The Rockets' Future at Power Forward

With their recent trade of Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris, the Houston Rockets left themselves with nothing in the way of experienced candidates to start at the power forward position.  The two most likely candidates going forward are rookies, namely 2011 20th overall pick Donatas Motiejunas (Age 22) and the booty from their deadline dealing, 2012 5th overall pick Thomas Robinson (Age 21).  What do the Rockets have in these players now and going forward?

Thomas Robinson

In January of 2012, I wrote about Robinson in one of my first posts for the Team Rebound and thought him an excellent draft prospect.  This was largely the consensus, as nobody would have batted an eye had he gone as high as #2 to the Bobcats.  When the Kings got him at #5 he was universally regarded as a steal, as well as perfectly filling a need at the power forward spot for Sacramento.  But despite being perceived as relatively NBA-ready, Robinson has massively disappointed, shooting 42 % with a 45 TS% and a PER around 11. Now, not four months into his rookie season, he has been traded away to Houston for relatively little in return.  
The most disturbing aspect of Robinson’s play is his inability to provide the efficient finishing that promised to be his bread and butter coming into the league.  He shoots only 54% at the rim, a number more befitting a point guard than a jumping jack power forward with a 7’3” wingspan.  Even worse is the fact that Robinson shoots only 51% on cuts according to Synergy.  In theory, these should be high percentage plays in which a big man is cutting to the rim and receiving the ball on the move with the defense at a disadvantage.*  In practice, Robinson struggled to finish over rotating defenders on these plays, often getting his shot blocked or attempting difficult double pumps and reverses.  Another telling aspect is that Robinson only got fouled on 3 of his 41 “cuts,” with only 1 and one.  In fact, he only has 5 and ones all season.  This too is reflective of his habit of going up weak and avoiding contact rather than attacking the rim.  He also appears less explosive than at Kansas, as he has missed quite a few dunks.  Combine that with a general lack of touch (he also shoots only 37% off his offensive rebounds), and Robinson’s finishing has been nothing short of miserable.  How bad is it? Robinson’s “highlights” this year included an announcer actually uttering the words “rejected at the rim by Big Baby.”

*Of note: Synergy’s “cuts” category also features cuts into open space for jumpers, but these encompassed a small minority of his attempts.

Thomas Robinson finds himself in this position far too often

Finishing was an area in which he was expected to contribute right away.**  Even more alarming, interior finishing is not a skill traditionally seen as one that improves as a player ages, although I have not seen a statistical study proving this.  But one would think it unlikely since it depends more on innate skills like touch, hand size, and leaping ability.  I posited that perhaps Robinson has small hands that prevent his finishing inside, but at 10.5” he had one of the larger hand widths at the combine.  Regardless of the cause, Robinson’s ability to improve his finishing is the greatest obstacle between him and a successful NBA career.

**Robinson also gets only 5.5% of his offense as the pick and roll “roll man,” shooting an execrable 27.3% on these attempts.

Robinson’s postups suffer from the same troubling lack of touch.  His quickness and physical skills are obvious, particularly when he starts right and spins back to his left, but he does not finish particularly well even when he is able to shake his man.  He shoots only 25% in the 3-9 foot area, about 15 points below league average.  This is in part due to poor fundamentals on his hook shot.  Even when he gets some separation, the defender is able to bother his hook because he turns too much to the basket and does not get good enough extension.  With his long arms and large hands, he should be able to shoot a hook without having it bothered by other power forwards.  But as it stands now, Robinson shoots only 42% on his 31 postups, and gets fouled only 6% of the time.  Another salient contrast from his time as Kansas is how far out on the floor Robinson usually catches the ball.  He has been unable to get the kind of quick seals and transition postups that helped his efficiency at Kansas.   In general, he really struggles to use his body effectively to either ward off defenders or get fouled.

Another related problem for Robinson is turnovers, as he ranks 70th out of 72 power forwards with a 17.2% turnover ratio.  His spin move, while beautiful when it works, can often send him blindly barrelling into defenders.  He also has a propensity for being stripped down low, often by the man guarding him.  This is another symptom of his inability to keep his body between the ball and his defender.

Finally Robinson has a long way to go as a shooter, at 57% from the line and only 6 of 25 on spot-ups so far this year.  The shooting and (especially) turnovers at least offer some hope for improvement, as they are most often the areas in which young players struggle.  And one would think the turnovers might fall now that he is liberated from the passing-averse Kings and should have more of his offense created by others.*

*Only 50% of Robinson’s buckets are assisted, far too low a percentage for a young power player considering about 61% of baskets are typically assisted league wide.

For now though, the stark truth is that no part of Robinson’s offensive game is above average right now aside from his offensive rebounding, which rates a solid 7th among power forwards at 12.6%.  He must make massive improvements to become an effective offensive player.

Defensively Robinson has been just as atrocious as the rest of his 30th ranked ex-teammates. The Kings are about the same defensively with him on the court.  While Robinson has good physical tools, he has never been much of a shot blocker and averages only 0.4 BPG in his 15 minutes per game.  His quick feet and good strength mean he should mature into an acceptable team defender with the right coaching, which he obviously was not getting in Sacramento.  There is little reason why he cannot evolve into a plus defender (though he's unlikely to ever beTaj Gibson), but he’s nowhere close to it yet.

His season so far has led some to speculate that maybe he just isn’t that good, and it’s possible that his ceiling might be more like Jordan Hill than one befitting the #5 pick in the draft.  Nevertheless, Robinson’s physical profile is still there.  While the past four months have dimmed his star significantly, the fact he spent them in the developmental black hole known as the Kings’ organization provides a potential excuse for his failures to date.  Now that he is with a good organization with a chance for playing time, he needs to show something the rest of the year.

Donatas Motiejunas

The 7’0”, 222 lbs. Motiejunas has only received significant playing time in the last few games, culminating in what is scheduled to be his first career start on February 27 against the Bucks. I had some small familiarity with his game after watching the Rockets coaches work him out at the Eurocamp in Treviso, and my initial impressions have largely proved true in his limited minutes to date.  In that time, Motiejunas’ offensive strengths have correlated almost perfectly with Robinson’s weaknesses.  While he has limited explosion around the rim, Motiejunas has great touch with either hand on short hooks.  He is constantly looking to duck in and catch his defender napping for close-range paint catches.  He’ll often try the same trick after running the floor in transition, or in the fluid situation after setting a pick and roll. He converts these looks at a high rate due to his touch and quick release on his hooks. Despite his relatively thin frame, Motiejunas also sets very solid screens in the pick and roll, then uses his mobility to either finish on the move or get position for a short-range postup.

On more static post-ups, he also shows a high skill level.  He has a nice series of fakes to get into his hook shots, either faking over one shoulder to free himself for a look over the other, or going to a nice up and under move.  While these look awesome when they work (see below), it is a high risk maneuver. If the defender does not bite on the fake Motiejunas can be caught off balance and forced into some ugly attempts.

Motiejunas also appears at home spotting up for 3s in the corners off the Rockets’ pick and roll game, and looks confident and smooth taking shots from there with his relatively quick left-handed release.  While does not yet appear an automatic shooter (a finding corroborated by watching him workout in Treviso), he’s enough of a shooting threat to avoid having his man gum up the works for the Rockets’ ballhandlers.  He’s also adept at making smart cuts along the baseline where appropriate.

The main wart with his offensive game right now is his general lack of power, which manifests in a low free throw rate..  He very rarely powers up inside due to lack of strength and explosion, instead opting to finish with soft hooks.  While these are effective, he should also try to utilize his various fakes to get to the line a little more.  However, it seems that this is unlikely to be a major part of his game unless he gets significantly stronger.  Given the advantages conferred by his quickness, it may not behoove him to go too far in this direction.  On the offensive glass, he gets a slightly below average percentage of offensive rebounds, but does appear to fight relatively hard on the glass.  He gets quite a few offensive boards following up in transition due to his ability to run the floor.

On defense, Motiejunas provides both more and less than might be expected.  He moves his feet surprisingly well, and on at least two occasions was able to take a charge on his own man trying to drive from the perimeter.  He similarly has mobility to be an excellent pick and roll defender as he learns the nuances.  Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends.  His frame lacks the strength to guard straight postups, illustrated during a sequence where he could not keep the Wizards’ Emeka Okafor (hardly a postup star) out of the lane for a few plays in a row.  Most worrisome, his defensive rebound rate of 9.4% (again in limited minutes) is Bargnani-bad.  This is not a skill that promises to improve with age.  In a similar vein, he has only blocked 2 shots all season.  While he may progress into a perfectly adequate team and pick and roll defender, his lack of shot-blocking and defensive rebounding limit his defensive upside.

So Who is the Better Player and Prospect?

It appears quite clear that Motiejunas is the better player at this point.  His shooting can avoid congesting the Rockets’ extremely effective offense, while his finishing in the paint is superior to Robinson’s as well.  In his limited minutes, Motiejunas has a PER of almost 18 and a 60 TS%.  His average turnover rate for a power forward is far less damaging than Robinson’s astronomical rate. Robinson’s TS% is 45% (league average is usually around 55%) and he provides no floor-spacing value.  Robinson did start to shoot 3s by the end of his career at Kansas and will no doubt be encouraged to develop this part of his game by the Rockets, but such efforts are unlikely to bear fruit for some time.

Defensively the two are pretty much a wash--and therein lies the rub.  The Rockets’ offense is so good already that they don’t really need the help on that end.  Ultimately, whoever can develop into the better defender will have the inside track as the Rockets’ long-term starter at the position, assuming they do not upgrade in the off-season via free agency.