Player Power Rankings: Week 2

Every Friday all season long I’ll be ranking every active player on the Houston Rockets based on his performance from the previous week. If you missed the first installment, here you go.

13) Donatas Motiejunas: When Dwight Howard signed with Houston, I imagined Donatas Motiejunas doing cartwheels in his living room. Playing beside a dominant defensive/rebounding center would take so much pressure off the second year forward in both those areas, allowing him to bloom as a scoring forward. This has not happened.

Along with Terrence Jones, the Rockets picked up Motiejunas’ third year option on October 30, but after struggling to make defensive rotations over and over again in the preseason, he’s hardly played in games that matter. Nine minutes. One point.

12) Terrence Jones: I don’t have much to say about Jones that wasn’t just said about Motiejunas, but at least the former Kentucky Wildcat is wandering on the court in non-garbage time minutes. Unfortunately, he’s yet make a positive play when he’s out there. He isn’t strong enough to guard anyone large the post (Derrick Favors was not gentle), and plays pick-and-roll defense like a cat trying to escape a car wash. But he’s athletic and young, so there’s plenty of time.

11) Aaron Brooks: Now that Patrick Beverley’s back, Brooks should find himself squeezed from the rotation. That’s what happens to a point guard who logs two assists and three turnovers in 62 minutes of play, as Brooks did last week.

10) Greg Smith: I love everything about Greg Smith. Honestly, who cares that he’s averaging 5.3 minutes in his last three appearances or that he’s only attempted seven shots all season: 85.7% shooting from the field is world-smashing stuff. Don’t let anyone tell you different, Greg.

9) Ronnie Brewer: Hey! A Ronnie Brewer sighting! Thanks to an unpleasant looking jump shot that rarely directs the ball in the hoop, Brewer, the fourth best defender on Houston’s roster, can’t be on the floor.

Kevin McHale chose to trot him out anyway to try and make Dirk Nowitzki uncomfortable, and the results were predictable. To Dallas defenders, Brewer may as well have been Chris Brody. They treated him like people with money treat Gerard Butler movies on opening weekend. None of them cared he was out there, and nobody paid him any attention at all.

It was right around this time that Rick Carlisle decided to deploy his modestly well-reputed zone. It could be a while again before complete sentences are needed to describe Brewer’s impact.

8) Patrick Beverley: He was supposed to be out 10-14 days with a rib injury until he was back on the floor in Portland in less than half that time. Which is a shame, only because I really enjoyed the lime green tie he rocked on the sideline in Dallas.

I don’t know how much of a difference Beverley could’ve made against Chris Paul and the Clippers on Monday, but I know his impact would’ve been positive, especially defending the ball and attacking the offensive glass. Omer Asik has seven offensive rebounds in his last five games. Beverley has that same number in his last two. He’s the best offensive rebounding point guard in the league, and I don’t think whoever’s in second is very close. It’s great to have him back.

7) Chandler Parsons: Thanks to SportVU, we now know just how much ground Parsons is covering when he’s on the court, and it’s basically more than everyone else in the league. (On average he’s running 2.7 miles per game. Typing that sentence while sitting at my desk was exhausting, so a tip of the cap to him and all that hustle.)

In addition to SportVU, thanks to the rewind button on my DVR, we also know that Parsons really struggles on defense when his man comes up to screen the ball-handler.

I promise you I didn’t photoshop this photo. Parsons was more concerned with following his man (Nicolas Batum) than forcing the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands. Based on where they were on the floor, he should’ve tried trapping Portland’s point guard. Or do anything other than what he did.

From behind the three-point line Parsons has been in a somewhat concerning slump, going 4-18 on mostly wide open looks since the opener. The season is long and his shots should eventually fall (Parsons made 38.5% of his threes last season), but if for whatever reason they don’t, Houston will find themselves in an awkward/awful situation.

In the first half against Utah he was pretty great off-the-dribble, scoring 20 points on nine shots. Parsons is so much more than a spot-up shooter, and has the skill-set to do serious damage whenever an opponent bites on his Emmy-winning pump fake.

6) Omer Asik. Asik’s persona as a lovable butterfingers who gives Herculean effort on both ends and sees Herculean results on defense is all but set in stone. That’s who he is, and all the non-cheap owners around the league would love to have him. Asik’s playing time was modest this week, and until Houston is able to stay effective with him and Howard both on the floor (that day is right around the corner, I can feel it!) there won’t be any 30 minute nights for a big man who deserves even more.

Against Dallas he spared Kevin McHale the trouble of an early hook by dooming himself with two fouls in the game’s first minute. (Then still managed to grab 12 rebounds in 15 total minutes.) Defensively, all we’re seeing is amazing. It’s not easy scoring when Asik is in the paint, as proven correct by SportVU, which tells us opponents are shooting 30% at the rim when Asik is nearby. That figure is obviously very good, comparable to current Defensive Player of the Year favorite Roy Hibbert (29.8% on nearly twice as many attempts) and Tim Duncan (33.3% on just over one more attempt per game).

Asik can still ice ball-handlers near the sideline in his sleep, sag deep on pick-and-rolls and make guys who can’t shoot feel like permanent prisoners in mid-range jail, and deliver beat down after beat down to any opposing big man (paging Enes Kanter) in the post who thinks he has a chance in hell at scoring the ball.

But on the other end it’s been touch and go. Asik is setting solid screens, rolling hard to the rim, and forcing help, which opens up shots from the outside. (Here are a few pics showing that below. See the progression? Asik sets the screen and as he rolls to the hoop Vince Carter is forced to pick him up, leaving Francisco Garcia wide open in the corner.)

 

But at least once a game he does something that’s very, I don’t know, dopey. I have two picks for that moment this week. The first came early in the fourth quarter against the Mavericks, when James Harden delivered a flawless no look (!!) pocket pass only to watch Asik’s open dunk clang off the rim. The other was late in the third quarter against Utah, when Asik launched an 18-foot jumper. I don’t care if there was only six seconds on the shot clock when he caught Harden’s pass. That’s irrelevant. The Rockets would be better off if Asik drop kicked the ball 35 rows into the crowd. At least then they’d have plenty of time to get back and set up their defense.

5) Francisco Garcia: The “catch-and-shoot” master chef, Garcia can be seen either making an open three or missing it. I also briefly wanted to mention his effectiveness as a help defender, especially one who can block an unsuspecting shooter’s shot without fouling. He’s been more than a three-point shot so far, and has found ways to positively impact the game on nights when his aim is off.

4) Dwight Howard: On Tuesday against the Trail Blazers, Dwight Howard looked like a competent free-throw shooter, starting 6-8 from the line and finishing 9-12. Only a few nights after Rick Carlisle became the first coach in 2013-14 to deploy Hack-a-Howard (doing it for what felt like 35 straight minutes), Portland head coach Terry Stotts opted instead to double the big man on the catch down the stretch.

Stotts either has an early bed time, or figured Howard was feeling it on that particular night, and that his team was better off defending Houston within the game’s natural flow.

After helplessly watching from in front of the Lakers bench all last season as opposing coaches intentionally fouled his franchise center, Mike D’Antoni was licking his lips from the other side of the fence last night. He had no bed time.

Howard attempted 16 free-throws in Houston’s one-point home loss to Los Angeles last night. He made five of them. Complaining about Howard’s free-throw shooting at this stage in the game is pointless. Everyone knows it’s not very good, and almost certainly won’t be getting noticeably better for the rest of his career. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating.

The possible lottery winner here is Greg Smith, who shot 62.3% from the line last year, and wouldn’t be as susceptible to intentional fouls at the end of the game. This doesn’t mean Kevin McHale will be subbing Smith in for Howard at the end of close games from now on, but it’s probably something he and his coaching staff will discuss at some point.

Anyway, onto more exciting basketball matters. All season defenses have been seriously focused on preventing Howard from doing anything destructive when he rolls to the basket. According to mySynergySports, Howard has only attempted three shots as a roll-man since the opener in Charlotte. This isn’t worth losing sleep over (especially if you’re Francisco Garcia), because it doesn’t take into account the dozens of times Howard has rolled hard to the rim only to be quadruple teamed by the defense, but watching him fly through the air for a dunk is still fun.

He’s still leading the league in rebounds per game, which is fantastic. But as a rim defender the numbers haven’t been very kind. While most of the game’s elite centers are holding opponents to the low-30% to low-40% range, guys are making a whopping 55.8% of their shots at the rim when Howard’s nearby. Not sure what to make here, and it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

3) Jeremy Lin What’s not to love about the Jeremy Lin we’ve seen so far this season? This Jeremy Lin is second only to Monta Ellis on total drives and third to Ellis and Ty Lawson on drives per game, per SportVU.

Some of Lin’s drives are stupendous, but not every one is a work of art. There have been instances where he submits to tunnel vision and over commits after springing past the defense’s first layer. The fearless attitude is appreciated, but the Rockets would be better served if Lin fed open shooters in the corner every once in a while.

Am I nitpicking? Maybe. I don’t mean to. Lin has exceeded my personal expectations by 300 miles, averaging a nice 15.2 points per game on a necessary 35.7% shooting from behind the three-point line in his last five contests. Right now he’s playing the best basketball of his career.

2) Omri Casspi: Against Portland, Casspi threw one of the most difficult alley-oop passes I’ve ever seen. Running full speed down the left wing, he drove into the lane and underhand scooped the ball with his right hand to Chandler Parsons, who was maybe five feet away at the time, also running quite fast. It was a pass few point guards could make, let alone Omri freaking Casspi. That single moment is an accurate microcosm for his tenure with Houston.

Casspi has played with out of this world brilliance, and, at least to me, it’s come as a complete and total surprise. Brought in to knock down open shots, Casspi has made 50% of his three-point attempts since the season opener. (As Chris Paul was tying a noose around Houston’s neck on Monday night, Casspi was the only Rocket delaying his team’s inevitable execution.)

But he’s so much more than that, taking bigger, slower defenders off the dribble, finishing with both hands in traffic, pentrating into the paint and finding shooters like Francisco Garcia and Chandler Parsons spotting up in the corners.

There have been rare lapses on the defensive end, but overall he’s been solid, defending the pick-and-roll with smart execution based on who it is he’s up against and not shying away from contact in the post. It’s been a pleasure to watch. Here’s a stat that sums it up nicely: Over the past week, whenever Casspi is on the court Houston is scoring 118.0 points per 100 possessions (he sat out Saturday’s victory against Utah with a sprained ankle). When he’s on the bench that number drops to 100.0 points per 100 possessions.

I don’t care if that’s a small sample size. Let’s make a big deal out of it.

1) James Harden: I’m not ready for James Harden to be a polarizing player, are you? Against the Clippers his defensive effort was embarrassing, and I get the sense most fans can’t say anything nice about Harden without “…but he’s an atrocious defender!” ending the sentence, like it’s some revelation.

Defense is half the game. That’s well and true. But is it just me, or does Harden’s positive impact on offense vastly outweigh his negative one on the other end? Small sample size alert, but in Houston’s five games this week, they’re 9.4 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent with Harden on the floor, and -12.6 when he sits.

He’s still one of the league’s 10 best players because of how amazing and influential he is on offense, averaging 28.0 points per game since the opener. Forget about no shooting guard being better (that’s really not much of a conversation anymore), there are only two or three guys right now at any position who’re as feared with the ball.

All footage of Harden’s Euro step on Meyers Leonard has been banned from Youtube by anti-bullying support groups. His crossover step back and-1 directly in the eye of Wesley Mathews was as macabre as professional basketball can get…until he did the same thing to Nicolas Batum in a more meaningful situation later in the game.

Against the Mavericks, there was one play where Howard came up to set a screen, and Sam Dalembert forced Harden to go right. So what does Harden do? He starts right, picks up his dribble at the exact spot highlighted in the picture below, and scores on an and-1 layup on the left side of the basket.

Basically, Harden does what he wants, when he wants. He’s so, so good at basketball.

Follow me on Twitter.

View this discussion from the forum.

This entry was posted in columns and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
Login to leave a comment.
Total comments: 23
  • 2016Champions says 5 months ago

    Wouldn't nice if we can grade coaching?

    Coaching is so hard to judge, especially in the Rockets case, because there's so much that goes right or wrong where you don't know if it was the coaching or the players.

  • Richards says 5 months ago

    Wouldn't nice if we can grade coaching?

  • CC. says 5 months ago

    Woah, If I had to power rank the Rocket's team my list would look a whole lot different, but I do agree Casspi would be in my top 5. And even though Howard and Asik haven't seen improvements stat-wise since last season...they'd be higher than Lin, just because of the defense and intimidation factor they bring in.But I do like Lin! and so far I still like him more than Bev as a starter or 6th man.

  • NorEastern says 5 months ago

    Excellent post as usual, Michael.
    I like the chart NorEastern posted and I think that's a fair way to assess Harden's defense last year. If you're worried that SG just happens to be a weak position in the NBA, you can look look at the same numbers for all NBA teams here: http://www.82games.com/1213/BYPOSL10.HTM
    I think that Harden is a generally better defender than most people think -- like NorEastern said, perceptions are skewed by negative events -- but his lapses are so severe (e.g., the Clippers game) that I worry about whether he's _capable_ of playing good, reliable defense when it matters come playoff time.
    NorEastern, I know this was kind of an aside, but you seem to be seriously misinterpreting confidence levels and/or badly miscommunicating what they mean. Where did you get your information from on this? E.g., where did you see that "xRAPM generally demonstrates confidence in the greater than 98% range," because that statement doesn't make statistical sense. For anyone wanting to read about confidence levels, Wikipedia does a fine job explaining it:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confidence_interval

    You are absolutely correct Mr Wehr. One cannot equate xRAPM to a confidence level. Advanced stats like xRAPM are metrics. However, their main purpose (or one of them in the case of xRAPM) is to explain the number of wins for individual teams. How accurate models like xRAPM, PER etc. are at explaining team wins is easily calculated for previous seasons. From the regression line R-Squared can easily be computed and from that of course you can get Pierson's Correlation Coefficient ...

    In fact advanced stats can be predictive of wins, as I am continually attempting to do:

    http://arturogalletti.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/predictive-stats-bad-metrics-correlation-in-the-nba/

    Perhaps I simplified my explanation to much. Thank you for pointing it out. And god where did this day go?

  • thenit says 5 months ago

    Excellent post as usual, Michael.


    I like the chart NorEastern posted and I think that's a fair way to assess Harden's defense last year. If you're worried that SG just happens to be a weak position in the NBA, you can look look at the same numbers for all NBA teams here: http://www.82games.com/1213/BYPOSL10.HTM

    I think that Harden is a generally better defender than most people think -- like NorEastern said, perceptions are skewed by negative events -- but his lapses are so severe (e.g., the Clippers game) that I worry about whether he's _capable_ of playing good, reliable defense when it matters come playoff time.

    NorEastern, I know this was kind of an aside, but you seem to be seriously misinterpreting confidence levels and/or badly miscommunicating what they mean. Where did you get your information from on this? E.g., where did you see that "xRAPM generally demonstrates confidence in the greater than 98% range," because that statement doesn't make statistical sense. For anyone wanting to read about confidence levels, Wikipedia does a fine job explaining it:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confidence_interval


    Look the data shows that harden is second in net rating but it's because most sg in the league aren't that good to be fair. But I watched all the games last night and the majority of the guys scored more than their season averages and sometimes he guards small forwards that are defensive specialist like tony Allen and sefolosha and they manage to score higher than their averages. Because his scoring is so high it negates a lot of the points he gives up because he scores that many. But that doesn't prove math at he is a good defender. You just have to watch every game.

    Harden is not a liability by no means. But the problem resurface when we actually play a good team where his dominace is limited or when he struggles offensively. I love harden but we can't keep sugar coat data on something we all see on the court. Every stat can be skewed to your advantage, politicians are best at it and second are fans who wants a certain outcome to enhance their team or players performance.

    Example republicans say obamacare is disliked by over 50 percent of the population but it negates to reveal that over 20 percent of those didn't think Obama went far enough to single payer system. Just an example so don't comment on this statement. Just proving a point that data can be skewed to fit a narrative.

    Stats don have value, but you have to be able to be objective and look at the complete picture.
  • thejohnnygold says 5 months ago

    I think it was JG who put it like this: Harden is a ball watcher, he can play defense if the ball is in the hands of the guy he's guarding, but if the ball is in someone else's hands then Harden will watch the ball and lose track of where his man is.

    That was me ( I believe RBF has noted it as well), and so far this season I have seen a lot of it. Sometimes it is deceptive because Harden's man will "blow by him", but that is often a result of Harden over-correcting for losing his man in the first place after ball-watching. In his effort to get back into position, his man can catch him off balance and go right past him to the rim. I don't know if Harden is just obsessed with the ball, lacks peripheral vision, or is constantly trying to measure a steal on a cross-court pass, but he is a huge offender when it comes to this. The good news, is that it's an easy fix. The bad news is that is easier said than done... :(

  • 2016Champions says 5 months ago

    I think it was JG who put it like this: Harden is a ball watcher, he can play defense if the ball is in the hands of the guy he's guarding, but if the ball is in someone else's hands then Harden will watch the ball and lose track of where his man is.

  • j_wehr says 5 months ago
    Excellent post as usual, Michael.
    I like the chart NorEastern posted and I think that's a fair way to assess Harden's defense last year. If you're worried that SG just happens to be a weak position in the NBA, you can look look at the same numbers for all NBA teams here: http://www.82games.com/1213/BYPOSL10.HTM
    I think that Harden is a generally better defender than most people think -- like NorEastern said, perceptions are skewed by negative events -- but his lapses are so severe (e.g., the Clippers game) that I worry about whether he's _capable_ of playing good, reliable defense when it matters come playoff time.
    NorEastern, I know this was kind of an aside, but you seem to be seriously misinterpreting confidence levels and/or badly miscommunicating what they mean. Where did you get your information from on this? E.g., where did you see that "xRAPM generally demonstrates confidence in the greater than 98% range," because that statement doesn't make statistical sense. For anyone wanting to read about confidence levels, Wikipedia does a fine job explaining it:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confidence_interval
  • NorEastern says 5 months ago

    By that measure our centers are negative? It's so easy to take stats that supports your notion. Sttats can be skewed in your favour.
    4 out of the 6 guys harden were suppose to guard scored above their avg and the other 2 was just under. So I could say that harden was terrible defensively in majority of the games, which is kind of simple minded. Most stats in sports are flawed in one way or another.
    Just saying it's not everything when you judge a player.

    Finally got what you are referring to. Must be mentally slow this morning. Need coffee.

    The data is from the 2012-2013 season, so yes our centers were not good. However let me say that Asik was very very good. But when he was not on the floor ...

  • NorEastern says 5 months ago

    I agree completely, all stats are flawed and no one likes flaws, its important that everyone understands that and for the most part I would say everyone does. It's also important that we understand how these stats work if we're going to judge them, and I think what NorEastern was trying to do was help you understand this stat since you were judging it.

    I do not know if one of my posts was being referred to, since I never mentioned the center position, but he asked a very interesting question.

    "Most stats in sports are flawed in one way or another. Just saying it's not everything when you judge a player."

    Without using statistical "jargon", and using my favorite stat, xRAPM, we can calculate how confident we are in the conclusion we reach. xRAPM generally demonstrates confidence in the greater than 98% range. To conclude that the Higgs Boson existed CERN used a confidence level of 99.99999999% But social sciences generally rely on a confidence level greater than 95%. So basically we can be confident, but not assured that the answer given by advanced stats (properly applied) is correct.

    Morey's Rockets will rely on statistics to a great degree. But the FO will of course get the input of "basketball people". People like McHale and his staff have spent their lives around basketball. They can dissect a play on the first take. I on the other hand need to rewind through a play 3, 4, 5 times before fully I understand what is going on. But if it comes down to the numbers or McHale's opinion which choice is Morey going to make? Money ball is of course the correct answer.

    This is the reason that I depend on statistical analysis to evaluate teams and players. If I can do the mathematics which will be correct 95+% of the time, I of course depend on that analysis. Because 95+% is far far superior to my own personal "eye test".

  • 2016Champions says 5 months ago

    By that measure our centers are negative? It's so easy to take stats that supports your notion. Sttats can be skewed in your favour.
    4 out of the 6 guys harden were suppose to guard scored above their avg and the other 2 was just under. So I could say that harden was terrible defensively in majority of the games, which is kind of simple minded. Most stats in sports are flawed in one way or another.
    Just saying it's not everything when you judge a player.

    I agree completely, all stats are flawed and no one likes flaws, its important that everyone understands that and for the most part I would say everyone does. It's also important that we understand how these stats work if we're going to judge them, and I think what NorEastern was trying to do was help you understand this stat since you were judging it.

  • thenit says 5 months ago By that measure our centers are negative? It's so easy to take stats that supports your notion. Sttats can be skewed in your favour.
    4 out of the 6 guys harden were suppose to guard scored above their avg and the other 2 was just under. So I could say that harden was terrible defensively in majority of the games, which is kind of simple minded. Most stats in sports are flawed in one way or another.
    Just saying it's not everything when you judge a player.
  • NorEastern says 5 months ago

    Have you ever thought that the SG spot is weak?

    Yes, but does it really matter? The most important stat is the scoring differential between the Rockets SG and the opponents SG. Besides, from the above data (without checking) it looks like the SG position is the highest scoring position in the league. But your question does intrigue me. Certainly the top shooting guards in the league were well represented last season. And this season we may be seeing the emergence of George as an all-star. But do the xRAPM scores of shooting guards decay more rapidly after the all-stars? I do not know.

  • timetodienow1234567 says 5 months ago Have you ever thought that the SG spot is weak?
  • NorEastern says 5 months ago

    I would like to further discuss the above topic. How do I know that the SG position exceeded NBA averages both on the offensive and defensive end of the court? Pretty simple. We look at offensive and defensive PER for the SG position. This simple data tells me that Harden, who played 38 out of 48 minutes as the SG did a great job. Best offensive PER by far, to say the least, and best defensive PER by a nose.

    7srLJlB.png

  • NorEastern says 5 months ago

    Kind of an interesting case of variance between RAPM and the eye test because via the latter, he's one of the worst defenders in the league.

    As I have always said do not depend on your lying eyes. Human memory is a variable that science currently has little understanding of. But we do know that it is more heavily influenced by bad experiences than good experiences. However xRAPM is currently the most reliable statistic we currently have and is one of the best measures of current performance and future performance. I personally put my faith in xRAPM.

  • Rahat Huq says 5 months ago

    Kind of an interesting case of variance between RAPM and the eye test because via the latter, he's one of the worst defenders in the league.

  • NorEastern says 5 months ago

    Absolutely lovely work. Thanks. A fair appraisal, but not one that everyone will agree with. And as I have said before, Harden is not the defensive black hole that many believe. Early in the season the +/- numbers are some of the most reliable. They naturally suffer because of the other four variables on court and small sample size, but until we start to get xRAPM data they are perhaps the best we have.

    Again, thanks for the synopsis.

  • MrLobble says 5 months ago

    the analysis lost me when I saw Chandler Parsons so far down the line, Francisco in the top 5, and Casspi number 2.

  • Richards says 5 months ago

    Lin looks much better than last season. People stopped saying he can't drive left.

    He successfully drove left and layup with left hand on handful of drive this season.

  • lawprofsr says 5 months ago

    I basically agree with your Harden commentary, to a point. It's going to partly up to him whether he is a polarizing player. If he is lackadaisical on defense AND insists on dribbling the ball in place for ten seconds at the beginning of every iso play AND yells at hard-working bench players whenever things go wrong...well, frankly as long as the Rox are winning we will all put up with it. I wouldn't like him as much (like anyone cares about that!)

    But it would be so much more FUN if the team lived up to the image of young, running, having-fun, like-each-other off the court, unselfish, racially and internationally diverse teammates that was starting to develop over the summer. That would be a viewer's (and marketing) dream.

  • feelingsupersonic says 5 months ago

    Great stuff Pina, especially the Harden commentary.

  • rocketrick says 5 months ago

    Excellent job Michael, I very much enjoyed your take and don't have anything worthwhile to add.