Terrence Jones last year, in his first regular stint of playing time, at just 22 years of age, put up twelve points and seven rebounds per game on 54% shooting from the field. Per 36 minutes, that already impressive production stretches out to a meaty 16 and 9. Despite my criticisms, this is a chip.
In many ways, Jones was the very symbol of the Rockets’ 2013-2014 campaign. It was Jones’ insertion into the starting lineup, in place of the plodding Omer Asik, that catapulted Houston into the upper echelon of offensive units, his cuts to the rim and overall deft finishing ability (72% on close field goals) providing Dwight Howard and James Harden the room they needed to operate. It was Jones’ steady play that allowed Daryl Morey to hold his hand at the deadline rather than cash in on one of the unflattering Asik deals on the market, and it was Jones’ play, perhaps, that kept Morey from overpaying for the veteran he probably needed. In the playoffs, Jones’ position was the difference where he had no business sharing the court with forward LaMarcus Aldridge – the team had no choice but to play Asik and Howard in concert, simply to keep Aldridge, relatively speaking, at bay.
I argued at last season’s trade deadline that entering the postseason without a veteran starting power forward would be the cause of the Rockets’ demise. We don’t know if a deal was available, but looking back, I think that statement was true. (Understand that I’m not criticizing the Rockets. A deal simply may not have been available. But the point is that, regardless of whether anyone was there to be had, this was the team’s biggest weakness). Holding off on a deal, if one was there to be had, is what also set them up to pursue Chris Bosh. In hindsight, that now, of course, is a moot point. With how things played out, however, had I told you Houston would have struck out on every major free agent this summer, you would have gladly sent a package of Omer Asik and Terrence Jones to Atlanta for Paul Millsap at last year’s deadline, if that deal had been available.
After failing to upgrade the position, the team now enters next year, Dwight Howard’s 29th living on this planet, with Jones as the incumbent starter. That’s troubling, in ways unfair to Jones. In a vacuum, he’s a tantalizing prospect. A full-sized (sort-of) power forward with plus athleticism and elite ball-handling for the position. And most impressive of all, he’s done it! As mentioned in the preamble, at just 22, the kid put up 12 and 7 in helping a sort-of contender into the thick of the playoff standings. That’s significant and one wonders how the market may view him. This writer, certainly, has honed in on his flaws on this very page and on Twitter. But Jones’ production will increase simply through the dictates of age, even without further skill development; the defensive missteps will be fewer in number with increased exposure.
But does Houston–does Howard–have time to wait? Typical of my scientific approach to all things, I threw a dart and chose Dirk Nowitzki randomly as a fair defensive comparison of a Western Conference foe. (Choosing the likes of Ibaka, Splitter, Griffin, or Aldridge would not be very fair). Overall, Jones’ man scored 41% of the time on Jones (in comparison to 36% against Nowitzki), 38 to 32 in isolation, 46 to 37 in post-ups, and 54 to 23 off screens. And this is with Dwight Howard and Omer Asik providing weakside help as opposed to the hapless Samuel Dalembert. (To Jones’ credit, when his opponent was the roll man in the P&R, he scored just 36% of the time, compared to 50% for Dirk’s opponent. Jones’ ability to hedge and switch quickly on the perimeter may have been one of McHale’s early reasons for thrusting Jones into the lineup. That and the fact the team was scoring like 13 points per 100 possessions with Asik).
In the loaded Western Conference, already at an offensive disadvantage, can the Rockets really afford inferior defensive production at the margins? One has to hope that a summer in the weight room and increased focus leads to improvement on the important end for Jones. Either that or the (unlikely) trade for the veteran.
One might argue that any offensive improvements would be gravy, but that would not entirely be accurate. One theory behind Dwight Howard’s struggles against the Clippers and Thunder (perhaps Houston’s two most important foes) was that in not fearing Jones, the two teams were able to snuff out Howard in the paint. While shooting 58% overall on 2′s, the Kentucky forward shot under 40% from mid-range, and just 30% on 3′s. If already closing off the lane, and not respecting him from deep, those teams did not need to account for Jones. (Jones did score a sparkling 70% of the time off cuts, leading one to make the brilliant conclusion those better teams rotated more crisply on the interior than the Milwaukee Bucks of the world).
In a perfect world, I would have locked Terrence Jones in a basement this summer with nothing but a DVR of Carl Landry’s second season. In all my years following this team, I’ve never seen a player make a more significant leap in skill development from one year to the next than Landry following his rookie campaign. Having lost the athleticism upon which he originally relied, due to various leg injuries and a gunshot wound (!!), Landry came back in year 2 with an assortment of dribble face-up moves and mid-range potency. Jones, similarly sized, and with similar ability to dribble, would make a good mold. But his release is so awkward and slow–essentially an overhead slingshot–that one has a tough time envisioning him developing as a plausible midrange threat. For that to happen, he’d have to reshape his form, and that rarely ever happens in the NBA.
The short story is that the Rockets probably need an upgrade here to seriously contend. But with few options left on the market, Houston had better hope that Jones continues to mature. He will improve, but will it be enough?