Rocketscience: Dragic, Budinger, T-Will Evaluations

A lot of people have asked for my opinion on the Rockets’ moves last week.  My answer was that while the moves were good for the team long-term, we have more or less given up on the season.  That sounds dramatic, and I’m sure anyone affiliated with the Rockets would vehemently disagree, but a 10th seed team trading away an aging starter and sixth man for a promising rotation player, draft picks, and a “project” big man screams “win-later,” long-term thinking.  The Rockets replaced assets with declining value with assets that should appreciate.

ESPN’s John Hollinger already made somewhat accurate trade grades (insider only) – though I believe he underrated Brooks’ upside – so I’ll avoid any type of “grading” here with a “stats-light” rundown of the deals last week:

Brooks Trade

Aaron Brooks will recover from this injury (the Suns have an excellent training staff), and when he does, Pheonix will be very happy with this trade.   Much like the Battier trade, the Rockets exchanged a rental for future assets.  We weren’t willing to pay Brooks and probably aren’t going to make the playoffs, so it makes sense to get something in return that will carry into next season.

As for Dragic, he’s the type of player that will impact the game one way or another.  Much like Lowry, he pushes the tempo and has both a high assist ratio (32.25% this season) and high turnover ratio (20.68%).   As he matures, the hope is that he will sharpen his decision making and cut down the turnovers.  My biggest concern, however, is that he has been largely more successful the past two seasons as a shooting guard.   Here are a few notes:

1.       Last season (considered by some as his mini-breakout year), while shooting a 52.7 eFG%, he was assisted on 39.6% of his shots.  That is a high number for typical point guards, which means that others were creating a lot of his shots (ie. Nash).  This season, his shooting has dropped to a 46.8 eFG%, and only 28.6% of his made shots are assisted.

2.       His net PER* this season is -3.7 at point guard, and +2.0 as a shooting guard.

3.       His most effective 5-man unit** this year had Nash at point guard.  However, it was his 9th most common combination (by minutes played) in Phoenix, and the only unit in the top 10 most common with Nash playing beside him.

Battier Trade

We did not follow through with the Battier trade so that we could snag an underperforming Hasheem Thabeet and somehow turn him into a respectable player.  It was possibly for the pick, but a late first-rounder several years from now doesn’t have much value now.  The other day Clyde Drexler fittingly said this trade was addition by subtraction.  By allowing Budinger to start and Terrence Williams to enter the rotation, the Rockets will start getting more out of its prospects.

In his two games as a starter, Budinger is averaging 17.5 points per game, but expect that number to fall a little bit.  He’s shooting 58% from the field and 50% on 3-pointers which, while encouraging, is more likely due to a boost in confidence than something to rely upon moving forward.  His per-48 minute scoring has increased since becoming a starter (27.5 vs. 21.6), but his attempts per-48 minutes have actually decreased (15.0 vs. 19.1).   That can be explained by his new role as a starter, as he now has to find his shots after Scola, Martin, and Lowry.  Moving forward, expect him to put up modest, but efficient scoring numbers.

Conventional wisdom says that adding Budinger and subtracting Battier will hurt the Rockets defensively.  Against my better judgment, there are indications that Budinger has actually been more effective defensively than Battier this season.  According to, Battier has allowed opponent small forwards to shoot 52.1 eFG% and 16.0 PER, while Budinger has held opponent small forwards to 45.4 eFG% and 12.9 PER.   A similar metric is the On-court, Off-court opponent eFG% (a team stat instead of individual).  Opponents have shot 48.2 eFG% with Budinger on the court this season, and 51.1% when off.  When Battier was on the court, opponents shot 51.0%, and 48.6% when off.  Battier is getting older.  Since 2005-2006, Battier has never had a negative on-court/off-court net opponent eFG% for a season until this year.

As for Terrence Williams, I am not overly optimistic.  Despite the constant comparisons to T-Mac (which I still do not understand), the other T will never be a star (see what I did there?).  Here are a few reasons:

1.        No stats:  He’s finally getting playing time.  What has he done so far in just over 17 total minutes?  He’s made 4 of 12 shots, turned the ball over twice, gotten blocked once, and committed two fouls – all of which can be summarized with a -13 plus/minus, which he managed in two Rockets wins.

2.       Body language:  He doesn’t put his hands up when playing on-ball defense.  He pouts when things don’t go his way.  He doesn’t always hustle, especially after making a bad play.

3.       Defense:  I’ve seen him miss two rotations badly in the past two games (one of which almost got Brad Miller posterized).  He’s also not very consistent on the ball or in boxing out.

Here’s a simple, but perfectly appropriate quote from former NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups on Sunday, “Most of defense is just effort and being willing to do it.”  By the time a player gets to the NBA (with a few exceptions), defense is no longer x’s and o’s, but merely a confrontation between human nature and willpower.  T-Will knows what he’s supposed to do, but he doesn’t do it.  He’s the kind of guy that thinks everything is just happening to him, while throwing up his hands and making excuses.  For the sake of the Rockets, I hope he decides to start taking ownership and becomes the player he thinks he already is.

* own PER minus opponent counterpart PER, courtesy of

**1.49 Off vs. .74 Def with a plus 19 +/-,

Written by Ben Heller, ‘Rocketscience’ is a column devoted to basketball analytics.  Ben Heller can be contacted at

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