On Monday night, Kevin Garnett head-butted Dwight Howard in what can only be classified as one of the weirder incidents I can remember until then remembering that Kevin Garnett is actually a pretty weird dude prone to do stuff like this.  The even money for an altercation was on Garnett-Motiejunas, given Garnett’s well-documented preference for point guards and European big men.  But alas, The Big Ticket found himself tangled under the basket with Superman, a few harmless shoves were exchanged, and heads collided.  The whole thing held little significance except for being the first altercation between two surefire Hall of Famers that I can remember in recent history.  (I’m sure I’m forgetting something).  After the game, the critics came out with their opinions on the whole thing, and a familiar theme from earlier in the season emerged: players don’t like Dwight Howard.  We heard this after the incident earlier in the year with Kobe and then after when Kevin Durant–all 180 pounds of him–referred to the big man in a demeaning manner.

Specifically, Monday night, one commentator on NBAtv said, (paraphrasing), “players around the league just don’t like Dwight.  You see all the smiling and the way he’s always acting and people don’t like it.”  What?  I’m not quite sure I understand the logic behind that thought process.  I totally get why Kobe might’ve been frustrated with Dwight in L.A., or why any current Rockets teammates might find his act tiresome.  Similarly, I could understand any truth behind this summer’s narrative of “players not wanting to play with [him].”  It’s probably annoying to focus on winning when someone’s demeanor indicates they don’t really care.  But why would opposing players have anything against him?  He doesn’t play dirty, and there’s nothing about his game that’s particularly irritating.  So you’re telling me opposing players want to go at Dwight because he smiles a lot and they don’t like it?  That’s the most absurd reasoning I’ve ever heard.  The likelier case is that people just find Dwight to be soft, with a group effect taking place.  I’ve used this example before with Jeremy Lin, but its applicable here too: ever have that friend growing up who everyone either picked on or blamed for everything?  It happened not only because it was allowed to happen, but because with each subsequent instance, everyone else in the group became/becomes reinvigorated in its ability to happen.  Guys see Kobe squaring up Dwight and questioning his manhood, then they get fired up, and start to think that a) the charges are true and b) they can do it too.  It’s kind of like what happened with Blake Griffin last year, with everyone taking shots at him in the air.  When a belief is propagated enough, it can really take off.

-We’re entering a fascinating era where, for the first time perhaps, you’re really seeing the impact of coaching across the league.  Last season, the Spurs crushed Miami primarily due to their superior strategies.  Phoenix vastly exceeded expectations, and Chicago stayed afloat.  This year, we see the Warriors running away with the league’s best record, after only making a coaching change.  Atlanta, similarly, is pulling away in the East under a Pop disciple.  The backdrop of all of this has been an overwhelming sense that the Thunder have underperformed, despite having the best talent in the league, due to uncreative thinking from the clipboard.  Coaching mattered always, of course, but not in this sense, I don’t think.  In the past, I felt the team with the best player almost always won the title, generally speaking, and the hallmark of a great coach was being able to motivate and manage egos.  But the change in the rules spawned an outright transformation of the game, leading to the necessity of more intricate schemes.  Teams started mastering defense, and in response, we now see them mastering offense, with complex motion sequences.  The backdrop here is the total public oblivion with respect to these changes, spurred partly by ignorance and overall apathy, and partly by popular lowest-common-denominator forums such as TNT’s halftime segment.  I touched on this earlier in the week, but because of reductive platitudes such as “big men need to be dominant”, the public is still largely in the dark, as are modes of thinking within the players.

I think about all of the above in relation to the Rockets.  They’ve come an extremely long way this year from the disaster they featured last season where at times, they appeared to not even have a coherent defensive strategy.  And the offense has featured wrinkles we hadn’t seen before.  But still, there is a very long way to go.  I could just be living in the moment, but I get the feeling that to win a title in today’s NBA, you have to have complete mastery of the clipboard.  Even aside from the strategy, there are simply far too many inefficiencies in Houston’s offense to overlook.  Dwight post-ups most of the time are possessions that could be better used (yes, I get it, he draws fouls), and while Harden has been independently brilliant, can you win a title with him going one-on-one against a team of 5 as your entire crunch-time offense?  That would’ve certainly been enough in the 90s, and even five years ago, but now?  The reader is likely bewildered due to my negativity, noting the team is in third in the West and on pace to challenge its franchise-best record.  Those achievements are great and dandy and I too am excited.  But what I speak of here in this column is the goal of winning a championship.  Can they do it without better coaching, but also, perhaps more frighteningly, can they do it without both of their star players completely buying in to the realities of the new NBA?  For the first time, in the basketball context, I think I understand what it means when they say winning requires sacrifice.






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Time to look at this year’s Bench

Click for a full-sized interactive version

Click for a full-sized interactive version

We now have enough data to make some observations about Houston’s bench usage this season. The chart above is now updated with data through January 12, 2015 and shows the percentage of playing time occupied by everyone’s bench, and the net ratings of those benches.

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2-1

After Donatas Motiejunas began to emerge early this season, many wondered how he and Dwight Howard would fit together manning the Houston frontline.  Would the same spacing issues that plagued the Asik-Howard duo manifest themselves yet again?  I began examining the impact the players had upon defenses when playing together, concluding that each man’s unique abilities could create interesting opportunities for the Houston offense.  Then Josh Smith happened, Motiejunas went to the bench, and Houston plummeted.  D-Mo has since been reinserted into the lineup, and Houston is thriving, causing me to wonder this weekend if Smith would again be given the starting role.  Subsequently, sources close to the team informed me that, contrary to an initial report, upon which I had based my premise, no starting job promise was made to Smith in the team’s negotiations with the forward.  With the team playing well again, one can probably rest assured knowing that this current lineup will likely stay intact.

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If you want to sneak up on a better team, don’t throw the basketball at their head first. The Brooklyn Nets learned that the hard way after a sudden and unexpected altercation erupted four minutes into the game. Kevin Garnett took exception to Dwight Howard’s play under the rim and gave Howard a bit of a shove, the beginning of an exchange that included a headbutt from Garnett. Kevin Garnett walked around the court shouting (and being held by various players) before the altercation finally ended. When the dust settled, Garnett was ejected and Howard was given a technical foul. Then the rest of the dust settled, and James Harden was standing atop the rubble of the Brooklyn Nets.

The Rockets might have been vulnerable to a bit of ennui, just complacent enough for a veteran team with a veteran coach to get the better of. We’ll never know if a languid Houston team might have fallen, because Kevin Garnett woke the beard, and sometimes the beard eats you. The Nets were scoring at a mighty clip to begin the game, and actually hung around for a good while. In the second half, however, the Rockets slammed the door shut quickly, calmly, and directly on the head of an already hurting Nets team. The game tightened up significantly in garbage time, which lasted nearly the entire fourth quarter. It was a tremendous blowout, which is the best possible way to curtail minutes for the starters.

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Rockets Roundup: 01/12/15

A quick and digestible look at the most top-of-mind Rockets news of the past few days.

Houston Chronicle. Road has been kind to Rockets so far this season.

“When the Rockets boarded a New York-bound plane on Sunday afternoon, they were relaxed, calm and ready. It’s just another road trip – this one to Brooklyn on Monday night and Orlando on Wednesday. For the Rockets, the road has been a good place, as they have one of the league’s best road records – 13-5 – headed into this trip…”

Hardwood Paroxysm. The Houston Rockets, We Can Dance if We Want To.

“..The problem extends, to a certain degree, to this entire Houston Rockets team. They chase offensive excellence with a plan to exploit marginal efficiencies over and over and over again. The aggregate can be worth the carefully controlled effort, but it makes for a mountain of drab possessions to watch. Dwight Howard contributes on offense in his own way but is an enormous impediment to movement and flow. They have no point guard to speak of, at least not in the traditional primo-passing, floor-conductor sense…”

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