Five Notes on a String: January 20th, 2012


Every Friday, I’ll post this collection of thoughts accumulated over the past week, so named because it gives a perfectly arbitrary number limit to the amount of this rambling madness. Come get some.

  • After a month of pissing and moaning from the base about how the Houston Rockets just can’t bang with the big boys of the NBA, Houston got its chance to do what all good teams should: sweep up the riffraff. As anyone who paid attention this week saw, the team did just that, collecting five wins in a row to completely leave all passers-by clueless as to exactly how worthwhile this Rockets team actually is— a problem these Rockets have had for quite some time. Rarely has the dichotomy been so obvious, though: against +.500 teams, Houston’s been a dismal 3-7, accumulating all of those wins versus good teams at home, but when facing the league’s bottom-feeders, the Rockets have gone an unblemished 5-0. Playing elite teams on the road (and the Rockets have been up against some truly premier talent, including back-to-backs with the Thunder and both Los Angeles teams) has represented this buzzsaw that seems to cut the Rockets off at the knees anytime that they appear to be overreaching from their station in the NBA, that of the perennial eight-seed contender. Still, strangely enough, if the Rockets kept their current pace up, beating every team they’re supposed to beat and going .500 at home against the league’s better squads, while losing everything else, they’d the season at a beyond respectable 37-29 record, one which would almost certainly line them up for the playoffs— and a lot of road games against playoff-quality teams. Ouch. This seems like a silly exercise given the rashness of playoff talk less than a month into this season, but almost a fourth of all games have been played, which, for the Rockets at least, has brought forth some interesting patterns.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Dooley via Flickr

  • Like Houston’s bizarre record against the good and bad, the San Antonio Spurs have spent this season’s first month establishing a hard rule to follow all year: win em in all in San Antonio, lose everywhere else. I thought home court wasn’t supposed to mean much in the NBA? This is supposed to be the sport in which the cold-blooded killers, or stars, would rather hear the silence of thousands of adoring fans than the cheers of their own (or maybe that’s just the always sociopathic Kobe Bryant). No other obvious trends stand out: of the Spurs’ six road games so far this season, only three came on the second night of a back-to-back, one being the Spurs’ last game and first road victory against the Orlando Magic in overtime. Some of the team’s home wins have been on the bad end of back-to-backs as well, and seven of the team’s nine opponents in these home stands have been teams above .500. Though this trend has a high likelihood of lasting the weekend (the Spurs play Sacramento tonight in the AT&T Center, but travel to Houston tomorrow night to face the streaking Rockets), only the tiny sample size and some weird breaks can explain this one. Veteran teams, even ones that rely on notoriously home-court friendly shooters like the Spurs do, shouldn’t be expected to be so definitely shaped by the courts on which they’re playing, and I rather suspect the Spurs are just a very good team that have had some weird hiccups out of town.
  • National television has not been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers in this lockout-shortened season, as “statement game” losses to the Bulls, Blazers and Clippers have left a nation of pundits to ponder the health of Kobe, the competency of Mike Brown and the overall existence of a Lakers bench; Thursday’s exploding failure of a loss to Miami looks no different, immediately prompting the Laker-obsessed media to wonder, “When is Dwight Howard coming already?” There’s oh-so-much wrong with that sentiment, but I’ll just point out the two obvious problems: one, that Dwight Howard can really go just about anywhere he wants, and two, that big kid the Lake Show has manning the post right now isn’t so shabby. The first point is obvious, as Chicago, Atlanta, soon-to-be Brooklyn, the other Los Angeles and just about any team with a general manager that’s watched a game of basketball in the last ten years wants Dwight so badly that he can taste the Executive of the Year award (Mmmm… bronzey). As for Bynum, his efficiency numbers take a little damage from his uptick in usage rate this year (while still not nearly as high as Howard’s), but his stats compare favorably: both have a ridiculously low defensive rating of 93, top the rankings in total rebound rate (with Bynum slightly trailing Howard’s league-topping, eye-popping 24.1 percentage of total available rebounds snagged) and rank among the centers with the highest PERs (my biggest stretching of the truth, in which Howard ranks seventh in the entire league whereas Bynum is only the third-best center with a usage rate over 20). All of this nonsense should be redirected at that aforementioned problem with the purple & gold: the complete and utter lack of depth. Early in Thursday night’s drubbing at the hands of the Heat, Bynum had to miss time thanks to foul trouble, and in those moments, there were no viable options for the Lakers on offense. The Heat loaded up on Pau Gasol while only allowing Bryant contested mid-range jumpers, and the rest was just a reason to click over to the more exciting, if perhaps more depressing, Rockets/Hornets ending (or the entirely more depressing GOP debate). Superstars make champions, sure, but good teams can’t exist completely independent of worthwhile contributors who won’t show up on All-Star teams.

Photo courtesy of "an untrained eye" via Flickr

  • So many Rockets observers warned about the possible dangers of Luis Scola’s contract last offseason, even if they did so feebly, because the end of this deal would come when the highly “experienced” (read: old) Scola would be 35 years old. Most wondered what a tired-looking, even-less-athletic Scola would look like at the end of that run; like some damned Dickensian peer through the looking glass, we’re seeing exactly how ineffectual Scola can be this year. Precipitous drops in just about every meaningful statistical category have come along with Scola’s flaccid start to 2012, including in rebound rate (14.2 in 2010-11 to 10.3), true shooting percentage (53% to 48%) and win shares per 48 minutes (.110 to .016!); nothing quite encapsulates the failures like John Hollinger’s catch-all stat of Player Efficiency Rating, though, which has fallen from a near All-Star-level 18.4 from last year to a significantly below-average 12.7 in this young season. I’m hopeful we’re all just getting a brief, terrifying look into Scola’s future, but if the inevitable fall has already begun, who knows where in the hell he could end up at the end of this contract?
  • I promise I don’t hate the Utah Jazz. Promise. I did cry when John Stockton (and a dirty pick by Karl Malone) ended the Houston Rockets’ last meaningful title run in 1998. I certainly fumed and said several words that almost certainly wouldn’t be found acceptable within the Provo city limits when the Rockets fell in seven (in Houston. This is where I smack my forehead because the tear ducts don’t work anymore) to Utah. No, I don’t hate the Utah Jazz, but I certainly don’t think they’re among the best teams in the West, an echelon in wich an early-season burst has seem to have placed them, despite their paucity of believable NBA guards and anything that would differentiate them from other NBA teams. A middling +1.9 point differential tells part of the story, but Zach Lowe probably put it best earlier this week when he said that he’d be “pleasantly surprised” to see the Jazz come postseason time. NBA pundits, pay attention: records mean something, but Jesus, they don’t mean everything. Watching last night’s game, would anyone reasonably argue that the Jazz are a better team than the Mavericks? Now that that’s settled, would anyone argue the Mavericks are better than about six teams ahead of them in the West? Exactly.

Catch me on Twitter @JacobMustafa and in this weekly notebook every Friday. Thanks for spending your time here, and pay your respects to Etta James, a beautiful talent lost today. Rest in peace.

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