How funny the NBA can be. When the 2011-12 season began, Rockets’ fans were salivating for a famous superstar to call their own; grab their hand and lead them through this nonsensical season. Two months later, after Houston’s core roster was left unchanged from a team that failed to make the playoffs last season, those same fans find themselves applauding a complimentary group of cast-offs and fringe talent who’ve come together to play inspiring, playoff-worthy basketball.
In our current unprecedented time, a few familiar terms from the NBA’s lexicon have been altered. What exactly is a “contender” right now? Is it a team with Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, or Derrick Rose? Or is it simply anyone that makes the postseason? According to John Hollinger’s most recent Power Rankings, the Rockets have played the 11th most difficult schedule in the league. Despite that, if the regular season ended today they would face the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs.
Houston’s expectations have increased with their unanticipated play, but to what point? Are they capable of winning a series? Two? A championship?
Here’s a deeper look at how the Rockets have sustained their success, and whether or not they’ll be able to keep it up the rest of this season. (Also, a reflective look back to dole out a few mid-season awards.)
Compared to last year’s dreadful defensive play, things have drastically improved in their ability to force turnovers. According to Basketball-Prospectus’ Bradford Doolittle, the Rockets were last in forced turnover percentage a year ago, but are above average right now.
The one elite thing Houston has done on the defensive end this season is guard the three-point line (third best in the league). In the last two seasons only four teams who’ve finished in the top half of the league in defensive three-point percentage have not made the playoffs, and while nothing’s guaranteed by success in a marginal statistic, it’d be surprising to see the Rockets fall out of the race.
Despite an inability to get to the free-throw line (Houston is DEAD last in the league in free-throw rate!), what makes their offense an above average one is the value they’ve placed on holding onto the basketball (top 15 in turnover rate) and consistently grabbing offensive rebounds (top 10 in offensive rebound rate). These two factors are huge when discussing wins and losses. Their attack is set up by the long ball and Kyle Lowry’s penetration, but they’ve been hurt by both Patrick Patterson’s inability to establish himself as the low post bully he can be, and Luis Scola’s regression in the paint—he’s attempting fewer shots at the rim now than at any point in his career.
So where does all this leave the team? A tactful offense that has room for improvement and a defense that’s reliant on one of the league’s best shot blockers in the back, and one of its most ferocious ball hawks at the front. When the opposing team has an elite one on one scorer who stands 6’5″ or taller the Rockets seriously struggle covering him (this is exactly the situation they’ll see facing almost every opponent in the playoffs, and a young Shane Battier is exactly the type of player they should be after at the trade deadline). Chandler Parsons understands how to play defense at the NBA level, but he has yet to make intuitive knowledge translate to productive action for an entire game.
Now, onto the awards:
The Most Pleasant Surprise
A) Chandler Parsons. He’s a rookie second round draft pick who’s fourth on the team in minutes played, rebounds, and assists. He’s second in steals and third in blocks. The contributions have been so out of nowhere, it’s a wonder why this category hasn’t already been re-named “Who’s Acting Like Chandler Parsons?”
B) Kevin McHale and his staff. Who expected any of this from McHale? The unorthodox lineup configurations. The willingness to ride hot hands. The confidence he’s given guys like Dalembert, Lowry, and Parsons. The guy has been so much more than a congenial personality. McHale knows what he has with his roster and he maximizes every last drop from the players who’re worth playing. He instantly recognized Terrence Williams’ inability to exist within his offense and resisted the temptation to give Hasheem Thabeet an opportunity when the season started slow. Another hat tip to the job Houston’s new coach has done: The Rockets have outscored opponents 65-47 using a Dragic, Lowry, Lee, Patterson, and Parsons lineup this year. That’s awesome.
C) The Bench. Houston’s base secondary unit of Dragic, Lee, Budinger, Patterson, and Hill average 1.07 PPP while giving up a miniscule 0.89 PPP. On an individual level each one has played relatively well up to this point (apart from Hill), and the team remains a threat in the west primarily because of the depth Daryl Morey’s created.
Winner: Kevin McHale
Most Improved Player
A) Kyle Lowry
B) Samuel Dalembert
It’s tough to designate a “Most Improved Player” without defining a given timeframe, so for this award we’ll be discussing how a player’s improved from last year to this one. Lowry was a legitimate All-Star snub. Dalembert’s added sudden touch around the basket to his already above average defensive play.
Winner: Kyle Lowry
A) Goran Dragic
B) Patrick Patterson
C) Courtney Lee
It’s a tough pack to choose from. My personal favorite is Dragic, a fearless floor general who infects his teammates with intensity every time he scores on a fast break. Patterson got off to a slightly disappointing start as he dealt with a foot injury, and Courtney Lee’s been the ever-serviceable backup two guard we’ve known all along.
Winner: Goran Dragic
Most Disappointing Player
A) Kevin Martin. Being traded never stopped stinging. The ongoing transaction speculation weighs heavy on his shoulders. He’s struggled adjusting to being a secondary scoring option alongside the increasingly ravenous Kyle Lowry. His game hasn’t adjusted to the league’s subtle shift towards allowing a bit more leniency to hard-nosed perimeter defenders. One of these, and maybe even all of them, can explain the up and down season Kevin Martin’s currently mired in. Yes, he’s leading the team in scoring, but at five fewer points per game than last year. His usage rate has dropped five percentage points and his PER has dropped three, too. But at the core of Martin’s inconsistency are the free-throw attempts. Formerly his bread and butter, Martin’s averaging exactly half as many attempts at the free-throw line this year as opposed to last. Something’s up with Kevin Martin. I wonder how much of the problem’s in his head.
B) Chase Budinger. From a purely statistical standpoint Budinger hasn’t dropped off at all, in any major category. In his usual 20 minutes a game he’s shooting the deep ball better than ever to go along with a career best PER and TS%. But that isn’t the point here, is it? Apart from his participation in the dunk contest, the big storyline surrounding Budinger’s season was his demotion from the starting lineup just a week into the season. It’s almost like the Rockets were a boy in high school and Budinger was a cute girl. A week into the school year, a new, slightly prettier girl (Parsons) caught the boy’s eye. Old, cute girl’s number was thrown away and a switcheroo was instantly made. On top of that, in the bigger picture of Budinger’s career, didn’t you expect to see more than marginal improvement this year? It’s his third season and he’s getting his starting job taken away by a rookie who can’t shoot free-throws? That can’t be the development Morey is looking for.
C) Luis Scola. As previously mentioned, Scola is taking fewer shots at the rim than ever before, yet his usage rate is up from last year. As surprisingly pleasant as the Rockets have been, this number may be what’s holding them back the most. Thanks to his age, Scola’s game is moving further and further from the basket, and the results have been fewer rebounds and more turnovers. On some levels this had to of been expected. Scola may have entered the league a mere five seasons ago, but he was playing professional ball a long time before that. Last year his statistics took a meteoric rise and it made very little sense. Now he’s coming back to Earth and our expectations here on out should be tempered.
Winner: Kevin Martin
Least Valuable Player
A) Terrence Williams
B) Jonny Flynn
C) Hasheem Thabeet
The nominees here are plenty, with Terrence Williams, Jonny Flynn, and Hasheem Thabeet all holding more value as “assets” than as “players”. Not a good thing when you aren’t even 25-years-old.
Loser: All three
Most Valuable Player
A) Kyle Lowry
B) Luis Scola
C) Samuel Dalembert
This is a no-brainer.
Winner: Kyle Lowry