(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Article written by Itamar Roitman (@itamar1710)
This is part of a series of articles in which @itamar1710 will write about the Houston Rockets’ off-season.
Click HERE to read about the state of small ball.
Up next, about the guards the Houston Rockets could acquire in free agency.
In the playoffs, Austin Rivers and his questionable decision-making became unplayable, and the Rockets role players were forced to do more than they’re accustomed to against the Lakers’ unusual and effective defensive game plan, a task they failed to accomplish. More creators and guys who are capable of attacking off the bounce were needed.
Here I’ll write about some of the guards the Rockets could sign in free agency, going from the most to the least expensive options.
If you’re looking for a steady and reliable point guard presence who can run an offense, there isn’t a better choice for the MLE than DJ Augustin.
D.J is a good half-court playmaker, who is very capable of operating in the pick and roll and creating good looks for his teammates, whether it’s outside of the 3 point line or closer to the basket. His pick and roll scoring and pull up shooting, although that took a step back this past season, is good enough to force teams to consider him a scoring threat and go over his screens, which allows him to get downhill and create for others. In the current NBA, a player’s reputation as a shooter is often a bigger deal than his actual shooting ability, and that is something that Augustin will always have in his favor.
His ability to create off the bounce will be a very welcome addition to this Rockets team, that had been highly reliant on Harden and Paul\Westbrook in the D’antoni era, largely due to the fact they didn’t have any other choice.
Augustin has consistently been a top-notch catch and shoot guy over the last couple of years, shooting over 40% on C&S 3s in each of the last 3 seasons. He’s not someone who you run plays for to shoot 3s off movement, but there are very few better floor spacers and shooters at the point guard positions.
Augustin is able to use his experience and intellect to find gaps and holes within the defense, and also to get to the free-throw line. His free throw rate (number of FT attempts per FG attempts) of 39.3% ranked 7th among point guards this past season, which, occupied with his 89% free throw shooting, strongly boosted his efficiency. His manipulation tactics should help his offensive game age well as he turns 33 in a couple of days.
However, although he might be the best offensive player the Rockets could realistically acquire in free agency, his defense is about what you’d expect from a light 5’11 guard with a short wingspan. He’s a pretty smart team defender, but no matter how hard he tries, he often doesn’t have the ability to stop the opposing player, whether it’s Stephen Curry or T.J. McConnell.
One concern about Augustin is that while he’s very good at the half-court, he’s not a good transition player, which doesn’t pan out well for how the Rockets like to play. At 33 years old, there is the worry that he wouldn’t look as good playing for a fast-paced team, especially if he won’t have the ball in his hands as much.
He has already spent a season playing with Westbrook back in OKC, putting up some of his worst numbers, and immediately flourishing afterward in Denver.
Overall, DJ Augustin would be a fantastic get for the Rockets, as he’d provide a significant offensive boost off the bench and great floor spacing, but considering the Rockets would have to use their full non tax payer MLE to have a chance at him, they might be better off going after someone else first, who is better defensively and is more accustomed to playing at a high pace.
For more info about DJ Augustin, check out this video:
2. Alec Burks.
Some Rockets fans may remember Burks from the 2nd round of the 2018 playoffs, when he gave the Rockets fits off the bench, using his quickness and hot 3 point shooting to score 17 points in a Game 2 win and 22 points in Game 5. He is 2 years older now, but he’s coming off his best season as a pro, averaging 15 points and 3 assists per game on 56 TS%, shooting 38.5% from 3 on nearly 5 attempts a game.
The journeyman actually had a verbal agreement with the Thunder to play with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, before changing course after the George trade and signing with the Golden State Warriors, and then eventually getting traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for a bunch of 2nd round picks.
While I wouldn’t pay much attention to the raw numbers Alec Burks put up playing for the tanking Warriors, I am impressed by his sudden jump in pull up shooting, increasing his 3PT% by 10% from the previous season to 39%, on a fairly significant volume (2.5 attempts a game,).
Even if his newfound pull up 3 point shooting isn’t sustainable, he is a reliable catch and shoot threat, shooting 39 3PT% on those looks over the last 2 years, and he adds value with his ability to attack in multiple ways, whether it’s in the pick and roll, against closeouts or even with the occasional isolation, grading out well in all 3 play types last season. He has the athleticism to go all the way to the rim and to add a sense of unpredictability he loves, even to a fault sometimes, to pull up for mid range jumpers.
Burks has always been underrated at getting to the free-throw line, averaging a 37 FTR% over his career, and this past year was no different as he ranked 52nd in FTR among qualified players and 19th among guards. The numbers and film paint Burks as a very versatile scorer and an underrated offensive player- the type that always seems to kill your team, and just your team.
Burks is capable of some playmaking as well. Don’t expect him to throw dimes like he’s James Harden, but he did have a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio last season. He’s a score-first player that will make the right read if it’s open to him.
On the defensive side of the floor, Burks is a fine 1v1 defender. He’s not the guy you want guarding the opposing team’s best player, but at 6’6 with a 6’10 wingspan, he won’t be hunted on that end. He gives solid effort when guarding the ball handler and his tools allow him to hang with the guys you’d want him to guard.
Off the ball, he’s sometimes unaware of what his matchup is doing, and he doesn’t have a knack for anticipating passes or thinking a couple moves ahead. Overall, I’d say he has a neutral defensive impact.
Alec Burks is a guy any team would love to have off the bench as a versatile offensive spark plug, who could change the course of a game. He might ask for more than the minimum salary this time around, but if Russell Westbrook can recruit him again, Burks’ off the bounce scoring could make a difference for Houston.
For more info about Alec Burks, check out this video:
Every off-season there are a couple of guys whose contributions are being dismissed due to playing for bad teams, until they sign with playoffs teams and are finally treated as the impact players that they are. Shaquille Harrison could very much be one of those players
If I had to quantify 1 NBA player as an “energy bomb”, that guy would be Shaquille Harrison. At 6’4 with a long wingspan, the guy just wreaks havoc whenever he’s on the floor, which, admittingly, wasn’t a common occurrence last season, as he only averaged 11 minutes per game. Possible explanations could be the Bulls’ log jam at the guard position, and the Bulls coach being Jim Boylen.
His 3.9 STL+BLK per 36 number is the best in the NBA for non-bigs. Using per 36 numbers for a player who only averaged 11 MPG could be a bit dangerous, but his per 36 numbers in his 10 games as a starter, in which he averaged 24.4 MPG, are very impressive and similar: 13.4 PPG, 6.8 REB, 4.4 AST, 2.7 STL, 1.6 BLK .
Other than guarding the passing lanes and blocking shots as the help defender, Shaq is an absolute pest when guarding the ball. He is one of the best point-of-attack defenders in the NBA, and he navigates screens very well. I wouldn’t call him a shut-down 1v1 defender, as his aggression can be used against him in isolation by offensive stars, but he always makes the opposing player work very hard for it, and that’s often the best you can do.
I believe that if he ever gets enough minutes, he could make an all-defensive team. However, to get there, he’ll have to improve his offensive game enough so he can stay on the floor for longer stretches.
His shooting will always be the swing skill that determines his offensive impact, and so far, it hasn’t been very promising. After shooting 23% and 27% from down town in his first 2 NBA seasons, respectively, he shot 38% this season on just 42 attempts. He will hit the open 3, but is easily bothered by a contest and I doubt he’ll ever become a respectable shooter.
He is very effective in transition, often being too quick for the defense to catch, but he doesn’t have a particularly good touch around the basket and is sometimes out of control. He is able to create some opening for teammates at times using his speed, but his lack of offensive game in the half court makes me doubt he’ll ever be a starter, although his positive overall impact is already felt.
Shaquille Harrison is a very similar player to David Nwaba, who the Rockets picked up in July on a 2-year deal. If Houston is committed to housing a top 10 defense, better defensive personnel is needed. The foundation is already there, why not go all-in on creating one of the most disruptive teams in NBA history? The Rockets could do much worse than Shaquille Harrison, who would become an instant fan favorite.
4. Damyean Dotson.
Undrafted out of Houston, Damyean Dotson has gone under the radar of many NBA fans, but the 26-year-old is now a free agent for the first time of his career, and many teams should be interested.
Dotson’s best trait is probably his shooting. He has shot >36% from 3 the last 2 seasons, excelling in catch and shoot situations as he shot 39% on C&S 3s last season with his slightly-awkward-looking jumpshot. He didn’t get plenty of open looks on the Knicks due to their lack of a downhill threat, often being tasked to create for himself for others.
He isn’t a consistent pull up 3 point shooter, but Dotson has still been good as a scorer in the pick and roll over the last 2 seasons, ranking in the 95th percentile in the 2018-2019 season and in the 70th percentile in the 2019-2020 season. He has a nice touch from the mid-range area, shooting 45% from there on decent volume, and he loves creating space for himself with step backs and side steps to rise up for jumpers.
However, despite his shooting ability, Dotson has been hovering below 53 TS% for the last 2 seasons. He settles for way too many tough shots, especially inside the 3 point line, and he rarely gets to the free-throw line or all the way to the rim. He is currently a bad shot taker, but not yet a bad shot maker.
His playmaking leaves a lot to be desired as well. He can make some decent reads, but he misses open teammates quite frequently, and he doesn’t have a good-enough decision making to warrant high usage. Playing for a team like the Rockets, where he wouldn’t be asked to do as much offensively, should help increase his efficiency to above-average levels.
Dotson competes hard on the defensive side of the ball, which isn’t something that you can say about every Knick. He often takes the toughest matchup on the floor and tries to make life as difficult as possible for the guy he’s guarding. At 6’5, he is sometimes limited by his size, especially when he tries to guard bigger players, but his effort alone makes him a slight plus on that end.
Damyean Dotson is a pretty similar player to Eric Gordon, in some facets. His shot selection is questionable and he leaves a lot on the table, but if you can get a good shooter with a high defensive motor at 6’5, you take him- especially if he’s just 26 and has more room to grow and mature.
He is a restricted free agent, so it’s possible the Knicks match the offer the Rockets throw their way, but seeing how he came off the bench and only averaged 17 MPG, it’s possible the Houston native will come back home this off-season.
5. Raul Neto.
There’s a decent chance that the 4 other free agency candidates listed in this article ask for a bit too much than what the Rockets are willing to offer. Raul Neto, however, is someone who will certainly be available for the veteran minimum, and the Rockets might be interested in his contributions.
Neto’s game, just like his stats, doesn’t make you jump out of your seat. He’s a smart player with good vision who makes the right read, but don’t expect him to pass through tight windows all that often. He’s a very accurate shooter off the catch, but he’ll rarely hit pulls up 3s in the pick and roll. He’s a steady, reliable presence at point guard, which is something the Rockets could use.
Below is a comparison between 2 players. 1 is Denver’s Monte Morris, who is wildly regarded as one of the premier backup guards in the NBA, and the other is Raul Neto.. Pretty similar, right?
I’m not saying that with more minutes, Neto would give you the same production and impact as someone like Morris, and if you expect too much out of him you will be disappointed, but Neto’s solid and consistent play has value, and he is far from the worst option to have backing up your star guards, especially in the regular season.
He is slithery getting to the basket and can set up the big man for some easy points. If left open, he’s more than capable of making the defense pay. His biggest offensive flaw is his lack of a scoring game, which lets the defense guard him more conservatively on the ball, and that makes it harder for him to find openings for teammates.
When it comes to defense, Neto is limited but better than expected. He tries hard enough, often pressing his matchup full court, that he isn’t as exploitable on that end as some might think. Nonetheless, when you’re 6’1, 180, you will be targeted on that end, and naturally unable to guard some of the more talented offensive players in the NBA.
Neto is fine on the defensive end in the regular season, but the playoffs are all about matchups, and more often than not, his lack of defensive versatility renders him unplayable in the post-season against teams with elite perimeter play.
While he wouldn’t be your first option off the bench, Raul Neto is an ideal 4th guard as someone who can create for teammates against 2nd units, space the floor well and pressure opposing guards. If the Rockets fail to land a bigger, more exciting name at the guard position, the Brazilian would be a good fall-back option.
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