Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a sophomore power forward finally gets some playing time for a team desperate to find a solution at that position. This player then takes off, recording piles of double doubles and scoring in bunches. His defense shows progress, his athleticism is crazy and the sky looks like the limit. No, it’s not Kevin Love that I’m talking about, though I can see why you might think that. This is the story of Terrence Jones, Houston’s newest weapon.
Much has been said about Jones and his role on the Houston Rockets. He’s performing at a higher level than anyone not on the Rockets’ payroll predicted, and it’s been a joy to watch. In an NBA season full of injuries, underachievement and tedium, Jones’ rise in Houston offers a counterpoint to the litany of turnovers and bad ball movement the Rockets offer on a daily basis. But while Jones has been playing exceptionally well, his true value this season comes off the court. He isn’t just helping secure wins this season; he’s helping the Rockets’ future, today.
Obviously, if Jones were to keep developing and stay with the team, he will eventually contribute to Houston’s long-term goals. That, however, isn’t even what’s on the table. Even if Jones were to be gone from the team in March, he would already have done the Rockets a great deal of good. In fact, the only scenario where his actions today don’t help the Rockets next season is one where he stays with the team. So what is it, exactly, that he offers Houston?
This has been mentioned before, but it’s becoming increasingly important. Having Jones takes the pressure off general manager Daryl Morey. When the Rockets were desperate to find a starting four, and another big to enter the rotation with Dwight Howard, Morey’s leverage plummeted. Ömer Aşık absolutely can’t exist in the starting lineup with Dwight Howard, and the need to move the disgruntled center was as plain as day. No team was willing to give up anything like equal value at Houston’s self-imposed trade deadline. But now, with Jones as a viable starting option, that’s all changed.
As the Rockets start getting back into the shape they were in during that brief, 9-game halcyon when Aşık was coming off the bench, Terrence Jones’ magic is starting to spread. He’s something like the player Houston would have wanted in return for Ömer, which means that the Rockets can safely call Aşık’s bluff and keep him on roster. If he plays, that’s even better. Suddenly, trading Ömer Aşık isn’t a foregone conclusion. Suddenly, a team might have to offer something worthwhile to get him.
That change in value has a ripple effect, as well. Without Ömer Aşık as a major trade chip the Rockets looked pressured to upgrade somehow, even if that meant moving a Jeremy Lin of a Patrick Beverley. The team was in flux and seemed to be reeling. So many trade assets, and with a need to move them, they would come at a bargain to other teams. If Morey wanted to avoid selling his prizes for pennies on the dollar, his only other option was to keep them to himself, which would have been painful.
Now, however, standing pat is an option, and a fairly good one at that. Terrence Jones put that back on the table, and that’s a huge point of leverage. If other GMs know they can just wait for the asking price to fall, that price will plummet without mercy. Once Houston can clearly take their ball and go home, however, that ball gets more expensive. With players starting to settle into their roles, their value to Houston starts to be a selling point instead of a drawback. It’s no longer “all we have are these role players, and that’s our best offer” and instead it’s “we’d rather hang on to these role players… unless you have a better offer.”
If Daryl Morey makes a move (and he will), part of the trade value in those players will have come from Terrence Jones and his newfound prowess. His stats are huge for the team and their chances of winning playoff games this season, but his value is even more important for the team’s chances of winning a championship down the line.