half of his 30s, managing his time on the hardwood will be more important than ever.
Perhaps most importantly, Nene also carries with him an attitude, has a tendency to get under the opponents' skin and rarely backs down from a challenge. And while no one is calling for dirty play, the big man brings a toughness the Rockets occasionally lacked at times over the last few seasons. Remember what Ron Artest brought to the 2009 team? Nene can do the same.
Ultimately, look for Nene to be productive in Houston. He could easily average between 20 and 25 minutes per game, especially if Motiejunas doesn't return or returns at less than full health (what with his balky back and all). The last time he saw 25 minutes of action per game, in the 2014-2015 season, he put up 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and shot 51.1 percent from the field.
If the Rockets do sign D-Mo, Nene's minutes will likely be closer to the 15 range (split between the four and the five) and something around 8.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game are a more realistic expectation.
Nene's final contributions may be dependent on who else the Rockets have on their roster, but with solid defense, a snug fit offensively and a little much-needed attitude, he should have a regular and effective place in the Rockets front line rotation.