Jul 21, 2014 8:18 PM EDT
Things didn't exactly go according to the plan for the Houston Rockets this offseason. In the span of a weekend, they went from having Chris Bosh and Chandler Parsons to neither, all while clearing out their bench. After a disappointing first round exit, the Rockets lost Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin and have only Trevor Ariza to show for it. With Daryl Morey's hot streak the last few offseasons coming to an abrupt halt, the Rockets seem like a prime candidate to regress.
Losing Parsons is a blow not only to their chances next season, but to the odds of getting a third star like Kevin Love. The mechanics of trading his contract would have been difficult, but he's exactly the type of young piece a team like the Wolves would want in a trade. Without Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play.
Jones has slipped under the radar ever since his sophomore season at Kentucky, when he took a backseat to Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on a team that won a national title. With his stats depressed in a smaller role, he fell to the Rockets at No. 17 in 2012, the last in a long line of young PF's they drafted in the first round. After barely playing as a rookie, he carved out a spot for himself in the starting line-up as a second-year player, averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds a game on 54% shooting.
Those numbers hardly forecast future stardom, but they were excellent when you consider the role that he had on the team. Jones was the fourth or fifth option on the floor, playing behind Dwight Howard, James Harden and Parsons. As a result, he rarely got to play with the ball in his hands - most of his points came from cutting off the ball, crashing the offensive glass and running the floor. If Parsons had stayed, Jones would never have had the chance to be anything more than a role player in Houston.
If Morey had signed Bosh and pulled off a Big Four, Jones would have been fighting for minutes on the second team, if not shipped away in order to clear salary cap space. Instead, without either Parsons or Lin, there's a huge role in the Rockets offense that will need to be filled. Those two averaged almost 24 field goal attempts a game and Ariza only averaged 11 in Washington last season. Jones, who averaged 9 a game last season, is a logical option to soak up more possessions.
At 6'9 250 with a 35' max vertical, Jones has the physical measurements and athleticism of a lottery pick. If he had come out after his freshman season of college, he likely would have been taken in the Top 5, which would have dramatically altered the perception of him around the league. His numbers as a freshman weren't much different from those of Julius Randle. Jones has elite ball-handling ability for a player his size, a quick first step and the ability to finish at the rim or find the open man off the dribble.
Jones is more of a combo 4 than a stretch 4, so he's not a natural fit with a center like Howard who wants the ball on the block. At the same time, the two form one of the longest and most athletic frontcourt duos in the NBA and they are more than skilled enough to figure things out on the offensive side of the floor. There should be plenty of opportunities for Jones to push the ball in transition as well as attack the lane with the other three perimeter players spotting up on the three-point line.
As is the case with most young players, Jones has a lot of room to grow on the defensive side of the ball. That was made clear in the playoffs, when LaMarcus Aldridge tore him up in their first two games, averaging over 40 per night. Jones isn't quite as long as Aldridge, but he still has a 7'2 wingspan, so he's more than capable of holding his own at the PF position. Along with Howard, he gives the Rockets two big men capable of defending the two-man game, a huge advantage in a spread pick-and-roll league.
Just as important as any maturation on defense, Jones should have the opportunity to attack guys like Aldridge on the other end of the floor next season. That's one of the best ways to go at a big-time scorer - attack his legs and make him work on defense. With Jones hardly ever being featured in the Rockets offense, Aldridge didn't have to work all that hard against him. People tend to confuse opportunity with talent, especially with young players. There's only so much a guy can do with a usage rating of 18.
If Jones can handle a role as a third option and a featured player on the second unit with a usage rating of 22-23, there is a scenario where the Rockets end up improving without Parsons. With Ariza giving them a second lockdown defender on the perimeter, they would have four elite athletes around James Harden, all on the right side of 30. The bench is an issue, but one of the strengths of Houston's front office has been their ability to unearth NBA-caliber players from all types of unlikely places
For all the hubbub around Morey's philosophy and approach to roster building, few can doubt his eye for talent. While it looks like he outsmarted himself this summer, his ability to find guys like Patrick Beverley in Europe and Terrence Jones in the end of the first round has left him with room to maneuver. That could end up being the great irony of the Rockets seemingly fruitless search for a third star - they've been frantically looking under every rock when that player has been on hand the whole time.
Jul 17, 2014 10:59 AM EDT
Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. Stephenson signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets, a number that was closer to Jodie Meeks (3-years, $19 million) than Chandler Parsons (3-years, $45 million). Nevertheless, he was one of the best all-around players available in free agency. The Indiana Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.
Over the last four seasons, Stephenson went from second-round draft pick to integral part of the Pacers core. As he has gotten better, so has Indiana. He was a benchwarmer on a 37-win team, a fringe player on a 42-win team, a starter on a 49-win team and a featured player on a 56-win team. His emergence allowed them to survive the loss of Danny Granger, the best player on their team four years ago. This time around, they don't have anyone in the pipeline who can replace Stephenson.
The Pacers built an elite team through the draft - three of their starters (Stephenson, Paul George and Roy Hibbert) were draft picks and the fourth (George Hill) was traded for one. However, as they have dropped lower in the first round, the pipeline has dried up. They have almost nothing to show for the last three drafts - they dealt their first-round picks in 2012 and 2014 for Luis Scola. Solomon Hill, their first-round pick into 2013, was a senior without a high ceiling who didn't get a lot of minutes as a rookie.
It's tough to sustain a run at the very top of the conference without a transcendent player like LeBron James. A team like the Pacers needs all five starters pulling in the right direction, which is hard to maintain over 4+ seasons - someone gets hurt, someone gets a bigger contract with a new team, someone gets old. Paul George is on the upswing, but Roy Hibbert and George Hill seem to have peaked and David West is 34 next season. They are going to need more from the SG position next season, not less.
Stephenson only had a 19.4 usage rating last season, but his departure leaves a giant hole in their offense. Despite being tagged as a selfish player, he was their best playmaker, averaging 4.7 assists on 2.7 turnovers a game. Without him, they will have a much harder time moving the ball and creating open shots, especially when you consider how poorly they space the floor. Stephenson is one of the only SG's in the league who can shoot 3's, create his own shot off the dribble and run point.
Going forward, he was also one of their only areas for internal improvement. With West aging, Stephenson could have picked up a much larger share in the offense over the next few seasons. Instead, they will have to depend on Hill and Hibbert, neither of whom has shown much of an ability to assume a bigger role. George is only 23, but the team is getting older around him, is in a market that has never attracted free agents and doesn't have many assets they can turn into another elite player.
The Hornets, after making the playoffs for the first time in four years, now look like a perennial playoff team in the East, for whatever that's worth. With Stephenson and Al Jefferson in place, they have two foundational pieces to build around as well as wealth of young talent that can develop in small roles on a good team, much like Stephenson did in Indiana. They won't win the Eastern Conference overnight, but they have a good young core that should grow and improve together over the next few seasons.
Stephenson takes the spot of Gerald Henderson, a solid player who was probably stretched in the role of a starter on a good team. Henderson has the size and athleticism of a starting SG, but he's a limited offensive player who doesn’t shoot 3's or create shots for anyone else. Replacing him with a player who can shoot, create and pass like Stephenson has a domino effect on the rest of the line-up - there is more space on the floor for everyone else to attack and more opportunities for them to get open shots.
He will make everyone in Charlotte better. His presence will relieve some of the ball-handling and playmaking pressure from Kemba Walker, who shot 39% from the field and was stretched as a primary option. It will create more opportunities for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to get out and run, as he and Stephenson should form one of the most athletic wing duos in the NBA. Stephenson can run pick-and-pop plays with Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson and get them easy shots, just as he did with West in Indiana.
Charlotte is a great situation for him, on and off the court. It's a fresh start where he can play unencumbered from some of the baggage he picked up in Indiana and they play a four-out system which better suits his talents. Williams, after shooting 36% from 3 on 3.5 attempts a game in a similar role in Utah, should be able to step in and fill Josh McRoberts role as the stretch 4. Instead of playing in a two-post system without any driving lanes to the rim, Stephenson will be able to play in space.
And rather than everyone around him getting worse, Stephenson will be on a team where everyone is getting better. Jefferson is one of the only Hornets players in his prime - Kemba is 23, Cody Zeller is 21, MKG is 20 and Noah Vonleh is 18. It's unclear exactly what any of those four will end up being in the NBA, but they've all shown flashes of high-level talent and they all still have a lot of room to grow. Unlike many lottery picks, they won't be asked to do too much too soon in Charlotte
Stephenson is only signed to a three year contract, but three years can be a really long time in the NBA. Three years ago, Indiana looked like they would be permanently in the shadow of Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. In three years time, they are likely to be worse than they are now and there's a good chance the Hornets will be one of the teams they are looking up at. At some point in that process, they might face Lance Stephenson in a seven-game series and wouldn't that be something.
Jul 09, 2014 6:01 PM EDT
Even though Chris Kaman is on his fifth time in five seasons, it didn’t take long for him to come off the market. He joins a crowded center rotation in Portland with Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland, which doesn’t leave much room for Meyers Leonard, the No. 11 pick in 2012. Leonard has averaged only 4 points and 3 rebounds in his first two seasons, but he would still be an interesting gamble for a rebuilding team who could afford to give him minutes.
Despite his lack of production, it would be unfair to call Leonard a bust. The Blazers knew he was a project when they drafted him. Two years later, after their unexpected rise in the conference hierarchy, they no longer have the time to bring a young 7'0 along. Leonard's career path is the perfect example of why it takes big men so long to develop - they enter the league much earlier than perimeter players, so they have much more room to grow as players.
There aren't many human beings in the world, much less professional basketball players, with Leonard's size and athleticism. At 7'1 250 with a 7'3 wingspan, Leonard has a 33' max vertical and can play far above the rim. In a given draft, there are only a handful of centers with his tools. In 2012, Leonard and Andre Drummond. In 2013, Nerlens Noel, Alex Len and Steven Adams. In 2014, Joel Embiid. It's no coincidence all six were under 20 on draft night.
The demand for NBA-caliber center far outstrips the supply. As a result, they are snatched up as soon as they can enter the league, usually before they are ready. Leonard and Drummond were both fairly inconsistent players on average teams in their last season in college - Leonard averaged 13 points and 8 rebounds a game while Drummond was at 10 and 7. They were both drafted in the lottery based on their physical tools, not their ability to contribute right away.
Drummond looks like a future star, but his physical gifts are so absurd it's unfair to compare anyone to him. He also benefitted from a rebuilding team that could feed him as many minutes as he could handle. Leonard has been reasonably productive in Portland, with per-36 minute averages of 11 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block on 52% shooting. He hasn't been able to handle defensive rotations on a playoff contender, but that's to be expected from such a raw player.
Brandon Paul was the leading scorer on Illinois two seasons ago. Paul averaged almost 34 minutes a night and was more dependable than Leonard, who had averaged only 2 points a game the year before. Paul even scored 43 in a game against Ohio State. The difference was that Paul, who wound up undrafted, was a 6'4 shooting guard, so the list of guys at his position with NBA tools was much, much longer, making the competition far more intense.
Leonard, in contrast, was only really competing with himself. Were it not for family issues, he might have stayed in school an extra two years, allowing him to develop on both sides of the ball. His ideal career path would have looked something like Adreian Payne at Michigan State, the No. 15 pick in this year's draft. When the two were sophomores in the Big Ten two years ago, Payne had much worse statistics, averaging 7 points and 4 rebounds a game.
Payne turned himself into an elite three-point shooter in college, averaging 42% as a senior. Leonard may never develop that type of range, but he's bigger, just as athletic and has shown some promise as a shooter. He's a career 80% free-throw shooter in the NBA, so he could develop into a credible pick-and-pop player who can open up driving lanes to the rim. There's always room in the league for a 7'1 player with size, athleticism and shooting ability.
Even if it doesn't happen with Portland, Leonard will get plenty more chances. In terms of career development, that's really what separates big men from guards. Every professional basketball player is going to improve from 21 to 28. The difference is that a 7'0 has much more margin for error, since there will always be room on a roster for them. A guard with Leonard's production might already be out of the league - there are always more where they came from.
The NBA is full of 7'0 who didn't start to blossom until their mid 20's. Tyson Chandler is their patron saint - after entering the league at 18, he didn't turn a corner until his 6th season and his second team. And while Chandler is close to Leonard's ceiling as a player, he will have a long and productive career if he can just turn into Miles Plumlee. At Leonard's age, Plumlee was a fourth-year junior at Duke who was averaging 5 points and 5 rebounds a game.
Length and athleticism are necessary components for being an elite rim protector, but they aren't sufficient. It’s like a goalie in soccer - they have to orchestrate the players in front of them and cover up their mistakes as the second line of defense. They have to anticipate what the offense will do instead of just reacting to it. Those are things only experience can provide. Leonard may never fully acquire those skills, but he won't be 28 until 2020, so there is time.
Buying low on young players who need a second chance is one of the best ways to acquire value. If Leonard had stayed in school the last two seasons while dominating younger players, he would have been a Top 15 pick in 2014. You don't want to hold what was essentially a two-year apprenticeship under LaMarcus Aldridge against him. Leonard hasn't done anything in the NBA, but guys like him are why it takes such a long time before you can judge a draft.
Jul 06, 2014
With Kyle Lowry under contract for the next four years, the Raptors have every one of their two-way playing starting five locked up for the indefinite future. This is a team on the rise, regardless of how much star power they have.
Jun 27, 2014
With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.
Jun 26, 2014
The key to finding sleepers once you are out of the lottery is identifying players with the ability to do multiple things, which allows them to impact the game without the ball in their hands. That means guys with the physical tools to be impact defenders or the all-around offensive games to contribute in a variety of roles on offense.
Jun 25, 2014
Doug McDermott, James Young, Jerami Grant, Mitch McGary and Cleanthony Early are five players we expect to be selected too early relative to the value of their contributions in the NBA.
Jun 23, 2014
The 2014 class could end up rivaling 2003 based on its depth. If the Top 3 players in this yearís draft ever got on the same team, it would be something.
Jun 21, 2014
Aaron Gordon might never be a guy who averages 18-20 points a game, but he does everything else on the court that helps you win. Heís the ultimate teammate, a guy who plays elite defense at multiple positions and moves the ball on offense.
Jun 11, 2014
Marcus Smart just lived through the worst possible timeline at Oklahoma State, but he's an ideal player for a rebuilding team because he can be successful next to any type of guard.
Jun 02, 2014
The Thunder Big 3 are still two years away from being the same age as LeBron, Wade and Bosh were when they united and they didn't have 2-3 lottery picks entering their prime to serve as a supporting cast.
May 26, 2014
Instead of going with the players who earned the right to be on the floor, Scott Brooks went with veterans who had more playoff experience. Playing Derek Fisher over Jeremy Lamb is the canary in the coal mine for Brooks.
May 23, 2014
Adreian Payne is a stretch 4 with elite athleticism and prototype size for the position. He has a lot of Serge Ibaka in his game. Payne is one of the most complete big men in the country and his skill-set can improve every team in the league.
May 15, 2014
As soon as Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets, he began pouring money into the roster with seemingly no regard for costs. Billy King pushed their payroll to stratospheric levels and they're no closer to The Finals, but it remains a sound business decision.
May 09, 2014
If a player like Jadaveon Clowney was in the NBA draft, there is little chance he would go No. 1 overall. When it comes to evaluating prospects, NFL teams don't seem to be as much in the thrall of individual statistics
Apr 17, 2014
In a society where patience has gone out the window and only instant gratification matters, the poor play of the 2013 rookie class has many ready to write them off entirely. But while there isnít an Anthony Davis in the bunch, this yearís draft had plenty of good young players who, for a variety of reasons, were simply not ready for the NBA.
Apr 10, 2014
Unless you have LeBron James or Kevin Durant, you're not getting anywhere without a good center. Joel Embiid is the one guy from this class who brings instant credibility to the team that drafts him.
Mar 24, 2014
If Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker arenít scoring, they have a hard time impacting the game. While they were eliminated, Julius Randle is in the Sweet 16 thanks to his career-high six assists against Wichita State.
Mar 14, 2014
If you are looking for a high-major team with a middling seed to ride in your bracket, you could do worse than UCLA. Steve Alford has enough NBA-caliber talent to compete against any school in the field.
Feb 27, 2014
Only the best of the best can survive 15 seasons in the NBA, a ruthlessly Darwinian league. With a 16.1 PER and the ability to meaningfully impact the game on both sides of the ball at multiple positions, Vince Carter could fit with almost any team in the league at 37.
Older Articles »
Basketball Wiretap Headlines