Mar 7, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets power forward Terrence Jones (6) and center Dwight Howard (12) during the third quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
In most senses, the Houston Rockets know what is coming from James Harden. It will be the production of its second leading scorer Dwight Howard which ultimately determine if this team can improve internally.
It won’t be just up to Howard, though. Terrence Jones must excel and fit alongside Howard as the power forward the Rockets need him to be.
Dwight Howard at one point was indisputably the league’s best center. While only a handful of names have entered the talk (DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Joakim Noah), Howard in a very tangible way is still the best 5-man in the league.
Let’s take a look at Rockets’ history.
Hakeem Olajuwon is in the discussion for the title of “Greatest Center Ever.”
While Michael Jordan spent two years chasing curveballs, Hakeem took advantage of the lapse to win two championships and an MVP award. He also dominated perhaps the most center-rich era in league history.
In terms of all-time greats, it’s very difficult to place Olajuwon any lower than 10th, even if his rings only number two.
The Dream was selected ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft, and initially it didn’t look as though Houston would pay for that, forming a formidable duo with a young Virginia Cavalier, 7’4” Ralph Sampson. Sampson, though 7’4”, was a different type of player than Hakeem.
Gifted with speed and length, Sampson had the guile and craftiness which enabled him to average 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds a game in that Finals season. The rail thin power forward also blocked two shots a game and dished out 2.7 assists while shooting 52.3 percent from the floor.
That was in his sophomore NBA season.
The twin towers would progress to the NBA finals in 1985-86 and lose 4-2 to the Boston Celtics. Following Sampson’s devastating knee injury which saw the Rockets peddle him midseason in 87-88 to the Golden State Warriors, it would take Hakeem another nine years before returning to the Finals.
By age 28, he was reduced to a role player, playing just 17 minutes per game. The glory days that set on so early in his career were over. He was a special talent initially, but Howard doesn’t need that era’s Anthony Davis next to him to get the job done.
To return to the Finals, the Rockets will have to mirror the model used in 1994-96.
Howard is without a star power forward alongside of him, and the Rockets struck out on free agent Chris Bosh this summer. While putting a premier name at the 4-spot seems crucial; it isn’t the name and caliber of player. Having the right addition could transform the roster.
Feb 12, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Former Houston Rockets basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon watches during the second quarter of a game against the Washington Wizards at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Olajuwon predicts dominance from Howard. The Nigerian legend told Fran Blinebury of NBA.com, “He’s healthy, he’s strong, he’s ready. Now it’s about having the attitude to go out every night and dominate.”
That is what has lacked Howard’s entire career, however. Even while he was a No. 1 option offensively in Orlando, too often he found himself turning the ball over trying to pass out of double teams.
Howard turned the ball over in excess of four times per game, and is hardly the adept and clever passer the original Superman was, Shaquille O’Neal.
The Magic strutted out a lights out stretch-4 alongside Howard—and though Rashard Lewis did not rebound—his shooting still resulted in another Finals run for Orlando.
A MVP-caliber big man has to have a shooter at power forward. It keeps the floor spaced and allows for better ball movement. Numerous examples could be sited, but even to trace back to Shaquille O’Neal’s Magic, the team passed on Chris Webber for Penny Hardaway, only to acquire that role player necessary at power forward: Horace Grant.
The implication here is deep and cutting: Terrence Jones has to be that man until and unless Rockets GM Darly Morey lands a power forward to plug in next to Howard. He has to be the perfect complementary player, not a superstar.
During Hakeem’s tenure, it was a young Robert Horry who filled the role. Jones most resembles a young Horry, working with the two models the Rockets have succeeded within the past 30 years.
Could Jones be the next Horry?
While Horry’s status as an-HOF type talent is heavily disputed, he was one of the best suited role players in NBA history.
The Rockets need similar play from Jones. The former Kentucky Wildcat has a unique game that renders him a tweener with adequate length to play power forward. He needs to hit the weight room, but he could easily be the Horry-like forward that the Rockets need in this instance.
During the Rockets two title runs, Horry played 32 and 37 minutes per game, averaging roughly 11 points between the two seasons while shooting about 37 percent from three-point range. Horry was an effective defender, averaging 1.6 blocks and 1.5 steals in 95-96, but he did not board like Jones does. Over his 16-year NBA career, Horry averaged just 4.8 rebounds per game, often choosing to spot up rather than bang, and to rely on dominant centers to cover his lack of rebounding prowess.
Jones averaged 6.9 rebounds per game last season and 9.1 per-36. He’s clearly superior to Horry in that facet, and that is a boon that will help the Rockets with Howard already rebounding at a league-leading rate.
Dwight Howard, similarly will rely on Jones to knock down kick outs, many of which may be three-point shots. Jones is skilled enough to be an NBA starter, but that isn’t in question. What may be in question is how well he can complement Howard. Last season, Jones faltered defensively against (arguably) the best power forward in the NBA, LaMarcus Aldridge, surrendering 43.5 points per game over the first two games of the first-round loss.
For the Rockets to advance this year, Jones will have to be the right type of power forward and improve vastly defensively. Jones is in the mold of Horry, which may be the best prototype for his NBA career.
T-Jones could adequately adjust to the perfect role and aid Howard in winning a title. And maybe Jones has that mind set, perhaps he realizes that he has to not just improve this season, but improve in the right way. These improvements namely would come in the form of much more staunch defense and a high field goal percentage from 15-to-23 feet. His outside shooting has to be not just good, but good enough that defenses have to react to it or pay consequences.
Jones hit just 39.1 percent from 10-to-16 feet last season and only 27.3 percent from 16-to-23 feet. From three-point range he was not even a league average 32 percent (30.7). Jones has to shoot the ball better.
Horry was dead-eye from three-point range. And Rashard Lewis made his name launching up triples.
What can Jones do to parallel the successes of those 4-men?
Can the Adjustment from Jones Happen?
Jones just has to figure out where he shines and fire away, because it won’t be block play that best fits with Howard. If Jones can become the caliber of shooter necessary to get Howard his spacing this season, Howard could be in for an MVP type year, while Jones would be in the running for Most Improved player.
Of course, this is the best case scenario, since it relies on not just one guy doing it all right, but two. Howard has to gain the mindset to know that only two or three guys in the league are strong enough to cover him on the blocks (Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan and Nikola Pekovic, if no others), and no one really has the match of both strength and athleticism in tandem. Howard should be able to get to the rim, or even utilize his running hook that has brought him solid results.
It may be as simple as it sounds on some levels: aggressive Dwight, hot shooting Jones.
But if it were that easy, every team would build that difficult to match model, and the league would be dominated from the interior. While that era may be gone, it is not Harden that will most require an adaptive brilliance from a teammate.
The team’s success is contingent on Howard and Jones becoming a 4/5 duo that is better than the sum of its part and complements Harden’s offensive brilliance. That is the type of scheme that could result in a banner being hoisted.