The Rockets finally return to action tonight as they look to continue their winning streak after having an extended break. On an unrelated note, I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving (even though there is no basketball on!). With that being said, let’s get to this week’s set of questions!
By “this” I’m sure Forrest is referring to the Rockets’ strong play in November, in which they own the league’s sixth ranked offense, seventh ranked defense, fifth best net rating and are 7-2. For the most part, I believe that this level of play is very reasonable and should be expected moving forward. I would anticipate some defensive regression as the season goes on and the minutes load piles up on players like Tucker, Paul, etc. but at the same time, there is still plenty of room for improvement for the offense.
Paul and Gordon are still struggling with wide open threes, as both are below 32% on such shots. Gordon in general has continued to struggle hitting shots (just 43.7 true shooting percentage), which you have to expect to improve. James Harden’s finishing around the rim still has significant room for improvement as he continues to find his groove. Even fringe rotation players such as Nene and Brandon Knight should provide something offensively if/when they return this season (the if is more focused on Knight, for obvious reasons).
Ennis has been exactly what was expected of him when he was signed. He is knocking down nearly 39% of his threes and grades out as a positive defender according to defensive real plus-minus, while the team’s defense improves when he is on the floor. Meanwhile, Clark has been a revelation on that end, as he owns a defensive box plus-minus of +1.7, while the Rockets’ defense improves by 4.2 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court. Clark is even averaging over 2 blocks per 36 minutes!
Chris Paul is rolling right now, quieting early fears that Father Time had already struck. (The notion that Paul was washed up following a string of poor performances was an odd one – he hadn’t shown the sort of gradual indicators consistent with age.) But the 33-year-old will eventually regress as everyone does. It’s inevitable. After acquiring him via trade from the Clippers, when questions regarding the Rockets’ impending decision over his free agency were a hot discussion point, I had been arguing that I expected Paul to age gracefully like his basketball forebears in John Stockton and Steve Nash. Like those two diminutive, unathletic, but supremely cerebral point guards, I thought Paul’s overall shooting, passing, and IQ would allow him to remain highly effective even into his late 30’s. I still hold that opinion.
But Mike D’Antoni’s current offense revolves around the need for James Harden and Paul to be able to capitalize on mismatches (after switches) in isolation opportunities. As Paul’s quickness diminishes with age, he’ll lose effectiveness in isolation. His midrange pull-up won’t be as much of a threat because defenders won’t be as fearful of him driving past them to the basket.
At some point, in the next few years, D’Antoni will need to change Paul’s role. If he doesn’t want to change his system, Daryl Morey will need to acquire another star. That’s why Jimmy Butler had made so much sense. Most of the focus was upon what he could do on the defensive end. But with Butler as an All-Star caliber offensive option, the team could have reduced Paul’s load and eventually transitioned out entirely to Butler. Butler was the rare player that would have fit almost perfectly on both ends. He’s of course now off the table.
You’ll remember that last week, I mused that Isaiah Hartenstein, despite a team leading net rating, was the weakest link in the rotation and a strong candidate to be replaced in the rotation at some point in the season. After a few more outings, I’m not sure I still stand by that opinion. It’s true that Mike D’Antoni could want a more experienced interior defender. But Hartenstein’s energy has been absolutely infectious, as evidenced by his team-leading +27 in the box score against Golden State on Thursday night. He’s always involved in some manner in the play, whether it be diving to the floor or tipping rebounds. And the most encouraging sign has been his progress on the perimeter on the defensive side of the ball. Against the Warriors, he conceded nothing when switched onto Kevin Durant.
Here, Durant probably does let Hartenstein off the hook, as Marv Albert opines, by not driving the ball, but the young big man is able to keep his balance after a series of crossover dribbles, contesting Durant at the point of release. Result: miss.
This next time, Durant actually drives, but Gary Clark is there to help off of Jerebko.
And on this last face-off, Durant goes left, and Tucker rotates to help, in the event Durant is able to get all the way in. Durant takes the runner and Hartenstein is able to stay with him and contest. Now to be honest, these stops aren’t nearly as dramatic as I recall them being when watching live. There was ample help which could not have been the case had that been Steph Curry or Klay Thompson lined up on the weak side. But the fact that Hartenstein, as a rookie big man, not particularly known for his agility, was even in a position to contest or funnel Durant towards the help is saying something. Along with Gary Clark, I’m really looking forward to watching this rookie develop as the season progresses.