When the 2012 NBA draft rolled around, there was no one in particular the Mavs were after. Sitting at No. 17 and one season removed from a championship, they didn't see much chance of securing a player who would make an instant impact. They ended up moving back seven spots in the first round, something you never see NBA teams do, in order to pick up a project (Jared Cunningham) and get two second-round picks (Jae Crowder and Bernard James) to fill out the back of their roster. The Cavs moved up to take Tyler Zeller. Terrence Jones, who had once been projected to go into the lottery, fell one spot further to the Houston Rockets at No. 18.
The Rockets probably didn't have a grand plan for Jones. He was the fourth power forward they had drafted in the last three years and he spend the majority of his rookie season sitting behind Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris and Thomas Robinson. From a short-term perspective, Jones wasn't all that more valuable than Crowder, a senior who carved out a spot for himself right away as a 3-and-D player. Unlike the Mavs, who fancied themselves as contenders and were focused on maximizing the present with Dirk Nowitzki moving deeper into his 30s, the Rockets had the luxury of looking at Jones as a growth stock, a guy who had only spent two years in college and who still had a lot of room to grow as a player.
Three years later, Houston's patience with Jones has started to pay off in a big way, as he was one of the primary factors in their five-game first-round victory over Dallas. To be sure, the biggest difference between the Rockets and the Mavs was the presence of two superstars in their prime (James Harden and Dwight Howard) as well as all the veterans who opted to take less money to surround them (Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Jason Terry). Jones numbers in the series don't jump off the page -- 12 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists on 41.5 percent shooting -- but he came up huge in Game 1 (19 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists) as well as Game 5 (15 points and 5 rebounds, including a few huge baskets in the fourth quarter to close out the game).
At 6'9 240 with a 7'2 wingspan, Jones was part of a phalanx of uber-athletic big men the Rockets sent in waves over the course of the series. They started the game with Jones and Howard and then brought Josh Smith and Clint Capela off the bench -- all guys who could move their feet on defense, attack you on the offensive glass and finish over the top of you at the front of the rim. Jones, like Smith, also has the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands, either by pushing the ball on the break or attacking the rim off the pick-and-roll and throwing the alley-oop.
One of the hidden storylines for the Rockets in this series was McHale gradually learning to trust Jones. I thought the biggest difference for them in Game 4 was that he spent a lot of time going 4-out with Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer at PF, negating the size advantage they had upfront. In Game 5, McHale played Jones more with Smith on the second unit instead of going to Capela. Jones has the versatility to play either as the 4 or the 5 so the Rockets really only need a three-man front-court rotation in these playoffs.
Just as important for Houston is what Jones means going forward. Still only 23 years old, he looks like he will be a starting PF in the NBA for the next decade. The biggest question they will have is how much they should pay him in the off-season, given that he has never had a usage rating higher than 18. Do they want to pay him like he could be a third option on an elite team or would they rather keep him in a smaller role and try to spend money on a more established player to put around Harden and Howard? If they don't want to commit big money to Jones, he could be a target for the Mavs next off-season, a la Chandler Parsons.
The irony in Dallas pursuit of Parsons last summer is they could have just taken him with their own pick in 2011, which they decided to flip for Rudy Fernandez, even though they had no commitment that he would stay in the U.S. and not return to Spain. The Rockets drafted Parsons in the second round, developed him into a high-level starter at SF over three years and then decided they didn't think he was worth the $15 million a year the Mavs had to shell out to sign him away in restricted free agency. When you draft and develop players, you get the right of first refusal in RFA and you have a lot more options in terms of how you want to build your roster.
Jones isn't the only PF in Houston who would make sense for the Mavs as they look for the guy who will ultimately replace Dirk. Donatas Motiejunas is another young big man the Rockets picked up in the middle of the first round whom they have developed into a quality NBA player. A back injury knocked him out of the playoffs or he could have been huge as a fourth big man off the bench in this series. You can argue about whether Jones or Motiejunas has more potential but what it's going to come down to is Houston will keep the one they like the most and teams like Dallas will be given the opportunity to pick through whatever they don't want. That's the long-term position you put yourself in when you don't value the draft.
So while the Mavs try to put together a whole new roster in the off-season, the Rockets will have the luxury of operating from a position of strength. They have two huge assets -- one of Jones/Motiejunas and the Pelicans' first-round pick from the Omer Asik trade -- and they will be ready to pounce if a high-level guy becomes available on the trade market. The great tragedy of the last four seasons in Dallas is the Mavs haven't been out of the first round once and they've had ample opportunity to grab high-level players in the middle of the first round yet they have pretty much nothing when it comes to young pieces that other teams would be interested in. They are just going to have to hope that Cuban's song and dance works better on guys like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan than it has on the big name free agents the last few summers.
It's not like Cuban doesn't recognize this is a problem. It was only two summers ago that he brought over Gersson Rosas from the Rockets to be the Mavericks' GM. From Rosas' point of view, the idea seemed to be an acknowledgement from Cuban that Dallas had fallen behind the times in terms of valuing the draft and developing young players and they were bringing in one of the key figures in one of the best draft and develop franchises in the NBA to rectify that. It's hard to say what was going on from the Mavs' point of view, as Rosas only lasted three months on the job before falling victim to some sort of Byzantine power struggle that ended up in him resigning and moving back down I-45.
From the outside, it seems like the best analogy for the Rosas debacle is when a body rejects a transplant. It's really difficult to transfer an organ from one body to another because the other body, even if it's very unhealthy, has developed its own unique ecosystem for how things work internally and it is designed to repel foreign antibodies, even if they are theoretically supposed to be helping. Under Cuban and Nelson, the Mavs have been doing things around here for a certain way for a very long time and they are justifiably a little set in their ways. No one believed in them before the start of the 2011 season and they won a championship. Haven't they made the playoffs for 13 of the last 14 seasons? Aren't they one of the most respected organizations in the league? Why should they have to listen to some 35-year old with his own way of doing things? What do the Rockets know anyway? As Cuban told ESPN in an interview before the start of the playoffs, that's a predictable team who depends on Harden bailing them out.
What was lost amidst all the back-and-forth between him and Daryl Morey is that it's not about winning a news cycle or even winning an off-season and getting a leg up in the short term. Building an elite team in the modern NBA requires long-term vision, the ability to look 3-4 years down the road and the patience not to hurry the process along when things aren't going your way immediately. Just look at how the Warriors have developed Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes or how the Bulls have turned Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson into high-level players. The equivalent of what Dallas has been doing over the last few years has been chasing get rich quick schemes.
Forget Jones, Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley, maybe the three biggest feathers in the cap for Houston's ability to target undervalued young guys and develop them into good NBA players. All you have to do to see the difference between how the Mavs and Rockets treat young players is to look at Clint Capela and Dwight Powell. Was Capela a huge factor for Houston in this series? No. Did he hold his own when Howard was in foul trouble? For the most part, yes. Powell probably could have held his own too, but the Mavs were more concerned with giving Amar'e Stoudemire all the minutes he could handle because he was a vet who had been through the wars.
What they don't seem to realize is the only reason veterans have been through the wars is some team took a chance on them a long time ago. Capela should benefit from these early minutes and develop into a solid backup 5 over the next 2-3 years while Amar'e will probably be in China at that point. Maybe Dwight Powell will be good or maybe he won't, but when you are losing in the first-round every season there's no reason you should kid yourself about how you can't afford to look long-term or think big picture. The Rockets are proof that a well-run organization can walk and chew gum at the same time in terms of trying to win now while still keeping one eye on the future.
Houston won the first round series in 2015 because of decisions they made in 2012, 2013 and 2014. It took time for Terrence Jones to become who he is now. Just look at how his 3-poing percentage has improved in each season in the league -- that isn't an accident. They have been working with him on his jumper because they know it will make him a more valuable player. Dallas was making decisions in those seasons to maximize the results in the moment and worrying about the future when it got there. The problem for them is the next morning always comes and the bill always comes due for decisions you made the night before. The scary thing is the Rockets are the 2 seed and they should be even better next season because of internal improvement -- the Mavs are the 7 seed and they are going to have move mountains in free agency just to stay where they are. The gap between these two franchises is getting bigger, not shrinking.
If living well is the best revenge, Gersson Rosas has to be feeling pretty good right now.