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Who’s the Power Forward? 2013 Edition

The Rockets have their roster. The Rockets have their two all-star-caliber players. The Rockets have a starting-quality backup center and a roster that should support the starters very nicely. It seems like all those questions have been asked in the off-season, and all that’s left is to see if the team works as well on the court as on paper. Except there’s one problem. The same problem as last year. The constant, strange question that Houston can’t seem to shake. Who’s the main power forward for the team?

It’s possible that the Rockets start Ömer Aşık next to Dwight Howard. The Howard/Aşık situation has been discussed infinitely, and only time will show us the answer. Whether they start together or not, Ömer Aşık isn’t a power forward, and he isn’t going to log long minutes at that position. Barring an 11th hour trade, one of Houston’s current players is going to be the go-to 4 next to Dwight Howard and Ömer Aşık.

The rest of the starters have been easily nailed down. Jeremy Lin at the point, James Harden at shooting guard, Chandler Parsons on the wing at the three, Dwight Howard down low. But even if Ömer Aşık is given a starting nod to acknowledge his ability if nothing else, Houston needs a primary Power Forward, just like they did last year. And the seemingly eternal logjam in that rotation has somehow only gotten worse, even after moving three of the players involved in the last year.

In fact, The whole rotation of the past couple seasons, Luis Scola, Patrick Patterson, and Marcus Morris, have been moved. Thomas Robinson, a product of the Patterson and Morris trade, has been moved in the off-season. As the crowd thins, the question looms even larger. There are still a lot of big men and not a lot of minutes for them, and they look similar in skill. This question has to be answered, and soon, if head coach Kevin McHale want to scratch the Western Conference Finals.

So let’s assume that Ömer Aşık won’t be starting. He probably won’t be. And even if does, he won’t be playing most of his minutes at power forward. We’re looking for the starting 4, and Aşık isn’t in the running. Who is in the running? Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejūnas, Greg Smith and Robert Covington. Additionally, Chandler Parsons, Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi may log some minutes as the second tallest player on the floor. That’s a discussion for another day, however, as smallball options don’t so much put a wing player in as a big so much as they replace a big position with a wing. This is about 4s and only 4s.

Terrence Jones has been earning himself respect at early practice, and looked like the most likely candidate. His defense has reportedly been gelling with the new roster, and his offense was already functional in Houston’s system. He can hit some threes, though not at a good rate. That’s a skill he can improve, so that’s not a large concern. He’s eager and adept at putbacks and other garbage cleanup around the rim, which is likely going to be his only other role on offense. With Dwight seeking post touches, Houston doesn’t strongly need a second option down low.

His defense, then, remains the question mark. If it’s indeed as improved as reports indicate, he’s a shoo-in for that starting spot. Reports, however, have reason to be doubted. Playing against his teammates in controlled scrimmages is easier than dealing with Zach Randolph in a playoff run. Players and staff in the Rockets organization also have little reason to relate any negatives to the press, so there are many unknown unknowns. Be that as it may, Jones looked the most NBA-ready of the rookies last season, and that hopefully can translate to a solid sophomore year. He recently got in trouble with the law in Portland, reportedly for assault against a homeless man. These troubles may put a damper on his season, but Houston seldom has public relations issues. Don’t buy stock in people talking about it come December.

The most veteran presence in the group is Greg Smith, who’s so old he’s already played two seasons in the NBA. Along with Chandler Parsons, he’s the only player left from the lockout-shortened season in 2012. He’s always been very effective on offense, sneaking into cracks and exploiting pick and rolls to find a lane to the basket. His offense is one dimensional, but effective. He’s got amazing hands for a big man, easily catching hot passes inside. He’s profited from James Harden and Jeremy Lin, and got himself a bit of a following last season.

The downside of Smith is that he overlaps with Howard and Aşık. He may have better hands and a better finish than Aşık, but their offense comes in similar situations. Smith doesn’t have a jumper to spread the floor, and he doesn’t have world-class defense.

Smith is liable to get greatly reduced minutes, owing to this. Any time he’s on the floor with Howard or Aşık are minutes they could be on the floor together with little offensive loss. Smith’s defense is leagues worse than either, and Howard and Aşık both command more respect and deserve more minutes. Greg Smith may become a luxury more than a weapon moving forward, unless the roster is shaken up significantly.

Donatas Motiejūnas, then, stands to profit. In all likelihood, the starting spot is Jones’ to lose, but Motiejūnas’ to win. Motiejunas has a bit of a three point shot as well, making him an option next to either center on offense. His shooting is similarly questionable to Jones’, but similarly fixable. Where Motiejūnas shows promise is in the post, where he was Houston’s only real option until this July. Strangely, this strength might play him out of a starting position.

With Dwight Howard seeking to make points in the post, having a second post player is slightly redundant. More importantly, it’s very useful  to make sure there’s always a post threat on the floor. Motiejūnas isn’t highly skilled yet, but he’ll make progress. Being able to run similar plays between starters and bench means having similar skill sets on the floor. The bench group, then, needs at least a credible post threat for Beverley or Brooks to pass the ball into. Ömer Aşık is not that threat, though he’s tried. Donatas Motiejūnas can do that job, and be the backup big next to Ömer Aşık.

Where does this leave Robert Covington? Glued to the bench, most likely. In fact, he may not even make the final roster, once the Rockets have to pare down to fifteen players. In last year’s situation of looking for potential, he may have had a chance. This season is the beginning of a “win now” period, and Covington is a flyer with a wing and a prayer. He may just show amazing flashes, but at best he’d confuse the rotation even more.

So there might be some sense of order in the power forward rotation this year after all. Betting on Jones playing next to Howard and Motiejunas next to Ömer Aşık off the bench may be reasonable. Of course Greg Smith might just outplay either or both of them as a wild card. Or the twin towers might prove so good on offense that Howard effectively becomes the starting four. So I guess what I’m saying is that like every year, nobody has any idea what the Rockets will do with their forwards.

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