I wrote last week on the Rockets’ waiting game regarding Donatas Motiejunas, explaining that they seemed to have all of the leverage in the current situation. While in hindsight, successfully trading Motiejunas to Detroit would have been the more advantageous move, readers will remember that I was extremely upset following initial word of the transaction.
While doing some housekeeping in preparation for the new season, I’ve been digging through the archives from the past few seasons, and have stumbled across some gems. I found a February 28, 2013 piece which was apparently written the night of Thomas Robinson and Motiejunas’ respective debuts.
I’ve mused since the signings that I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the team repeating its success from 2015. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon represent the first pure shooters James Harden has played with in Houston, making an already potent offense even more dangerous. But I’ve also said the team is nearly as likely to be a complete disaster. As Ian Levy of Nylon Calculus noted recently, in a piece titled ‘Are the Houston Rockets headed for a terrible defensive season?‘, in adding Anderson and Gordon, the 21st ranked defense in the league is adding two players who, by box plus-minus, were estimated to be among the 40-worst defenders in the league.
The Rockets’ depth might force McDaniels to play the majority of another season in the D-League, but he needs the opportunity to work through mistakes and focus on his development. Wallace spent three seasons stashed on the Kings’ bench before the expansion Charlotte Bobcats let him find his footing. That’s what can happen for McDaniels in the D-League, and maybe someday in the NBA.
When he actually did play, K.J. McDaniels did seem to bring the dynamic I spoke of in that previous piece, giving the team flexibility, and at times allowing it to play James Harden at point guard. Indeed, McDaniels had far and away the highest net rating on the entire team at +18.9, though that figure should be taken with at least a small grain of salt, given the sample size. But for whatever reason, McDaniels rarely played, failing to crack the rotation, appearing in only 37 games and averaging 6.4 minutes per contest. He shot 40% overall and 28% on 3’s, likely the cause for Bickerstaff’s reluctance, though those numbers are almost identical to Corey Brewer’s.
The Ringer piece agrees: McDaniels wasn’t just a highlight reel. He was a positively impactful player in the small amount of minutes he got. But for whatever reason–most likely his shooting deficiencies–he was never given a good faith opportunity to crack the rotation. This while Corey Brewer was one of the worst regulars in the entire league.
The only item left now for the Rockets to cap off a pretty good offseason is securing a long term commitment to power forward Donatas Motiejunas. I wrote at length earlier in the summer about the Rockets’ woes this season, and surmised that, from what the numbers were indicating, a big factor in the drop-off was the replacement in the lineup of Donatas Motiejunas with Terrence Jones and a host of other underwhelming characters. The Rockets, of course, due to concerns over Motiejunas’ health, opted to deal the power forward to the Detroit Pistons for that team’s first round draft pick, an agreement which was rescinded when the Pistons too decided the proposition was too great of a risk. So Motiejunas came back, showed some flashes, and then looked kind of injured again and not entirely like himself.
But the rights to Jones were renounced, while a qualifying offer of $3,278,996 was extended to Motiejunas. The Rockets want Motiejunas back, but, as they do with all of their players not named James Harden, they want to let the market dictate his price. So, as of September 1, that’s where we stand.
In this week’s episode, I looked back on one of the most controversial moves in Houston Rockets history: the 1996 trade that sent budding stars Robert Horry and Sam Cassell to Phoenix for future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. Many feel now that the deal was ill-advised, prematurely breaking up a team that had won consecutive NBA championships. However, as I explain in Episode 103, I still maintain to this day that the move was the right one to make.
It wasn’t until after I had finished recording the episode that I remembered that during All-Star weekend in Houston a few years back, I had actually asked both Horry and Cassell about their thoughts on the trade. Interestingly, Horry, unsolicited, mentioned the Kevin Willis angle, a twist on things I touched on briefly in the ‘pod:
I remember watching them and I was saying to myself, if they would’ve added Kevin Willis and Eddie Johnson to us…those were the two pieces that we needed. Two other veteran guys that could deal with some inside presence, a guy that could give us some outside shooting. If you look at it, we would have had a great lineup, we would have been able to compete. I’m not saying we would have won a championship, but we would have been right there to compete. And I know Utah wouldn’t have beaten us.
Cassell mentioned the flurry of injuries the team suffered in 1995-1996, an important backdrop to the trade. He also responded, when I asked if he was surprised when he heard news of the trade, that he was, and that “[he] never got a chance to be the starting point guard for [the] organization.” That Cassell would feel this way makes perfect sense, but is so revealing to hear after all of these years. Those old enough to remember will recall that amongst the fans and the media, point guard was a major controversy at the time, with many people clamoring for the more talented Cassell to replace Kenny Smith in the lineup. For his part, Sam said all the right things at the time and played his role, never creating a stir. But you can sense the resentment in his voice in this clip – almost a feeling of being robbed of an opportunity for which he had bided his time for so long. It’s always interesting to discover, after the fact, the emotions that might have existed behind the scenes.