Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rockets Bench

One of the main points of interest for me in the Rockets-Mavs preseason game on Tuesday was all the new players on Houston's second unit. Of the nine guys who came off the bench for them, five were not in the NBA last season and one of the ones who was (Troy Daniels) spent most of the year in the D-League. After losing Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, a few of those guys are going to have to play big minutes for them this season.

There's only so much you take away from a pre-season game, obviously, particularly the first one of the year. The refs were calling fouls almost every possession - it was a sloppy game with no flow and it was hard for anyone on either team to get in a rhythm. I was at the AAC and it was still difficult to be totally focused on what was happening on the court. So take this with a grain of salt, but here are my first impressions of all the new guys in Houston.

Donatas Motiejunas - Not a new guy, but he was the most impressive player on the court for most of the night. He spent a lot of time in the post, where he absolutely ate up the Mavs second unit frontcourt players. Donatas busted out a really nice lefty hook and at 7'0, he could shoot over the top of almost anyone Dallas threw at him - he finished with 18 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals on 7-11 shooting. I imagine Houston will run a ton of offense for him on their second unit and he has the versatility to play next to either Dwight or T. Jones.

The big concern with him is still his defense and he didn't appear to be totally bought in to what was happening on that side of the floor. He had a couple really lazy close-outs and I'm not sure he's ever going to be great at guarding the perimeter or protecting the rim at the NBA level. That may be what prevents him from ever being a starter on a good team, but he should have a long, long career as a dynamite offensive player off the bench. 

Josh Powell - He hasn't played in the league in 2 years and it appears he came back with a shaved head and tattoo sleeves on both his arms. Though, to be honest, I kind of lost track of him in his last few seasons in the NBA so maybe that's not new. He definitely looks like a tough guy enforcer, but he still seems stuck between not being big enough to play as a 5 or skilled enough to play out on the perimeter as a 4. That was a common theme on the Rockets second unit.

Jeff Adrien - Same idea. A wide-bodied physical player whose either a really undersized 5 or a fairly unskilled 4. He's got some game, but that's why he's been on 4 teams in 4 seasons. Part of the problem with the foul count was that none of Houston's second unit big men could really cut off guys driving to the rim - they were too short. Given his history of NBA production, I imagine Adrien will get the first crack at being the 4rth big man.

Tarik Black - Fairly surprised he even got on an NBA roster. He had three solid years at Memphis but he transferred to Kansas for his senior year only to spend most of his time backing up Joel Embiid. He averaged 5 points and 4 rebounds a game last season and that kind of production usually sends a guy overseas, even if they have the tools for an NBA position. Black is a 6'9 260 center who can't shoot, so I guess that's the new market inefficiency? Joey Dorsey didn't even play on Tuesday and he's the exact same player as Powell, Adrien and Black.

Kostas Papanikolaou - This was the guy I was most interested in seeing. He's not some guy on a minimum contract, the Rockets gave him pretty decent coin to come over - 2 years at $4.8 million. 6'8 225 and his game is clearly built on outside shooting. He has got a good feel for the game and a decent handle, though I'm not sure how well he can deal with ball pressure from superior NBA athletes on the wing. You can put him in pick-and-rolls and he can swing ball around the perimeter, but I'm not sure he has the athleticism to be a primary option, even on a second unit.

That was what really jumped out to me on Tuesday - Kostas is just not very fast or athletic. He had no chance to stay in front of Chandler Parsons on the perimeter and he had a real difficult time creating separation off the dribble and finishing around the rim. I wonder if he would be better as a small-ball 4 who stretches the floor - he's kind of like a slower version of Omri Casspi. As long as he can be hidden on D, he should be able to stick in the league. The question is what we are going to call him, cuz no one's going to be able to pronounce that name. K-Pap? Papa? 

Isaiah Canaan - He didn't get into the game until the 4rth quarter and by that time, I was pretty checked out of what was going on. I think they need a guy like him who can create shots and get some buckets on their bench, so I imagine he'll get more looks as the preseason goes on.

Ish Smith - Ish is a guy whose bounced all around the league. This is his 8th stop in 4 seasons and his second trip through Houston. He's super fast, but he's small and he really can't shoot and that's just hard to put up with from your backup PG. The Mavs were giving him about 4-5 feet of space on the perimeter and he airballed a FT, which is just embarrassing. If Canaan or Nick Johnson can't beat him out, I'm not sure Houston isn't very aggressive on the waiver wire and searching through the D-League to find someone else.

Troy Daniels - He was in the same rotation as Canaan, so I didn't really see much of him. Can he do anything else besides shoot? That will determine if he can carve out a consistent role in Houston.

Nick Johnson - He played primarily off the ball on Tuesday, which is interesting. I'm not sure he can stick in the league as an off-ball guy at 6'3, especially since he's not a super explosive scorer or creative guy off the dribble. He was trying to ball pressure the hell out of all the Mavs guards, which I guess is going to be his lane the NBA, though obviously it will be hard for a rookie to make much of an impact on defense. 

To me, if Johnson is going to stick, it's going to be in a role like Patrick Beverley, a defensive-minded PG who spots up off the ball and serves as a secondary playmaker. The problem is that type of guy generally has to be a starter so that he can play off of really good first-unit wings. On a second unit, with more limited players around him, your backup PG has to be able to run offense and create shots for everyone else. There's no wing in Houston besides Harden who can create shots and that could be a problem for Johnson and for the team as a whole.

If I had to guess right now, I'd say Donatas, Papa and Canaan are the first three guys off the bench, with Adrien and Daniels filling out the cracks in the rotation. It's not a super impressive group of names so A) Houston really can't afford to have injuries in their first unit B) they are going to need to stagger a lot of minutes and give Beverley and Jones chances to run offense and C) this is a team who is going to be very aggressive on the waiver wire, the buyout deadline and the trade front.

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