The Rockets Daily – February 28, 2014

In what might be the most insightful and accurate piece I’ve read all year, Rob Mahoney of the Point Forward makes the case for the Rockets as contenders for the title this June.

Normally when I use articles for the Daily, I try to find the one paragraph that sums up what you, the reader, need to know.  But with this one there is just too much good information to cut and paste.  I practically need to rip the whole article.  Any red-blooded Rockets fan should really click the link and soak up what Mahoney has to say.  But for those that just want the CliffsNotes, allow me to try.

Once reframed in that light, the Rockets are ninth in defense this season and sixth since Jan. 1 — a stark difference from Houston’s No. 19 ranking in points allowed per game. The Rockets’ contagious style encourages opponents to fuel the game’s pace, but Houston has managed to keep things in check by playing the best transition defense in the league, according to Synergy Sports. The Rockets have maintained the impossible balance of attacking the offensive glass while still getting back to defend. Beverley, forward Chandler Parsons and guard Jeremy Lin, in particular, have a great sense of when to retreat. It also doesn’t hurt that Howard and Asik — two of the NBA’s better offensive rebounders — can hang around to compete for boards on their own, an act that can delay or prevent a fast break. (…)

That approach has created the illusion of three-point reliance. In reality, however, Houston has the inside-out balance to rival that of any team. Along with leading the NBA in three-point attempts, the Rockets rank third in the percentage of points drawn from free throws. Behind Harden’s drives and Howard’s finishes, they are fourth in percentage of points scored in the paint. In tandem, that means “easy points” account for the greatest cut (68.4 percent) among prospective playoff teams. In that framing, the Rockets’ three-point gunning is simply a way to pitch an already effective unit over the top.

There’s really little I can add to what Mahoney has to say as to why the Rockets are true contenders.  They have the stars and statistical resume required historically to win a title.  And I realize fans are a little down after another loss to the Clippers (who just became more daunting), which only proved that the Rockets desperately need to keep winning and make the three-seed their own so as to avoid a first-round match-up with Los Angeles.  That will not be easy in the minefield that is the next month.  March will be the Rockets toughest month of the season in regards to top-flight talent, with games against the Pacers, Blazers, Thunder, Bulls, Clippers and two against the Heat. 

But if the Rockets can manage these next four weeks without a prolonged slump, they should be right where they want to be heading into April, which is shaping up to be one of the easier months on the schedule.

Trimester Awards – Marc Stein released his picks for the second-trimester superlatives.  Michael Carter-Williams (ROY), Taj Gibson (6th-man) and coach Jeff Hornacek (COY) were all pretty obvious choices for their respective awards.  But his pick for Defensive Player of the Second Trimester may surprise some folks, Houston’s own Dwight Howard.

And since the calendar flipped to 2014, Houston actually sports the league’s sixth-best team D, allowing just 101.3 points per 100 possessions. (…)

But this is really all about Howard’s turn to be recognized for the one-man wrecking crew he still very much is defensively. Especially when you remember that Houston is by no means blessed with the sort of defensive quality on the perimeter that Indiana can field with Paul George, George Hill and Lance Stephenson flanking Hibbert.

I’ve made this argument before but it warrants saying again.  Roy Hibbert is a fine player and very deserving of the real award at the end of the season, but his degree of difficulty is much lower than what Howard is asked to do for the Houston Rockets.  Besides the three wing players listed by Stein, Hibbert also has a battering-ram David West at power forward to help deter would-be slashers from the painted area.

Howard still isn’t the one-man defensive unit he was in Orlando, although he has had noticeable improvement in his lateral agility and overall athleticism even since arriving in Houston.  For Howard to ever get back to being the default candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, his perimeter teammates must step-up the pressure on the wings.  And in their defense, they (read: James Harden) have looked much better in the last few weeks.  But you can’t deny the Pacers’ numbers this season; this year will ultimately go to Hibbert.

Patience Young Grasshopper – Through the first two months of the season Donatas Motiejunas was averaging only eight minutes per game.  Even when Omer Asik started missing games, it was five whole weeks before D-Mo finally started seeing an uptick in minutes.  Since the January 15 meeting against the New Orleans Pelicans, Motiejunas has averaged just over 20 minutes a game; the Rockets are 15-4 during that stretch.  Jonathan Feigen highlights what’s been different for him since the new year.

Motiejunas became determined to demonstrate how desperately he wanted a place in the Rockets rotation. Almost defiantly, he refused to take days off, not just to improve, but to leave no questions. He arrived at 9:30 for noon practices, lifting by 10, shooting at 11 and staying after for more.

“I wanted to never give them a reason not to play me,” he said. “If I stopped to work, they could say, ‘Oh, he gave up. He’s weak mentally.’”

Instead, Rockets coaches repeatedly reminded him that his chance could come.

“If you hang in there, things will go your way,” McHale said. “The problem with these guys is every day of their lives, someone told them how great they are. Then they hit adversity… They’re like, ‘what’s this?’ It’s called the NBA. It’s not perfect. It’s not always great. Sometimes when you’re a 20-year-old kid, you have to earn your time. He worked hard. Now, he’s reaping the benefits.”

I always assumed that McHale is just harder on young players than he is on veterans.  After all, he was hesitant to give Terrence Jones any run and even did the same thing with Kevin Love in Minnesota.  McHale is old-school and had to earn his way into the starting rotation on the Celtics despite being one of the best power forwards of all-time.  Although it sounds like D-Mo’s problem was his attitude.  But since turning things around a few weeks ago, his minutes have slowly started to rise to the point that he’s almost splitting the power forward minutes evenly with Terrence Jones.

And during that stretch something has become obvious with Motiejunas: he just plays basketball like a professional.  Whereas Jones’ raw talent may ultimately raise his ceiling higher than D-Mo’s due to his defense or athleticism, right now Motiejunas is just so much more polished at this point in their careers.  He’s got the savvy moves around the basket and never misses a backdoor cut, but the thing that really stands out is the way he abuses mismatches.

Motiejunas doesn’t have the ball in his hands often, but when he does he like to look for weak-spots.  There was a play in the first half against the Clippers when Dwight was posted up on the right block and D-Mo cut to the hoop from the backside.  When Darren Collison was the only Clip to pick-up the cut, Motiejunas immediately pinned Collison under the basket and called for the ball; even on TV he could be heard yelling “Dwight! Dwight!”.  Howard fed him the ball and D-Mo got the easy lay-in.  Later when Hedo Turkoglu checked into the game for the Clippers, just about every time D-Mo got his hands on the ball he immediately moved it to whoever Turkoglu was guarding.  And the two times Turkoglu tried covering Motiejunas out on the wing, the big Lithuanian immediately attacked the basket, scoring once.

It seems as though Kevin McHale likes to test the resolve of his young guys to see if they’re ready for the ups-and-downs of life in the NBA before rewarding them with playing time.  He pushed D-Mo and despite the brief period of self-pity, Motiejunas pushed back.  And now that McHale knows what he has in him, it just adds the bevy of options to choose from in his versatile frontcourt.

Speaking Of Those Options – Greg Smith has barely played this year due to a knee injury he suffered back in November.  And now it appears he will be out for several more weeks.

Rockets center Greg Smith, unable to overcome the knee issues that have given him trouble since November, will have arthroscopic knee surgery to address the problem, a person with knowledge of the decision said on Thursday.

Apparently Smith will only miss a month following surgery, but I have a hard time believing he’ll suit-up again this season.  When the injury happened my first thought was that he shredded his knee.  I was then shocked when they announced that it was just a sprain, but it appears that it was more than that.  And with the development of Jones and Motiejunas, Smith has become somewhat expendable if not unneeded.  He doesn’t have the overall skills or floor-spacing ability of Motiejunas and he does most of the same things as Jones, but not quite as well.  Barring an injury to one of Houston’s current frontcourt rotation, the Rockets would be better to shelve Smith for the rest of the season and let him start the summer strong.

ICYMI – I don’t know how this one slipped through the cracks, and normally I wouldn’t use material that is more than a week old, but since Kevin Pelton’s piece answering the question “Is Dwight Howard Still Elite?” is an ESPN Insider article, I thought I would provide a few notes on it for those who aren’t so privileged.

So where does that leave Howard overall? It’s tough for any center in the league to match his combination of offense and defense. While Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers has supplanted Howard as the NBA’s top defensive player, Hibbert is a far less efficient scorer.

The same is true of other top defensive centers, while the best scorers (including DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings) are weaker than Howard defensively. In terms of performance at both ends, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah might have the best case to counter Howard — he rates slightly better by the per-minute component of my WARP system, but Howard is far better in terms of PER.

First, the good: Howard has a .593 true shooting percentage, tops for all five-men by a significant margin.  And his adjusted-TS% is tied with only Chris Bosh as the top center.  Defensively, the team has jumped from 16th last year to ninth this year in opponents effective field-goal percentage.  Also, opponents are only shooting 47.4% at the rim against Howard.

And now, the bad:  That 47.4% shooting at the rim is down from the 45.7 mark he put up as the key figure in Kirk Goldsberry’s “The Dwight Effect“, which covered the best rim protectors in the league.  Pelton also points out that the 47.4% mark, despite being well above average, is outside of the top-20 rim protectors (Although he also points out the Rockets’ “iffy” perimeter D doesn’t help his case).  And as for his post-ups, well…

Howard remains one of the league’s most inefficient post scorers. According to Synergy Sports Technology, his 0.762 points per post-up ranks 22nd among the 24 players with at least 200 post-up plays. Howard’s still-poor free throw shooting brings that figure down, but during his 2010-11 campaign — when he finished second in MVP voting — Howard made 50.3 percent of his shots off post-ups, as compared with 45.3 percent this season.

That number has surely improved since the new year, where Howard has been the most dominant he’s been in at least three years.  And whether the form he’s shown of late is just temporary and he reverts back to his early season form (unlikely), Howard remains one of the top centers in the Association.  So while there is now an argument about who is the best big-man where before there was only one answer, the fact remains that Dwight is still elite.

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