• It’s not often that young phenoms are more developed defensively than they are on the offensive end.  That’s probably because most of these guys are in their late teens and are still, for all intents and purposes, boys not yet having matured into full adulthood.  But the two guys we’ve seen so far, Andrew Wiggins and Nerlens Noel, have really impressed me.  Noel in particular, I have no doubt, will be a defensive anchor for years to come, but Wiggins also should become elite in that area with time.  I don’t know if the latter will ever have the tools offensively to be ‘great’, but he will for sure be disruptive as a wing defender.  While Harden got his numbers, last night, Wiggins did about as good of a job one could ask of a rookie against maybe the second or third best pure scorer alive.  He stayed active, used his length, and most importantly, rarely bit on any of Harden’s fakes.
  • Tracy McGrady comparisons are thrown around way too lightly as there was a span of time when every skinny, 6’8 kid to come into the league was the next T-Mac.  I’ve heard McGrady’s name come up in Wiggins talk before, and I don’t see it at all.  For one, McGrady was infinitely longer.  But more significantly, I think people don’t realize how good of a ball-handler T-Mac was, just coming into the league straight out of high school.  This was a guy at 19-20 years old, who comfortably was starting at point guard in the NBA.  Wiggins, on the other hand, doesn’t really even seem to be able to dribble much with his off hand.  This is not to say the latter won’t improve – he certainly will.  But I think we often underestimate just how great certain people were at certain things.  Playing point guard in the NBA is a very, very hard thing to do and not something you can just improve into doing.  You either have that natural feel or you don’t.  McGrady used that same skillset to blossom into one of the most devastating scorers the league had ever seen.  That’s not the bar for Wiggins, but we need to realize how wide that gap truly is.  People too often expect things to “just happen naturally”.

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Rahat said on Twitter during the first quarter that the Rockets should kill the Timberwolves, but I was worried about this game beforehand. Minnesota will not make the playoffs this season, but they are a very athletic team that has depth and likes to run. When those traits are combined with the high altitude of Mexico City, we could have looked at an undisciplined track meet which would turn in Minnesota’s favor. At times during the first half, it looked like that would be the case. There was a stretch midway through the second quarter where the two teams had a combined four straight fast break possessions, which ended with the Timberwolves gaining two points on the Rockets.

But after going through the motions for much of the first half, the Rockets woke up, turned up the defense, and took control of the game. Houston still has some kinks to work out and things which do concern me at this point in the season, namely our overreliance on Harden on the offensive end. But the fact is that the Rockets are tied for the best record in the league, have the highest point differential, and have a highly ranked offense and defense (and as much people like to spout the platitude of “defense wins championships”, the reality is that a team needs a strong offense and defense to win.) At the end of the day, there is not too much to complain about.

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Still too early, but I can’t help myself

It’s still far too early to be doing this, but I really can’t help myself.  It’s hard not to dig into the numbers given the team’s surprising success.  I’m curious right now what lineups have worked the best given the uncertainty over Houston’s rotation coming into the season.  Checking out nba.com, I found that Houston’s most effective offensive lineup so far has been the quintet of Trevor Ariza, Francisco Garcia, James Harden, Donatas Motiejunas, and Jason Terry.  That group has posted an offensive rating of 250 in 1 minute of play.  Okay, that was meant as a joke.

There have been tons of lineups that have played together in the single digits, so I’m going to dismiss all of those.  The highest ranked Rocket quintet, out of all of the groups that have played at least a decent amount together, is the unit of Ariza, Beverley, Harden, Howard, and Papanikolaou.  That group has played 19 minutes together, posting an offensive rating of 155 and a defensive rating of 101.6.

The group of Ariza, Canaan, Harden, Howard, and Motiejunas has played 20 minutes together, posting an offensive rating of 125.1 and a defensive rating of 75.8.

Ariza, Canaan, Harden, Howard, and Jones have spent 29 minutes together, posting an offensive rating of 119.2 and a defensive rating of 77.0.

And lastly, Ariza, Beverley, Harden, Howard, and Jones–the team’s desired opening night lineup–has spent just 25 minutes together, posting an offensive rating of 110.8 and a defensive rating of 92.8.

Ariza, Howard, and Harden will be mainstays in any crunch time lineup the Rockets throw out.  But I’m very interested to see which way the data leans over the course of the year with the other two spots.  Most of you guys think Motiejunas sucks, but all of the team’s best defensive units last year featured him instead of Jones as the power forward.  Then there’s Papa who I am guessing will be a part of the team’s most potent offensive units.  Lastly, what is the tradeoff between Canaan and Beverley?  Will Canaan’s offensive versatility offset Beverley’s defensive contributions.

Right now, the above sample size is far too small for anything but grins.  But in a few weeks, we’ll know enough to know what groups are working best.

 

in musings

Discerning Morey’s Philosophy – Part 11

Houston Rockets Introduce Dwight Howard

I started writing this series back five years ago when there was actually something to discern.  Now, with Morey’s star having risen to uncharted heights (has there ever been a general manager more famous on the internet?), most people who care to know already know what he’s trying to do and how he’s trying to do it.  To that end, this series has just morphed into a chronicle of events.  When you’ve been doing something for five years, you kind of have no choice but to see it through.  (Think of it like staying in a marriage just for the kids.  Or something like that).  So until either Morey gets fired or leaves, or I shut down this blog, this is what we have.

A preliminary matter

Initially, I’d note that one mischaracterization about Morey is his contribution to the sport.  While he’s widely recognized as the face of the basketball analytics movement, I’d argue that his most innovative tendency has been his manipulation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement.  The Rockets, in Morey’s tenure, have been in the business of creating what I’d call ‘salary cap instruments’, or in other words, financial tools with artificial, constructed value.  The team made waves by signing Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to what were deemed as ‘poison pill contracts’, but a lot of their equally innovative maneuvers have been less heralded.  The draft pick they are owed from the New Orleans Pelicans has reverse protection in that it will only be transferred if falling between a certain range.  (Conventional pick protection had always entailed protection at the top.)  That pick is the same asset garnered in return for Kyle Lowry, and used in the James Harden trade.  Kostas Papanikolaou is earning $4.8million this year, an eye-popping figure for an unproven rookie import.  But look closer: next season, the team carries a team option on his deal, making him essentially an expiring contract, and one large enough to fit the purposes of a bigger trade.  The thinking would go, if you are going to have to spend the money anyway, it’s better to overpay on short term obligations that carry liquidity.  This is not unlike Houston’s practice in the past–like with Luis Scola’s deal–where the last year on the deal would be non-guaranteed or partially guaranteed.

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On James Harden’s shooting

James Harden’s shooting has taken a very troubling nosedive here of late, settling in at 39.5% overall (31% on 3’s) at present date.  Looking a bit closer, on catch and shoot’s, he’s shooting 33.3%, while on pullups, he’s shooting 30.5%.  Not much of a split there, really.  Interestingly, 49.6% of his shots are pullups, with just 15% as catch and shoots.  (The other 34.5% are from less than 10 feet).  To put it in other terms, Harden is averaging 2.6 catch and shoot attempts per game, but 8.4 pullup attempts.  (5.9 of his attempts are from less than 10 feet.)

Other things that stand out from the data: Harden’s highest field goal percentage is when he has a defender within 0-2 feet of his body.  His lowest percentages come when his defender is greater than 6 feet away.

And last of all, Harden is taking 7.7 shots per game on possessions where he has held the ball for longer than 6 seconds.  He is taking just 3.7 field goals a game on possessions where he has held the ball for less than two seconds.

All of this really just confirms that we haven’t gotten Harden off the ball at all, so far this year.  Judging by the splits, I’m not even sure if having someone else create for him would help much anyway either, aside from giving him a rest.  It’s still early, but is definitely something worth keeping an eye on.

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