At the time of writing, November 23, the Houston Rockets sit at 9-5, and tied for the fourth best record in the Western Conference.  Their .643 winning percentage projects out to a 53-29 final finish, with most of their games having been played without starting point guard Patrick Beverley.  Were the season to end today, James Harden would have the second highest odds of winning the league’s MVP award.  Newcomers Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have contributed, and Clint Capela and Sam Dekker (and K.J. McDaniels)–young players from whom the team desperately needed contributions–have each broken out in a big way.  By almost all measures, the season to date has gone best-case-scenario for these Rockets.

Thus far, the Rockets are fifth in the league in shooting, and fifth in three point percentage (19th last season, despite attempting the second most).  The Rockets are leading the league in attempts thus far from downtown.

[read more…]

in musings

For as long as I’ve been watching this team, especially since the time I’ve been covering it here on this page, in the minds of the fans and Houston sports commentariat, there has been some understood path towards contention.  As far-fetched as the plan may have been, its existence was settling, evidence of greater hope and a sense of direction.  Hakeem, Clyde, and the gang would hold on for one last run.  Steve, Cuttino, and then Yao would grow into a power, and then after them, McGrady and Yao – maybe they’d stay healthy.  Later, the hope was to pair Chris Bosh with Yao, but we know how that ended, and we’re still waiting after all these years to get back that iPad.

The Harden era always involved some eye towards free agency, driven by public comments regarding future cap flexibility.  First, the [successful] target was Dwight Howard.  Then, Carmelo Anthony, Bosh again, and LaMarcus Aldridge.  Daryl Morey’s focus was squarely pinpointed upon finding that elusive third star to complete his Big Three.

[read more…]

in essays

Can James Harden lead the league in assists?

I’ve been writing about the prospect of James Harden winning the MVP this season for some time now, expressing my belief in his chances.  Amin Elhassan of, in this week’s Truehoop podcast, posed the question as to whether we would be seeing, in Harden this year, the first player since Nate Archibald to lead the league in both scoring and assists.  The latter possibility was one I had not yet seriously considered, despite recognizing the odds of an overall Harden explosion across the board.

But a quick glance at the statistical league leaders reveals Harden sitting atop the group in assists per game at 12.0.  The only other usual suspect is Chris Paul sitting at third at 7.0.  The cynic of course will point out that all of the league’s brightest stars are playing under severe minutes restrictions, but Harden himself is averaging “just” 31.7 minutes per game, a figure that will normalize closer to 40 when the games begin to count.

Digging into the weeds, in three games this preseason, at a 29.0 usage percentage, Harden is assisting on 47.4% of his teammates’ field goals.  He’s averaging 35.2 assists per 100 of his own possessions, with an assist to turnover ratio of 2.57.  Last year, for the regular season, Harden had a usage rate of 32.5%, assisted on 35.4% of his teammates’ field goals, and averaged 20.6 assists per 100 of his own possessions, with an assist to turnover ratio of 1.64.  Overall, he averaged 7.5 assists per game in 38.1 minutes.

This is the very definition of sample size theater, particularly when including a game against the Shanghai Sharks, but so far, with a lower usage, Harden is assisting more than he did previously.  That’s partly because he has better shooters surrounding him (Ryan Anderson last season averaged 2 threes per game at 37% and Eric Gordon averaged 2.5 threes at 38%) and partly because D’Antoni’s offense is putting him in better positions to produce.  While the ball is still in Harden’s hands, so far, its with his teammates in motion, rather than watching him dribble the air out of the ball.

in musings

What impact will Nene have this season?

Before David Stern nixed the deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the L.A. Lakers, (in a move that raised eyebrows across the legal ethics community), Daryl Morey’s masterplan for rebuilding his team involved pairing Nene with center Pau Gasol.  As we know now, that never happened, James Harden is a Rocket, and the rest is history.  After what seems like a decade later, Nene is finally a Rocket, now at age 34, after having spent the past five seasons in Washington.  The big man has been drawing raves in camp thus far, with Mike D’Antoni even calling him a top-5 center when healthy.  I personally was ecstatic upon hearing news of the signing, given the incredible value of the deal.  Even despite his age and injury concerns, one would think a player of Nene’s caliber would be able to garner an offer higher than the $2.9 million at which he agreed, especially in this market.

But he’s here now, at least for this season, and that is a boon given the team’s need to bridge the gap between Dwight Howard and Clint Capela.  I would not be shocked to see Nene starting on opening night, at least long enough until Capela is ready to take over the job and demonstrate that he can play starter’s minutes without incurring early fouls.

What can the Rockets expect from Nene this year?  He still averaged 17.3 points per 36 minutes, and shot 54% from the field last seasons.  47% of his shots came around the basket, 18% came between 3 and 9 feet, 13%  came between 10 and 15 feet, and 21% came between 16 feet and the 3 point line.  He shot 70% near the basket, 45% between 3 and 9 feet, 39% between 10 and 15 feet, and 39% between 16 feet and the 3 point line.  The Rockets have already talked a lot about Nene initiating the offense out of the high post.

While Clint Capela and Nene both had a defensive rating of 103 last season, Capela averaged 16.7 rebounds per 100 possessions, compared to the 11.8 per 100 possessions which Nene posted.  Capela ate up 18.7% of the rebounds in his vicinity, compared to just 13.2% for Nene.  Capela also grabbed 23.2% of the defensive rebounds available during his playing time, while Nene brought down just 18.7%.  I’ve written extensively in support of my premise that the Rockets would not miss Dwight Howard this season defensively and at the rim.  However, it appears Nene will not provide much help in the one department where the Rockets will miss Howard – on the boards.  That’s perfectly fine for essentially a vet minimum acquisition.  I just wanted to make that point clear in case anyone had any delusions of grandeur.  Rebounding will still be a problem.

Overall, this was a great pickup, even factoring in the expected 20 games Nene will likely miss due to injury.  If he can further mentor Capela and buy the team some time until the third-year center is ready, the Rockets will get great return on their investment.

in musings

Mike D’Antoni announced earlier in the week that James Harden would be the team’s point guard this season.  In the follow-up, with commentators pointing out that nothing had changed, and that Harden already had been the team’s point guard, one key point was lost.  In fact, I wrote about this back in July when speculation first began to mount about putting the ball directly in Harden’s hands.

…the significance in a positional change for Harden is not about Harden himself, but rather about who he plays beside and about the offense as a whole.  The distinction as to whether Harden is the actual point guard or just serving as one is not of relevance – he’ll function roughly the same within the offense.  But if he’s bringing the ball up too, it frees the team to start an actual shooting guard beside him, like Eric Gordon, rather than someone who can just passably hit open 3’s, like Patrick Beverley.  It makes the offense that much more dangerous.

More from that July piece:

As you see, the shift would not be about changing Harden’s role, but rather making the offense even more dynamic by putting another scorer in the lineup.  Under the current model, the Rockets are reduced to playing an inferior basketball player in Beverley just simply because he can dribble the ball up the court.

We know now that Gordon starting is out of the picture.  Beverley will get the nod as the starting shooting guard.  But with one of the game’s greatest players locked up long term through his prime, and with this current iteration of the Rockets probably not a contender, I’m thinking big picture, beyond just this year.  As I wrote in the July piece, this positional shift, if even just in superficial appearances, holds real ramifications upon roster flexibility.  If Harden by design is bringing the ball up, the player next to him doesn’t need to carry that skillset.  This, in essence, expands the field of human beings available to start next to James Harden.  You don’t have to find someone who can shoot threes, defend, dribble, and be content sharing the load, a description that probably only fits Patrick Beverley.  You can mix and match and find someone who influences the greatest aggregate impact upon total net rating.  Maybe it is someone like Patrick Beverley who, as D’Antoni pointed out, can sometimes bring it up to ease the burden.  But maybe its someone who is 6’8, who, while not being able to dribble, can impact the team on the boards.  Or maybe, as I suggested in the July piece, it is someone like Gordon who, while a poor defender, is such a good shooter that his presence makes up for the defensive deficiency.  We know it won’t be Gordon himself, but going forward, you have the option of looking at real shooting guards who might not be as bad defensively as Gordon.

Beverley is elite defensively, finishing 5th last season among point guards in DRPM.  And he shot 40% on 3’s.  But that figure represented a career high for Beverley, after shooting around 36% from long distance the previous two seasons.  He also only shot 21% on 3’s last postseason.  If Beverley’s 40% shooting remains consistent or trends upwards, he’s probably the team’s best bet next to Harden going forward.  But if that number regresses back towards his career norms, management would behoove itself to seek out an alternative, especially given that he provides nothing else offensively.  (For instance, look at the disparity in pull-up three point shooting percentage between Gordon and Beverley, cited in the July piece – 48% vs. 35%; adding that skillset into the lineup would ease the burden on Harden from having to create everything).

One last point: aside from the personnel ramifications I just outlined, I don’t think its entirely accurate to say nothing will change on the court.  I think there are going to be real effects from giving Harden the ball from the beginning.  D’Antoni himself mentioned the energy expended from fighting ball denial in the half-court.  But ontop of that, I just think this change will affect overall mentality.  You’re eliminating an inefficiency and in essence, cutting the fat.  Harden is now going to be getting it and immediately going, straight into attack mode.  There won’t be that split second lost from the big man deciding whether to give the ball to Beverley (or Lawson).

This season already figured to be intriguing.  But if James Harden is going to have the ball in his hands even more, with the shooting this team added in the offseason, the Rockets will really put up some offensive numbers.

in essays

Follow Red94 for occasional rants, musings, and all new post updates