Houston Rockets 97, Dallas Mavericks 94; A Note on Iguodala

In my opinion, this was the most significant win of the season for the Houston Rockets.

Aaron Brooks led all scorers with 30 points including 6 triples.  Dirk Nowitzki was held to 3-12 from the field for just 11 points.

After surrendering a double digit 3rd quarter lead, the Rockets held on in the 4th to secure the victory.

Random Musings:

Typically, I offer my perspective of each game in the form of independent observations.  Today, that will not be the case because the significance of this win was as a whole:  I thought this was the biggest victory of the year for the Houston Rockets.

With wins over the Lakers and Cleveland, Houston has beaten teams superior to the Dallas Mavericks.  But in my opinion, this win carries far greater implications.  The Lakers are a team against whom the Rockets had already proven [in last year’s playoffs] to match up favorably.  This particular Rockets team, without Yao Ming and Artest, prior to the win against Cleveland, had no track record against the Cavaliers, so there was no extant barometer to indicate team progression.

Last night’s win over Dallas stands as the biggest of the year because it came over a team against whom the Rockets had struggled earlier.  The win at Dallas showed mettle, but it came without Dirk in the lineup.  This win signified an ability to adjust against a superior foe.  The game really invokes the memory of the Francis-era Rockets for whom the complete opposite was the case.

In beating a Mavericks squad at full health, this win, against the very fitting backdrop of the New Year, marked the most significant milestone to date of the Rockets’ season.

Only the early win at Utah compares in gravity as a true ‘turning point.’  After giving off the appearance of a sure-fire lottery finish [on opening night against Portland] the domination against the Jazz was the night when the Houston Rockets signaled that this season, they would not lay down.  Last night, they told the basketball world that they were something more than just an overachiever.

An important element of the game was that the Rockets actually choked.  The team went cold in the 3rd quarter, squandering a double-digit lead to find themselves trailing.  It appeared to simply be a different rendition of the same script.  Yet the Rockets found a way to recover and win, and even more importantly, they actually looked decisive in the process.

Rockets fans have become far too familiar with the sight of the offense bogging down late in close games, the players standing hesitantly, all after flowing so smoothly through three quarters.

On Thursday night, they had a plan.  The team ran an unconventional lineup featuring the two small guards (Brooks, Lowry) in the backcourt, with Ariza, Battier, and Landry up front.  Most striking was that the team continued to look to Landry in the post late in the game on consecutive sequences.  A mere few weeks ago, this would not have been the case.

Carl’s emergence as an actual post-up threat has been the most significant theme of the year, in terms of player-development.  Last year, Landry was used exclusively off the ball, if even in the game in the 4th.  Earlier this season, if he ever received it, he was facing up.  Over the past few games, we have now seen the team committed to establishing Landry with his back to the basket and he has delivered.

The team is establishing its 4th quarter identity.  They Rockets want to attack with Lowry along the baseline and sides, Brooks up the middle, and Landry in the post.  These are the team’s three best offensive players.

Another striking element of last night’s win was the fact that I didn’t record any plays concerning Ariza toward which I held great objection.  Obviously, he still looked very awkward in spots, but that is to be expected.  However, it really seemed as if the leash had been shortened as I don’t recall seeing Trevor allowed to create.  Let us hope that this is not simply due to the injury suffered against Cleveland, but rather another significant turning point of the season.  I would add that the greatest benefit to the Brooks-Lowry backcourt is that it takes the ball out of Ariza’s hands by default.

Another important aspect of last night’s game was the fact that Dirk Nowitzki was completely contained down the stretch without Chuck Hayes. Unfortunately however, I will refrain from attaching any analytical implications to this feat as I suspect that Dirk is still being bothered by the thick padding covering his elbow.

Aaron Brooks was invaluable in providing 30 points, but it came by way of 6 triples.  He got very hot as he often does, and the team always plays well when he is effective from long range.  However, it is very concerning that so much of the team’s success on any given night is dependent upon Aaron’s accuracy with the ‘3’.  Brooks is now shooting 46% from ‘3’ in wins, and 30% in losses.  This calls for a closer look at team-wide correlation, but at first glance, there would appear to be a troubling direct relationship between Aaron’s 3 point shooting and the team’s success.

Final note for today comes on the trade front.  From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

So what’s it going to take to get the Houston Rockets’ Tracy McGrady and his $23 million expiring contract?

It’s going to take a deal involving, as its main piece, 76ers swingman Andre Iguodala.

According to a source close to the situation, the Houston Rockets have said they would only consider shipping McGrady to Philly if the Sixers “knocked the Rockets over” with the amount of talent they included in the deal.

This source said the Rockets have made it clear they will not — in any way — consider trading McGrady to the Sixers for power forward Elton Brand ($14-15 million this year, 3 years left after this one) and center Samuel Dalembert ($12 million, one year left after this one). According to this source, the Sixers are trying very hard to unload Dalembert (not a surprise) and Brand (not a huge surprise, either).

The problem is not many NBA teams are willing to take on money right now. This source named only three NBA teams possibly willing (Houston, Dallas, and Cleveland).

According to this source, the Rockets have expressed interest in a deal involving Iguodala, but he must be paired with better, younger talent than Dalembert. (Read: a deal involving possibly Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, Marreese Speights, etc.).

Again, the Rockets are willing to take on money, but it’d have to be a special package and a 3rd team might even need to be involved. This source said this would be the kind of deal where both teams needed approval from ownership because of the amount of money and players involved.

The source also said that the Rockets and Sixers have not talked in “more than a week”, making a deal unlikely, but said any deal involving Iguodala “has a chance.”

So there’s the latest on the NBA’s most talked about trading chip: Tracy McGrady.

The problem with the Sixers making a deal involving Iguodala and young talent is that they’d be getting rid of some good young guys and remain with Brand and Dalembert, which is sort of the opposite of the point of making such a trade.


Trading Iguodala without including Dalembert/Brand is the logical equivalent of paying someone $1000 to clean the dog feces off your front porch and then letting them take the money without doing the task.  But stranger things have happened (see: Gasol, Pau).  He’s not the creator we seek, but I can’t think of a better haul (other than the Chris Paul dream scenario Bill Simmons has been pushing) for this team than Andre Iguodala.  A young, big, physical guard who plays relentless ‘D’ like Iggy would fit so well onto this team that it’s almost scary.  My guess though is that this report is merely a leak of the Rockets’ stated dream scenario (for bargaining leverage) and that we won’t see any real reports of anything palatable to both sides until closer to the deadline.  Common sense would dictate that any deal involving Iguodala would most definitively involve one of Dalembert/Brand in some capacity (whether to Houston or a 3rd team).

Still, it is extremely encouraging that there are whispers of a potential haul this size (as opposed to the New York – based “Jared Jeffries Blockbuster” scenario making the rounds in the northeast.)

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On McGrady – Part 4

It appears that Tracy McGrady has played his last game as a Houston Rocket.

The entire saga has been disappointing.

I’m disappointed by the outcome; disappointed in McGrady; disappointed by the sudden finality of that moment when a prior hope ceases to exist.

I said in my assessment that, overall, I didn’t think Tracy was helping this team.  He did however look much better in his next two outings.

I had hoped that McGrady would be given a further chance; a chance to supply his passing for legitimate durations; a chance to show that he could in fact fit in to this new scheme.

That will not happen.  Management has made its decision.

As has far too often been the case, McGrady opened his mouth and promptly inserted his foot [publically requesting more minutes after the win at Orlando.]

But this time, the fading talent wasn’t worth the talk, and Rick Adelman had had enough.

I’m skeptical of the decision, but I have full faith in Daryl Morey and Adelman.

Their way is not how I would have done it, but I trust their judgment.

Morey and Adelman might be the best management duo in our league.  In their stints with the team, each has been nearly infallible.

Their way is not how I would have done it, but their track record earns such trust.

Yet still, my underlying concern remains.  It is easy to become lost in the euphoria of this season of exceeded expectations.  But this team, as currently composed, is not a championship contender.  This team, as currently composed, will need an elite player to attain the heights it seeks.

While the vision had crumbled of McGrady once more becoming that player, I felt he could at least masquerade in the role, utilizing the vestiges that still remained of a once deadly arsenal, boosting the team through close fourth quarters.

But that will not happen – Tracy McGrady is gone.  The focus now turns to finding that player who he no longer is.

Going Forward

We don’t know what he can fetch, but McGrady’s only value is as financial relief (McGrady has an expiring contract meaning that a team can drop his $23 million salary from its payroll after the season.)  He could have worth if packaged with another Rocket, but its unclear as to whether the team is willing to dismantle its core.

For now, Daryl Morey will bide his time, listen, and entertain.  There is no urgency to strike a deal so it is doubtful that anything is imminent.

For now, all that is clear is that Tracy McGrady may have played his last game as a Houston Rocket.

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Houston Rockets 108, New Orleans Hornets 100

The Houston Rockets won this game in the 4th quarter after nearly surrendering it in the 3rd.

After taking a 61-51 halftime lead, the Rockets were outscored 31 to 13 in the 3rd.

They then came roaring back in the 4th, outscoring the New Orleans Hornets 33 to 18.

David West led all scorers with a career high 44 points.  Aaron Brooks paced the Rockets with 27.

Random Musings:

I only have a few points to make about this game.

  • David West is the guy after whom Carl Landry needs to pattern his game.  Ironic, because the latter actually has better numbers on the year, but Carl could really explode if he expanded his range out to the 3 point line and incorporated some of the moves in West’s repertoire.
  • Emeka Okafor would look really, really, really good patrolling the paint for a team built upon its defense.
  • There isn’t a guy in the league for whom I feel happier after a big shot late in a close game than Shane Battier.  I thought about this for a moment last night, and I don’t know exactly why this is the case.  Is it just that rare moment when the fusion of intangibles and actual tangibility moves me to emotion?
  • My main point:  6:31 mark in the 1st, Aaron Brooks drives baseline, kicks out to Ariza who pump fakes, and then flies in for the slam.  Late in the 4th, Brooks finds Ariza in the corner once more and Trevor hesitates before blowing past his defender for the game winning dunk.

These two sequences further illustrate and solidify my main assertion.  A slasher drives by using his speed. This is best facilitated by a rotating defense.  Where Trevor struggles is when he actually has to make a move to get around his man.

I don’t quite know why this distinction is so difficult to comprehend.  After the play at the 6:31 mark, Bill remarks “that’s what we need to see more of, that’ll bring that average up,” to which Clyde responds, “don’t settle for the first shot.  Get the shot you want.”

Actually, no.  It’s really the complete opposite.  Trevor needs to be settling for what he is given because that is where he thrives.  It is when he attempts to get a shot through his own volition when he most usually fails.

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Motion Mapping NBA Teams

The last few days, I’ve been thinking about different ways to explore the offensive and defensive strength of teams with respect to one another. Some weeks ago I came to learn about a “Motion Chart” gadget provided within Google Docs (thanks to Commodore from the Clutchfans message board for this). I figured this would be a great way to observe trends in team performance.  I imported offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and pace data for all 30 NBA teams over the course of the season, and created an NBA Motion Map gadget. I’ll describe briefly the various categories you can visualize:

  • OFF: offensive efficiency or points scored per 100 possessions
  • DEF: defensive efficiency or points allowed per 100 possessions
  • PACE: possessions per 48 minutes
  • EFF: point differential (per 100 possessions)
  • OFF_std, DEF_std, PACE_std, EFF_std: these are standardized statistics, where a value of 0 would be league average, the more negative the worse the team is, and the more positive the better the team is.
  • OFF_DEF_std: this indicates how balanced the team is, more positive means the team is offensively-inclined, more negative means the team is defensively-inclined
  • And for each of the above, you can choose between 2 weeks (stats over prior 2 weeks) or season (stats from the beginning of the season)

The gadget is fairly customizable. By default, it shows offensive efficiency vs defensive efficiency, though using the standardized versions you might get a better gauge of how “above average” or “below average” a team is along a given metric. Another view I would suggest taking a look at is EFF_std vs OFF_DEF_std.  Along one dimension you’ll see how strong or weak the team is overall, and along the other dimension you’ll see their offensive/defensive orientation. You can also set the color and/or size of each point to depend on a specified metric. The Trails check box will control whether a path is drawn for the teams you’ve selected. This is useful if you want to get a stronger visual sense of how a team is trending over time. Here’s a  snapshot to illustrate what it can show you:

Tracking Rockets Offense/Defense over time

In the above example, the changing color from one point to the next reflects changes in pace. The size of the points change to reflect overall efficiency (a “-” in the middle indicates periods where the Houston Rockets were getting outscored). You can also zoom in by dragging a rectangle over an area of interest. Opacity of non-selected teams can be adjusted by clicking the wrench in the lower-right corner as well.

Try it out for yourself:

In addition to the motion scatter plot, you may also find the charts in the other two tabs interesting. The bar chart in the middle tab will show you how the ranking of selected teams along specified metrics change over time. The third chart summarizes the fluctuations of specified metrics over time with a line graph. In the near future, I will look to add “four factor” stats as well (i.e., field goal efficiency, rebounding, turnovers, free throws). If you have any suggestions on other numbers that might be interesting to track, please let me know in the comments section.

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Cleveland Cavaliers 108, Houston Rockets 83

The Houston Rockets lost to a much better team tonight.

Houston opened up blistering out of the gates, jumping out to a 16-4 lead after just four minutes.  The Cleveland Cavaliers closed the gap to end the 1st and held a 51-48 lead at halftime.

The Cavs opened up the 3rd with a ’3′ point barrage, putting the game out of reach.

Aaron Brooks was a bright spot with 23 points, 18 in the first half.

Brian Cook entered the game with 5:37 remaining in the 4th allowing me to get a head start on this recap.

Random Musings:

  • Two interesting plays involving Shane Battier:
  1. With 6:56 remaining in the 1st, Anthony Parker sets up for a corner ‘3’.  A rotating Battier closes out, not by contesting the shot, but by jumping past Parker with an outstretched hand to the face.
  2. To close out the 1st, Lebron receives the inbounds pass in the backcourt with just a few seconds remaining.  Lebron gets ready to shoot the desperation heave.  Rather than jumping to contest the shot, as is done by 99.9% of NBA players, Battier simply stands in James’ path with his arms raised.

Shane’s ‘hand in the face’ defense has been well documented, most notably in matchups against Kobe Bryant.  But he doesn’t just use this method in straight man-coverage.  He does it in all situations.  Whether it be in covering end-of-quarter-heaves to rotational close-outs, Shane Battier has deemed it statistically advantageous to never actually go for the block.

  • Two very uncharacteristic mental errors tonight by Hayes:
  1. With the score 16-6, Hayes picked up his second foul with 6:14 remaining in the 1st.  Hayes gets trapped inside with Shaq and slaps him on the arms to prevent the basket.  Given the situation, he should have conceded the hoop.  I worry at the time that this would be a turning point in the game, but that did not prove to be the case.
  2. With under two minutes remaining in the half, the Rockets are able to force Lebron into a fadeaway airball in the corner.  Hayes grabs the board as Battier sprints out to half-court.  Hayes tries to outlet the pass to Battier and it is picked off by Lebron, leading to an AND-1 basket.  The Cavs take a 3 point lead.

I was very surprised to see a guy like Hayes make such costly mental errors.  His presence in the game is of more importance than preventing a basket.  As far as the second play, the team gains nothing even if Battier is able to receive that pass – he wouldn’t have been able to do anything with it in the open floor.  Except for Trevor, not making mental errors such as these is a big part of why the Rockets have been so good this year.

  • 4:35 left in the 2nd, Landry hits a fallaway turning away from the basket.  This was the type of shot that I had earlier said he couldn’t make.  He seems to be showing us a different move every game.
  • At the end of the 2nd, the Cavs’ announcer remarks that the Rockets play “every possession like it is their last one [and that] that’s why they’ll do well in the playoffs.”  I completely disagree with this sentiment.  The fact that the Rockets’ success comes as the result of maximum effort should be the cause for concern for playoff potential.  The Rockets, as currently constituted, can’t play any better while their opponents will certainly turn up the intensity.  Everyone plays hard in the playoffs.
  • With 8:01 remaining in the 2nd, after directing an obscenity laced tirade towards my television set, Trevor Ariza is finally removed from the ball-game (after a series of bone-headed plays) and replaced by Aaron Brooks.  The Rockets run a very interesting lineup featuring Brooks, Lowry, and the 6’4 Jermaine Taylor, all together on the perimeter.  The team instantly goes on a run.
  • The Cavs take the lead to close out the first half as Lebron completely wears out Battier in the post on successive plays.  This sequence was noteworthy for being the first time all season that my cognitive inhibitions somehow allow me to mutter “I wish we had Artest right now.”  Embarrassed, I quickly realize we would probably have 10 less points at that moment were that the case.
  • Trevor Ariza opens up the 3rd quarter with what is becoming his ‘signature move.’  It’s so painful to watch that it’s almost humorous at this point.  He will drive in, get cut off, and then pick up his dribble.  Having nowhere to go, he’ll turn back around off of his pivot foot and attempt an off balance fallaway.  He does this move at least 5 times a game.  This has become so routine that I’m almost beginning to wonder if the whole sequence is pre-meditated with Trevor somehow believing that what he is doing is the same manner in which other wings perform their fadeaway jumpshots.
  • I just don’t understand what’s taking place.  Rick Adelman probably forgets more basketball on any given day than I have ever known in my entire life.  He’s proven this year that he might just be the best coach in all of basketball.  I just don’t understand what is going on with Ariza.  I don’t want to just criticize; I want badly to just understand the rationale behind what is taking place.  I just can’t think of any logical explanation as to why this player is being allowed to frequently attempt feats which he has absolutely no hope of achieving.  It’s become mind boggling at this point.  I have said many times that I am all for experimentation and player development.  But these have to be within certain limits of realism.  You play David Andersen despite his defensive troubles because he will improve.  You live with Jermaine Taylor getting blocked at the rim because he will learn from it and adjust his shot.  These are areas where players improve from in-game experience.  Trevor Ariza cannot compensate for his complete and total lack of skill and body control with in-game experience.  It just won’t happen.  Letting him take in-game reps at creating off the dribble is completely counterproductive – he just can’t do it.  Maybe he’ll improve over the summer, but affording him such a leash during the season is simply hurting this team.  I just want an explanation because I’m dumbfounded at this point as to why this has been allowed to continue.

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