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Houston Rockets vs Portland Trailblazers: Some thoughts about the benches, Harden’s defense, and adjustments

First, the benches

Click for a full-sized, interactive version

Click for a full-sized, interactive version

At the end of the regular season, the Portland Trailblazers was the most bench-allergic team in the league. Portland played its bench 29.55% of the time, or dead last in the league. I’ve noted that, given the bench data, the Golden State Warriors and Trailblazers are in precarious states because they both play their benches very little, and their benches aren’t very good. One injury to an overworked starter portended disaster. One Andrew Bogut injury later, I feel pretty proud of my prediction (though bad for the Warriors). And while the Blazers might not be injured, they are most definitely tired. Take a look at Portland’s field goal attempts and their opponents’ over the course of the season.

Portland The Blazers accelerated their pace through January, but have played significantly more slowly since. Their opponents, who were once being run off the court to the tune of four fewer field goal attempts per game in January, have now turned the tables and are out running the Blazers. Think the Blazers lack of bench utilization has something to do with these trends?

In any other situation, the Blazers would be in position to be out run/out lasted in the playoffs. However, it just so happens that their opponent under-utilizes their bench almost as much. Houston played its bench 31.15% of the time, or 3rd to last (the Clippers are 2nd to last). The difference though, as it has been all year, is that Houston’s bench is actually quite good, whereas Portland’s is not. Houston’s bench has a net rating of +3 per 100 possessions, good enough for 5th in the league, behind the Spurs, Thunder, Mavs, and Heat. Portland’s bench has a net rating of -1.9 per 100 possessions, well below the league average of -0.95.

I’ve gone on record as saying I believe the Rockets need to utilize their bench more given how good it is compared to the every other team’s and the rest it would afford the starters. After injury scares to just about every Rocket, particularly Beverley, Howard, and Parsons, I’m continuously flummoxed by the Rockets reluctance to play their bench. If game one between these two teams is any indication, whoever makes it out of the series will be too gassed to put up much resistance next round. Take a look at this chart.

RP

This chart shows the percentage of a team’s minutes played by the team’s bench, both during the regular season and the playoffs (only playoff teams). For Houston and Portland this year, the playoffs minutes are just based upon one game, an admittedly small sample but one that’s pretty aligned with their regular season trends. As you can see, both teams are setting a new [low] bar when it comes to using their benches. This is even more striking considering that four players were in foul trouble the whole game before eventually fouling out. Here’s another chart.

DifferenceThis chart shows the percentage difference in bench usage between regular season and playoffs (regular season minutes – playoff minutes / regular season minutes). The general trend certainly seems to be tilting towards using bench players less and less, and once again Houston and Portland are running far ahead of the pack, using their benches over 18% and 21% less, respectively, than in the regular season. In other words, these two teams use their benches less than almost everyone else, and in the playoffs have decreased their bench minutes more than everyone else. This series is likely going 6-7 games. The likely opponent for the victor is the Spurs, who led the league in bench usage. None of this bodes well.

Harden’s defense

James Harden has lately received quite a bit of criticism regarding his lackluster defense, most of it deserved. A now infamous Youtube video shows him either swatting aimlessly at an opponent who has driven by him, or slowly wandering into the paint (but not leaving it) after an opponent has cut across the floor and is in position for an open jump shot.

ESPN’s recap of game 1 alluded to a stat that surprised me a bit, so I double checked to verify its veracity. Out of 160 players who have played at least 50 games and at least 25 minutes per game, James Harden ranks 159th in distance traveled per 48 minutes at 2.9 miles, just barely ahead of the less-than-spry Paul Pierce. In comparison, his backcourt teammate, the energetic Pat Beverley, ranks 8th at 3.5 miles. Also worth noting is that three Spurs are in the top 10, Parker, Leonard, and Belinelli. They have been the beneficiaries of receiving the most rest in the league, while Harden has received almost the least. He might also be responsible for guarding them (especially Belinelli) in the next round if all the chips fall into place. Again, this does not bode well.

Enough digression. Houston Rockets followers just have to live with Harden not being the world’s most active defender. To some extent, that’s OK. Not everyone is. But there’s a line of tolerance that needs to be met, and at least mine is wearing very thin. Not only does the data point to Harden being almost the least active player in the league (at least Parker, for all his defensive deficiencies, runs around a lot), but coping with Harden’s lack of activity puts a lot of stress on team defense. Late in the season, the Rockets adopted a strategy of putting Harden on the opponent’s post man in the low block, usually the power forward. This “hides” Harden on defense because he doesn’t have to chase wing players on the perimeter, which he doesn’t do, nor does he have to constantly stay in front of dribble penetrators (he just swipes at them after they’ve passed him).

Hiding Harden in this way throws off the defensive assignments. As the shooting guard, he’s not just trading assignments with the small forward (Parsons), but with the power forward. It’s one thing for a wing to switch to another wing, it’s another for a power forward to switch onto a wing. Parsons can try guarding the guy across from Harden, but Jones/Motiejunas/et al will have a much harder time guarding the guy across from Parsons. This necessitates a lot of small ball using Parsons as the 4 so the defensive assignments can remain somewhat feasible. Against some teams, this might work out. Against Portland, it means Lamarcus Aldridge finds himself being guarded by a small forward. In extreme cases, Howard might switch onto Aldridge, but that takes Howard away from the paint and now Parsons is left trying to block out Robin Lopez.

See what happens? There’s a crescendo of actions that results from trying to hide Harden on defense, and none of them work out well. It also severely limits the possibility of pairing Howard and Asik, which was a much talked about strategy that was used an entirety of 4 minutes or something in game 1.

Adjustments

In five games against the Rockets, Aldridge has averaged 30.6 points and 16 rebounds. Everyone who is saying “oh comeon, it’s not like he can do that every game,” you’re wrong. He has been doing that every game and will continue to do so because he’s a nightmare matchup for the Rockets. What did Einstein say about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result? If the Rockets keep guarding Aldridge the same way they have been and simply expect him to be average, they’re insane.

Would it be so horrible to send some guys off the bench (I’m thinking Motiejunas, specifically) just to see what happens when they’re on the floor with Aldridge? I mean really, could it get much worse? In our round table, pretty much everyone said they expected a drop off from Jones because of the matchup against Aldridge. Yet, Jones played most of the game and Aldridge went all-world on the Rockets, which is just par for the course. Again, definition of insanity…

I also think that the Rockets can take a page out of the Blazers book. They sent Wes Matthews into Harden’s grill, literally. He stuck his butt into Harden and forced Harden to play do his least favorite thing, play active defense. I have a feeling that was more for making Harden expend energy purposes than for putting points on the board purposes (though that also happened). I wonder if the Rockets could use the pick and roll to switch Aldridge onto a smaller perimeter player and run him around on defense a little bit. Or, better yet, sub in Motiejunas (use the bench!) to stretch Aldridge to the perimeter, where he’s less comfortable and has to move more.

Remember, Portland is the most tired team in the league. Substituting more than them and making them run is to the Rockets advantage.

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About the author: Richard Li is an independent researcher and consultant. He likes numbers and pictures.

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