Rahat: So as you all hopefully are aware, I’ve been writing a ‘what went wrong’ series on the Houston Rockets’ 2016 season, trying to dig into the numbers surrounding their catastrophic fall from grace. You don’t have to look too hard to figure out the source of the problem: the Rockets were abysmal on defense. That was obvious and plain to see. But what I’ve found perplexing is the paradox of the team’s offense. My recollection is of a mash unit playing pick up ball, with four guys watching James Harden dribble the air out of the ball. But by the numbers, the Houston offense was very good – 7th best in the league to be exact. Last year, the team’s offense was 12th in the league. The surprise wasn’t so much that the offense had improved from last season as it was that it ranked so relatively high among its peers this year.

The only publicly accessible numbers I had at my disposal are NBA.com’s crunch time statistics which measure a team’s performance in close and late scenarios. Those numbers reveal the Rockets shot 40.4% overall in crunch time, good for 17th in the league, and 30.8% on 3’s, good for 14th. The team’s overall efficiency in crunch time was 12th – a decline, but still not as bad as what I was expecting.

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In 2014-2015, Donatas Motiejunas appeared in 71 games for the Rockets, averaging 28.7 minutes per night.  He scored 12 points per game on 50% shooting, and was 37% on 3’s.  This past season, Motiejunas only played in 37 games, averaging 14.8 minutes, averaging 6.2 points on 43.9% shooting, and just 28% on 3’s.

Motiejunas was a very big part of the team in 2015.  He was a member of all of Houston’s top-4 quintets in overall minutes played together, appearing either next to Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, or Josh Smith.  And he was a member of three of Houston’s top five quintets in net rating, with the best of those being the lineup that featured Brewer/Harden/Motiejunas/Smith/Terry, a group that was a +28.2 in 50 minutes shared.  (Houston’s best quintet last season was Ariza/Brewer/Howard/Prigioni/Smith, a group which was a +40 in 41 minutes played).

This year, Motiejunas, much to my surprise, was a member of Houston’s most used lineup, one which featured Ariza/Beverley/Harden/Howard/Motiejunas.  That lineup shared the court together for 295 minutes and was a +11, another surprise, as I noted in an earlier installment.  Oddly though, Motiejunas does not appear in any of Houston’s remaining top 20 most used quintets from this season.  Motiejunas also was not a part of any of Houston’s top five lineups in net rating this season.

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Discussing what I felt were the keys to the Rockets’ then-upcoming season, I wrote back in July of 2015:

Ariza, Jones, and Brewer (thank God) are all back, but Josh Smith now resides with the Clippers, the team he tormented in guiding Houston to the Final Four.  In Smith’s place are free agent pickup Marcus Thornton, and 6’6 sophomore K.J. McDaniels whose rights Houston secured for $10 million combined over the next three years.  McDaniels is particularly tantalizing, and its easy to see why Daryl Morey agreed to pay the former second rounder a sum befitting of a late lottery pick.  He’s already shown glimpses of elite defensive ability and when given a chance, his athleticism should further fuel what looks to be, yet again, a devastating Houston fastbreak.

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Recall from Part 1 that Houston’s most used lineup of Ariza/Beverley/Harden/Howard/Motiejunas was a +11 in 295 minutes played.  This came as a huge surprise because even after he returned, Motiejunas still wasn’t at full form this year.  I’m wondering if the year would have gone differently had he simply been healthy from the start.  By contrast, the lineup of Ariza/Beverley/Harden/Howard/Jones, with Terrence Jones being in Motiejunas’ place, was -20.8 in 92 minutes played.  I’ve argued for a few years now about the superiority of Motiejunas over Jones, but even I didn’t realize how drastic the drop-off was.

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I’ve now had over 48 hours to digest the disappointing end to Houston’s season.  What started out in October carrying expectations of title contention ended in utter embarrassment, with the franchise now unexpectedly again at a crossroads.  The Houston Rockets thought they were right there and now, they’ll need to tear it all down completely.  What the hell happened?

Setting aside the gossip and conjecture, Houston’s twelve month demise can be summed up neatly through one quantitative comparison: the team’s defensive rating fell from 8th overall last year, to 21st this year.  That defensive decline almost solely can be held accountable for the team’s record.  The team actually improved offensively, finishing 12th last season, and 7th this season, in offensive rating.

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