James Harden isn't the only one picking up the slack in Houston.
For all the bluster about the Rockets’ use of analytics, the team’s plan for contention was always to land multiple superstars. First, Houston compiled the assets necessary to pull off the James Harden trade. Then, the Rockets leveraged Harden’s breakout season into signing Dwight Howard. GM Daryl Morey’s plan had worked; he got his two stars.
But now the Rockets are down a star. Howard hasn’t played in six weeks due to a knee injury, and there’s no clear timetable for his return. Yet Houston (43-20) still holds the No. 3 seed in the brutally competitive Western Conference, even without Howard, who was voted the NBA’s second-best center as recently as last season. So what happened?
Right as Howard left the Rockets’ lineup, Terrence Jones returned. After a nerve injury that affected his left leg and back sidelined him for almost the entire first half of the season, the third-year forward out of Kentucky came back on Jan. 28. Since that point, Houston has gone 11-5 with Jones in the lineup, with wins over the Mavericks, Bulls, Raptors, Clippers and Cavaliers in a nationally televised showdown.
While Harden’s MVP-caliber play has been the biggest factor in Houston’s perseverance without Howard, Jones hasn't trailed far behind. In that 16-game stretch, he’s averaged 12.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. In fact, since playing his way back into game shape, Jones has been even better, averaging 15.7 points and 9.6 rebounds over his last 10 contests, which the Rockets went 7-3 in.
Houston’s calling card this season has been its surprisingly stingy defense, and the Rockets are currently tied for No. 3 in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 99.7 points per 100 possessions. It would have been fair to expect the Rockets to fall off on that end of the floor after Howard—three-time Defensive Player of the Year—went out with his injury. But Jones has filled in quite nicely as a rim protector in Howard’s absence. The Rockets’ defensive efficiency actually drops to 97.1 when Jones is on the floor, a figure that would lead the league.
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Individually, Jones has become a terror on defense. Per NBA.com’s player tracking data, opponents are shooting 8.2% worse overall when Jones is guarding them. Get closer to the basket, and the impact becomes even more dramatic. On shots he defends within six feet of the hoop, Jones causes opponents to shoot 13.4% worse. And his rim protection numbers rank among the game’s elite. If Jones had played enough games to qualify, his 2 blocks per contest would rank sixth in the NBA, ahead of swat merchants like Tim Duncan, Andre Drummond and Roy Hibbert.
Jones’ shot blocking (albeit in a small sample size) even compares favorably to Howard. This year, Jones has a block rate of 5.5%, meaning he rejects approximately that percentage of opponents' shots while he’s on the floor. Before he got hurt, Howard’s block percentage on the year was just 3.4%. In fact, Howard hasn’t reached that 5.5% mark since way back in the 2009-10 season, when he was leading the Magic to a second consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearance. Just for fun, here’s a brief list of players who have blocked a lower percentage of opponent shots than Jones this year: Duncan, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasol.
Jones’ emergence as a rim protector is remarkable given that when he entered the NBA, he didn’t have a defined position. In a scouting report prior to the 2012 draft, Draft Express noted that the 6’9” Jones was “undersized for the power forward position” and that he “could surely spend some time at the small forward position in the NBA.” Fast forward three years, and Jones is capably defending Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the same game.
Jones’ evolution as a defensive big, coupled with the fact that he’s at least somewhat of a threat from three-point range—he’s shooting 31.8% from deep on 1.1 attempts per game—gives the Rockets some funky lineup flexibility. For instance, last week against the Grizzlies, Jones checked back into the game with 4:20 left to play. That gave the Rockets an amorphous Patrick Beverley-Harden-Corey Brewer-Trevor Ariza-Jones lineup, with Jones at the five. That lineup featured one “traditional” frontcourt player—who had been thought to be undersized—to defend the league’s most imposing frontcourt. Over the next four minutes, the Rockets blitzed the Grizzlies, erasing a 10-point deficit to tie the game at 100. Houston ended up losing on a sublime Gasol game-winner (with Jones defending), but that lineup's effectiveness shouldn't be lost in the defeat.
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In 2015, smart teams prize lineup flexibility; see the Warriors destroying the league with their army of switchable swingmen or the Grizzlies’ acquisition of Jeff Green, who can be a stretch four in spurts. Jones gives the Rockets the NBA’s rarest archetype: a big who can protect the rim, guard opposing behemoths and pose a threat from the perimeter offensively.
Houston obviously is hoping Howard will be healthy for the playoffs. It’s hard to imagine the Rockets as a true contender without him. But to say the team has simply survived without the eight-time All-Star is an understatement. Jones has Houston playing excellent ball, and he’s quickly becoming one of its most important players.