We know what the power forward does. He’s the scoring big man, the player next to the center who helps corral rebounds and scores the ball in and around the paint. He’s big, powerful, methodical and hopefully plays some defense. He can probably shoot a bit better than the center, and sometimes might even have a three point shot. That’s what you get out of the power forward, isn’t it?
We all know better, too. Positions mean less and less each season, and different teams have deeply different needs and rosters. The traditional, plodding big man ideal of the power forward is being interred as we speak, and the Rockets are happy to throw dirt on the grave. The Houston Rockets don’t have a traditional power forward because they don’t need or even want a traditional power forward. What they do need from that position is complicated and nontraditional, much like the Rockets themselves.
First and foremost, the Rockets need shooting. They need shooting from the point guard, the shooting guard, the small forward and even the power forward. If Houston’s offense is to work, every player except the center needs to be able to camp out at the three point line and set some screens if need be. Shooting keeps defenses honest, and honest defenses can’t pack the paint. Without a packed paint, Dwight Howard and James Harden can use their pick and roll prowess to sow chaos and reap piles of points. All of this goes back to being a credible three point threat, a skill which Houston spends time and effort finding.
The next most important ability the second-tallest player needs to accomplish is simple in concept: Defense. If a power forward can’t guard the opposing power forward, a defensive hole arises. Like water coming through a levee, opposing offenses will quickly attack that spot until the entire structure collapses. While a small ball style lineup with a Chandler Parsons at the four may excel on offense, the defensive liabilities add up. Larger players will simply back down any wings who might be masquerading as bigs. The curious thing about this need is that it’s possible to spread it across the five players on the floor, unlike something like shooting. If Garcia, for example, is able to defend effectively at the perimeter, Dwight Howard or Ömer Aşık can prioritize sticking to the largest post threat. As long as a player on the floor is able to cope with each defensive assignment, those assignments need not align with the positions as we understand them.
The last function the power forward spot will have this year for Houston is as an overflow valve for the center position. Dwight Howard and Ömer Aşık both command starter’s minutes. In order to reach the maximum number of minutes for Aşık, the Rockets will have to slide him in next to Dwight Howard at times. It may be a disaster on offense, but that situation features brutal interior defense. This means that the power forward spot won’t have as many minutes free for the starter and bench player, which on another team may have caused a problem on its own. In Houston, a group of young, unproven players make up that rotation. Unproven, role player type players are the lowest maintenance in that regard, as their minutes demands are liable to be much lower.
When all of this is looked at holistically, a pattern emerges. This type of shooting, defensively versatile, undemanding player is perfect for a small ball lineup. A particularly large three can fulfill these requirements, which begins to make Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas expendable. Chandler Parsons, Omri Casspi or Francisco Garcia suddenly look like not only options at the the four, but as viable starters. Any of them can shoot, all three are big enough to passably defend most opposing bigs, and the ability to slide them to the small forward positions allows Aşık to absorb as many minutes per night as they care to let him. The Houston Rockets don’t need a normal bruiser down low. They need the stretch four of the future, and there’s a decent chance the future is already in Houston.