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New Year’s Day Houston Rockets roundtable

The writers of Red94 got together before the New Year to discuss their thoughts about the Rockets with over 30 games gone. Here is what we had to say:

McGuire: Phil Jackson defined his contenders as teams which won 40 games before they lost 20, and the Rockets are currently on pace to do that just like every other team in the Western Conference (and the Spurs, because they are contenders regardless of their regular season win total).

And yet, I am annoyed with how this season has gone. We all hoped that the Rockets would become even better as players returned from injuries, but we are instead working in new players which has hampered us to some degree. Rahat said that seeding doesn’t really matter, but I think this is backwards. Seeding represents wins, which represents how well Smith and Brewer are integrating with this team.

Rahat: I am of the opinion that it is preferable to sacrifice a few wins right now if it means integrating better players for the long haul.  I do think the addition of Josh Smith played a big part in why the team lost these past two games.  Maybe those two losses are the difference between the third seed and the fourth seed.  I can live with that.

Dover: One of the things that made the situation so bad in Detroit was the organisation’s refusal to change things for such a long time even when you could see that things were not working. Despite it being clear that Smith at SF was a disaster, they persisted with him for over a year. I don’t mind the team doing what Rahat suggests, provided that if it becomes obvious that it’s not going to work McHale is willing to ditch the Smith experiment.

To be fair, the coaching staff does have a good record of doing this, with the aborted Asik-Howard experiment last year being the primary example (one could even argue that they ended that too early given what happened in the playoffs). I guess at the end of the day, that means my answer boils down to “let’s wait and see”.

McGuire: I remain skeptical. Then again, I was utterly convinced Motiejunas was not going to “get it” at the beginning of this season, so shows what I know.

But let’s move aside from Smith, because I am sort of tired of talking about him at this point. Are you guys as satisfied with how the season has gone for 2014? Houston’s record is better this year, but its point differential has gotten worse, and I believe that does a better job in showing the true strength of a team. And as much talk as there has been about the improved defense, the offense has cratered – and some of that is probably due to the fact that Parsons and Lin did possess some shot creating ability, while Ariza does not.

Dover: Given the injury storm at the beginning (particularly taking into account the fact that those injuries were at the specific positions that we were weakest depth-wise), I am very happy with how this season has gone so far. Yes, the offense hasn’t hummed as smoothly as it did last year, but I feel like there’s still time for that to turn around.

On that note – this is a bit of a blast from the past, but I did a little number crunching a while back that showed that it can be less advantageous for good defensive teams to shoot lots of threes – if they can bank on a strong defence, it is better to go for low risk, low variance options. It seems to me that this is being borne out by the team this year.  To my eye, the offense looks best when it is dominated by paint scoring, be it from the post or from drives.  When the team starts settling for high volumes of three pointers, the offence often sputters and dies.  As you say, this could well stem from a lack of secondary shot-creation.

But that’s a fairly minor problem in the grand scheme of things – the translation from offensive to defensive minded team seems to have worked wonders for the team’s effectiveness in crunch time if the 4-0 overtime record is anything to judge by, and the breakthrough of some of the team’s young players so far this season has meant I’m finishing 2014 feeling good about things!

Li: No question I’m happy with how this year has gone. Becoming more defensively minded has made an enormous difference in just about everything, most apparent in the team’s ability to weather injuries. You don’t need tremendously talented players to win with defense, as the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls have shown.

Rob’s comment about the three point shooting is interesting. It makes sense to me. Flying under the radar is that the Rockets’ PACE has decreased this year to 97.69.  It still cracks top 10 in the league, but it’s far from the days of 105.  The team plays more slowly, I think partly due to the emergence of DMo in the post and partly due to losing Parsons and Lin.

Given these circumstances, volume 3-point shooting is not going to be effective because the volume is simply lower.  At the same time, the 3-point shot is so important now that it would be foolish to give it up.  My biggest concern is the team’s lack of top-tier 3-point shooters.  We got rid of Parsons, Daniels, and Covington, and brought in Brewer (career 29% shooter, despite his recent outburst) and Smith. The one person who might have a chance to become a top-tier shooter is Canaan, who oddly doesn’t see the light of day any more.

McGuire: Canaan’s position is interesting.  In general, I’m not much of a fan of the theory that coaches should just throw young out in the NBA and call it “development.” But I was extremely surprised that McHale went with Alexey Shved over Canaan. I’m sort of a Timberwolves fan due to going to university in St. Paul, and so I’ve watched Shved in his NBA start at Minnesota. Shved was well liked in Minnesota, and I believe he is a decent person.  But he is not a good player nor does he possess the potential to be one at the age of 26.

Rahat: To answer the previous question, I’m extremely pleased with how the season has transpired to date.   The offense has sputtered, sure, even horrifically at times, but the philosophical transformation is exciting.  Defense is something that you can rely upon.  There isn’t variance because it’s under your own control.  That bodes well for playoff success when the shots are not always falling.  As for the offense, I think that is largely a factor of the injuries and now, the acclimation of major new parts.  The group needs time together to gel.

Walker: This season has been great.  This is so much better than last season that it’s kind of amazing to me that this is much of a discussion.  Apart from a couple of ugly weeks and one blowout to the Grizzlies, there’s not much to dislike.  The Rockets are playing like they mean it, they’re buying in to what the front office is selling, and James Harden is more than an MVP candidate – he’s probably the frontrunner.  Are they the clear favorites over any playoff team (which I’m pencilling the Thunder in for until further notice) in the West?  No.  Are they clear underdogs vs any playoff team in the West?  Again, no.  This conference is wide open, and it’s on Morey and friends to take advantage.  Josh Smith might be a colossal bust, but I don’t care.  He is another swing on bat, another move that could help the team be that much scarier in the long run.  That’s worth way more than a couple wins or a playoff seed.

View this discussion from the forum.

About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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