The Rockets needed an upgrade at power forward, so last week they attempted to address it with a trade for a young player that also cleared out room for another of their youngsters to start seeing some more floor time. The thinking was clear: who better to take a raw young product at the power forward position than a legend and champion like Kevin McHale?
Centers in today’s NBA spend their summers under the tutelage of players like Hakeem Olajuwon, but going to work every day with a guy who is a three time champion and seven time all-star that nicknamed the low post his “torture chamber” has to be enough to turn even the weakest of prospects into a halfway decent player.
Luckily for the curious, it’s not going to take long to see what kind of results the legendary Celtic can muster. Since trading Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris away last week, the Rockets have turned to rookie Donatas Motiejunas to become their new starting power forward with newly acquired 2012 fifth overall pick Thomas Robinson backing him up.
From here, one of two things has to happen for the Rockets to be successful. Seven footer Motiejunas is either going to flourish or Robinson is going to make the shining moments he showed in Sacramento more of a regularity. Each has their strengths and weaknesses and together they could combine to make a better one-two punch sharing the minutes than Patterson and Morris did.
As of Wednesday, Motiejunas is the new starter. He finished his first game on the front line with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in 25 minutes. He shows promise on the pick and roll and good range on his jump shot as he’s able to knock down the occasional three pointer, but he needs to improve his conditioning to keep up on the defensive end as the game wears on.
The fitness will come with time, but the most important thing is that he shows the understanding of what his role is on both ends. His basketball IQ is on par with a player a few years ahead of where he is and he can score off the dribble or by spotting up. With good quickness and agility as well, McHale has plenty to work with to take him to the next level, but he is a stark contrast to Robinson in most key areas.
Motiejunas isn’t a prolific rebounder, shot blocker or defender and has poor strength for a seven footer due to the fact that he only weighs 215 pounds. He doesn’t learn plays designed for him to get the ball in the paint very well either, so without a doubt, McHale has his work cut out.
Robinson on the other hand is a raw product built for dirty work in the paint, but keeping him out of foul trouble may be the key. The former Kansas Jayhawk has a lot of power and he isn’t afraid to use it, but if McHale can harness that energy and make it productive underneath the basket, Robinson will be a monster on the boards in a few years in the Zach Randolph mold. If Jeremy Lin and James Harden can live up to their end of the bargain and get Robinson the ball in the paint in dangerous positions, then he’ll be able to use that power to score with efficiency. This is a key factor as he doesn’t do very well creating shots for himself, although he did manage to command the ball plenty in Sacramento despite the team being the fourth worst passing team in the league.
With good guards around him to get him the ball and reasonable expectations placed upon him, Robinson can flourish in Houston if McHale can teach some of his own trademark footwork and discipline on the defensive end. His ability to run the pick and roll will also make him an alluring option to steal what is right now Motiejunas’ job, though both he and the seven foot Lithuanian will be focusing on mastering the NBA’s most popular play with Lin in their lineup.
The competition to be the fifth and final piece of Houston’s starting lineup is on. Motiejunas has a head start given that he’s been handed the starting role and has worked with McHale since the beginning of the season. But he’ll have his hands full keeping his job if Robinson begins to buy what McHale is selling. In any case, the Rockets will do better than the eight seed they currently sit in after making last week’s trade.