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The Stats Say: This year’s Houston Rockets may be historically great

Rockets fans and commentators are rightly excited about the upcoming season, but maybe – and you don’t hear this often – not as excited as they should be. Most of the talk has been around whether the Rockets can sneak into the third or fourth spot in the West, thus earning home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. But if the predictions from one of my favorite stat geeks, Arturo Galletti, are to be trusted, then brace yourself for some much loftier questions…

  • Will anyone in the West come close to challenging the Rockets for the top seed?
  • Will the Rockets be the best team in the NBA? Better even than the LeBrons?
  • Will the Rockets be the best team in recent NBA memory?

And, most uncomfortably, …

  • Will the Rockets challenge the NBA record of 72 wins set by Michael Jordan’s 1995-96 Bulls?

Gasp. I went there. Or more accurately, Arturo’s statistics went there. And his statistics are as good of an objective measure as you are going to find. He uses David Berri’s WP48 measure, which does some complicated manipulations of simple box score statistics to produce a single measure of player efficiency. WP48 is both predictive and stable across time, thus satisfying two crucial performance-metric criteria which many of its competitors do not. Arturo adjusts the WP48 metrics for the players’ age and expected minutes per game, and then sums these adjusted estimates across all players to get win predictions for each team. (I’m simplifying a bit, but that’s the gist.) The table below shows the resulting predictions. (Note that these are updated predictions that Arturo shared with me over email, so they are slightly different than the ones at the link above.)

2013-14 NBA win projections

How to interpret this: Even if the Rockets have a “bad” season, they will still likely finish in the top four or five in the NBA. If, on the other hand, they have a very good season, they may win as many games as any team in NBA history.

I will pause to give you time to gulp.

When such brazen predictions are laid before us, the natural reaction is to hunt for holes to poke. That’s why David Berri has a 6,400-word FAQ page to address all your hole-poking queries. It turns out WP48 can be accused of many things, but being poorly thought out is not one of them. Nevertheless, the first maxim of statistics is that statistics never tell the whole story, and I can think of several factors that might be skewing the Rockets’ statistics. But brace for more gulping because the factors suggest that the predictions might be underestimating the Rockets.

  • Factor 1. The WP48 measure, like nearly any available measure, does not adequately account for a player’s defense. +3 for the Rockets because they have the most important defensive position manned by a three-time Defensive POY and by Omer Asik, whose defense I do not have enough superlatives to describe. (In my nerdier fantasies I envision discovering a way to measure Omer’s off-ball defense.)
  • Factor 2. The predictions are sensitive to the allocation of minutes, and it’s very hard to predict how that allocation will shake out due to injuries and player dynamics and baffling coaching decisions. +2 for the Rockets because Arutro’s model assumes that Omer will be limited to 18 minutes a game when in fact if the towers can function as twins, he may be seeing closer to 30 min/g.
  • Factor 3. The predictions treat players as independent parts, but the first lesson of team sports is that the whole can sometimes be much greater or much less than the sum of its parts. +1 for the Rockets because smart money says that the pairing of Harden and Howard – historically two of the league’s most efficient players, particularly in the pick and roll – will yield even greater individual efficiency, at least if Howard is willing to engage in heaping helpings of pick n’ roll.

Let me reiterate: Arturo’s WP48-based predictions suggest that this year’s Rockets may be historically great and my logic suggests that his model may be underestimating them. I feel enormously uneasy about this whole thing. They can’t really be that good, can they? No team without Michael Jordan can be that good. So then where/how is the model overvaluing the Rockets? Arturo graciously provides the data and assumptions for all to see, so if you’re feeling uneasy like I am, go snoop around for yourself. He also shared with me these detailed projections:

Rockets minutes projections

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Postscript — Arturo had these interesting comments after reading a draft of this post:

I have Asik in a sixth man role similar to what he did in Chicago and the role Gortat played with Dwight in Orlando. Given the amount of perimeter shooting on this Rockets team, it should be dead easy to play D12 in the post with Asik just outside the post ready for putbacks and rebounds, two shooters in the corners and a shooter/slasher at the top of the key. If I can figure this out, Daryl’s guys most likely have too.

The Rockets have done an extremely good job of building a deep roster of good young players. Even with injury, the second and third tier guys are all serviceable NBA players. This is a team built for the grind that is the regular season.

The best case scenario for the Rockets is the return of pre back surgery Dwight. If that happens, they will destroy people. Keep in mind that the Magic won 52, 59, 59, and 52 games in their last four seasons with a healthy Dwight.

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