Could Houston Rockets Small Forward Position be a ‘Time Share?’


Oct 13, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) shoots during the first quarter as Houston Rockets forward Kostas Papanikolaou (16) defends at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Trevor Ariza was acquired to replace Chandler Parsons, who signed an unmatched RFA deal with the Dallas Mavericks.  But it may not be Ariza alone which results in the fulfillment of Parsons’ departed production.

Ariza and Parsons put up nearly identical PERs (Player Efficiency Rating) last season, both around the league average of 15.  PER does not take into account defense though, which is an edge that clearly goes to Ariza.  While Parsons’ loss may be lamented for the sheer fact that he was a legitimate No. 3 scorer, the sum of the Rockets’ internal improvements may render this less important than most realize.

Kostas Papanikolaou is the other part of this equation.  The Greek forward was signed to a $4 million contract this offseason, in a signing that went deep under the radar.  Though Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent a former No. 5 overall draft pick (Thomas Robinson) and two second round picks to acquire Kostas, few even realized he came at such cost, nor why.

Oct 7, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons (25) hugs Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza (1) prior to the game at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As explained in the Kostas’ analysis article upon his signing, the only reason he was drafted in the second round and not signed sooner was due to the cost of his buyout.  Most NBA teams are reticent to buy out expensive overseas contracts just to bring in  Euro a little quicker.  Morey, too, waited until his contract expired to avoid a $1 million buyout clause in his last season in Europe.

Oct 13, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Trevor Ariza (1) dunks the ball during the second quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The best facet of having both Ariza and Kostas is that both bring very different games to the table.  The common denominator is defense.  Though Kostas has to learn the ropes as an NBA defender, he excelled at that overseas.  Ariza has long been known as a near-lockdown defender, and when Kostas comes in the game off the bench, very little will change.

The difference begin in their offensive skill sets.  Ariza is a very good three-point shooter (despite not being able to shoot straight early in his career) and Kostas is a bit of a work in progress from long range.  His pretty lefty form suggests the shots will fall, but he’ll have to adapt to the NBA three-point line and much more stringent defenses on the perimeter.

What Ariza lacks in playmaking, however, is where Kostas excels.  In a manner similar to many European swingmen, Kostas is excellent at setting the table for teammates.  His offensive game may come slowly, but he’s seeking to integrate himself as part of the team.  He’s willing to work.

When the Rockets bring Kostas off the bench, there will be little letup in the quality of play from the 3-spot.  It also provides Kevin McHale with a peace of mind knowing that if Ariza were to go down, Kostas could adequately fill his role in the starting lineup.  But it may not be who starts that matters.  As the proverbial saying goes “It’s not who starts, but who finishes.”

Keeping both Kostas (who may hit a rookie wall) and Ariza fresh seems to be the best course of action for the Rockets.  While it may not be a 50/50 split early in the season, as Kostas’ growth continues, it will allow Ariza to play less and less minutes, essentially keeping him fresh to destroy teams in the 2015 playoffs.

From day one, Kostas should be able to help drive a much stronger second unit.  He’ll fill the second squad along with Nick Johnson, Isaiah Canaan, Donatas Motiejunas, Jeff Adrien, Troy Daniels and Jason Terry.  That’s seven players to fill five spots, basically.  Likely, one of two of these guys will find himself out of the rotation, but potentially by default that may be Daniels and Motiejunas, though D-Mo will continue to see spot minutes backing up Dwight Howard.

A workable second-unit may be comprised of:

PG- Terry

SG- Johnson

SF- Kostas

PF- Adrien

C- Motiejunas

The fall off from the first unit will be much less severe.  Kevin McHale may seek to keep James Harden on the court as much as possible to enhance this group, but Nick Johnson has earned high praise for his play in summer league, and he should be able to absorb more minutes at that position as the season presses on.

To be sure, Kostas will be a key feature in that second unit.  He’s going to help Nick Johnson cover the perimeter, which will cover any blunders an aging Terry commits.  The defensive talents of the second unit will be come apparent with three above average defenders in Kostas, Johnson and Adrien.

Kostas brings a lot to the table, and that should be a security blanket for a team that had to rely on Francisco Garcia far too often last season (he’s far out of the rotation, possibly from day one).  The Rockets are due to improve, and it’s largely in part due to a signing few even noticed this offseason.  Papa Kostas is here.