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Two years ago, the Houston Rockets challenged the soon to be World Champion Los Angeles Lakers in a seven game dogfight that they had a decent shot at winning even though they lost Yao Ming in the middle of the series. That injury kept Yao from participating in any NBA related activities last season, which meant the talented Rockets found themselves in lottery despite an over a 42-40 record, a mark that would have been good enough for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Houston was easily the best team in the lottery going in, that is if exclude Utah who drafted with in the Knicks spot, and they ended up taking their team to another level, at least in my mind.
Last season, without Yao, Morey made some changes at the deadline to improve the Rockets’ chances of making the post-season. Though they did not end up making the post-season in one of the toughest Western Conferences races ever, Morey dealt Tracy McGrady’s expiring contract and Carl Landry to the Knicks and Kings in a three-team deal that brought over shooting guard Kevin Martin from Sacramento. Although Landry was as tough as nails and was one of the hardest workers in the NBA, Martin immediately gave Houston one of the most dynamic backcourts in the entire league.
Houston hadn’t had a wing player that they could rely on for 20+ points a night since McGrady before he was overcome by injures. Paired with Aaron Brooks, who was voted most improved player after the season and is one of the best non-superstars in the league, the Rockets had 40 points a night from their backcourt with either player capable of dropping 30+ on any given night. Though Martin and Brooks have some defensive deficiencies, there is somewhat of a counterbalance with Shane Battier and Courtney Lee capable of locking down on the other team’s best perimeter scorer. It may not be the most conventional way to field a team, but with this personnel, it looks like it will work.
On the interior, the Rockets will have Yao back this season. Last year, Chuck Hayes started at center for Houston. Fine player who works hard, but when you’re starting a center that is shorter than some shooting guards, you’re bound to have troubles on both ends of the floor in the paint. Yao changes everything, obviously. He is definitely not as dominant defensively as he could be with his long arms because quick feet aren’t something that seven-foot-six players are accustomed to, but he changes things. He does contest shots at the rim and his body gets in the way of some dribble drives. And his presence will have a large effect offensively. The Rockets were a guard only offensive team other than Luis Scola last season and Hayes was a non-factor. Yao, though most have forgotten it over the past year, is the best center in basketball, at least offensively, and his tools are unmatched for anybody his size.
And now, with rookie Patrick Patterson on board and Luis Scola returning after signing a wealthy contract extension this summer, the Rockets have a potential starting five of Brooks, Martin, Battier, Scola and Yao. Three elite offensive players, one of the best defensive players in the game, and a very talented power forward with range and some of the best scoop shots you’ll ever see. The West is tough, but that’s a playoff team, without a doubt, in my mind.
Morey has also built a solid bench around that starting five. For starters, Patterson goes to the bench and gives them another good power forward in the sixth man spot that Landry occupied before going to Sacramento. He’ll fight hard on the glass, fill his role and provide some offensive firepower throughout the season. Behind him, Houston has Courtney Lee, who was acquired this off-season in a four-team deal for the price of Trevor Ariza. With Battier starting and Lee coming off the bench, the Rockets can send a great defensive player at a guy like Kobe or Dwyane Wade for a full 48 minutes, which is a invaluable quality that only a few teams possess. Jared Jeffries has opted into a final year with the Rockets, which would give Houston three defenders over six-foot-six that can defend shooting guards and small forwards (even some power forwards for Jeffries).
Already, this team has eight solid players in the rotation, something the Lakers couldn’t say last year, and that isn’t all. Two rookies last season stepped up to fill a role.
Chase Budinger was drafted in the second round by the Pistons before his rights were traded to the Rockets. It didn’t seem like much at the time but now that the season has gone by, I think you can make a case that Budinger had the most overlooked rookie campaign in the league. I said so in December when the season was just beginning and I’ll stick by that now. Nine points and three rebounds aren’t big numbers by any stretch but he filled a variety of roles a sharpshooter, a fill-in for Battier and just a regular bench player. He didn’t get a lot of attention last season because his role was never consistent but he did his job when he was on the floor. His combination of size, athleticism, dedication and consistent three-point stroke make him the player most likely to take over Battier’s spot on the team as a defensive stopper and three-point shooter once Battier moves on.
The other rookie was Jordan Hill. Hill came over mid-season from the Knicks as part of the Kevin Martin deal. His role was even less defined than Budinger’s if you can even say he had one. But in mop-up duty and some late season minutes, he showed his physical tools were there and showed plus rebounding ability. Hill just needs to have somebody tweak with his motivation and work ethic, a job Rick Adelman seems perfect for. If Adelman can construct a consistent role player out of him, which is possible give his tools, the Rockets will have a nice pair of former Arizona Wildcats manning the forward spots for the next few years.
In free agency, other than retaining Luis Scola, the Rockets also matched an offer sheet that back-up point guard Kyle Lowry signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lowry is one of the league’s best back-up guards in the league. He’s a very good rebounder, a beast in transition for his size and a foul-drawing machine. As a strong, physical point guard, Lowry offers a steady change of pace from the leaner, more perimeter oriented Brooks and his ability to play as a slasher allows for a combination of Lowry and Brooks to be successful, though not ideal.
With Yao back and with one of the deepest teams in the league filling out the rest of the roster, I think the Rockets are going places this season and this might be the team to watch going into 2011. The one most capable of breaking out, overcoming their struggles from last season, and making the post-season. The way Yao looks when he returns to the floor after a year off from basketball might mean a slow start overall for Houston, which is tough for fans to handle, especially in that division and conference. But I think, with all of the offensive and defensive talent on this team, after a month or two, once all of their pieces are back on board, the Rockets will be ready for take off.
They Houston Rockets went up a notch in the NBA rankings this off-season because Patrick Patterson can play, and they nabbed him with the final pick in the lottery. Patterson may have been the most NBA ready prospect in the entire draft, including his former college teammate John Wall. Morey knew this, he sat there waiting ever so patiently, dying for this guy to fall into his arms. Its not just the talent, the tools, or the flare. Patterson is a smart, smart player. If basketball IQ is the term you want to use, so be it, he’s got a ton of basketball IQ. He makes the right plays, gambles when he knows all possible outcomes of his decision, and refuses to step beyond his limitations.
It’d be a different story had he gone to another team. I wouldn’t be raving about his knowledge and feel for the game had he gone to Warriors because it wouldn’t be likely that those things show up in an environment like that. But it means so much that he went to Houston because, perhaps more than any other team, they appreciate basketball knowledge and take advantage of advanced statistics.
A philosophy and style that stemmed from Morey and his MIT educational background has already spread to one Rocket player. You’ve seen and heard about Shane Battier and the booklets he uses to prepare to defend players like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James that contain stats like “Kobe Bryant drives right 57% of the time.” Not all players in the NBA have the mental capacity to even think about going that deep into the numbers to have more success in the NBA, much less study, comprehend it, and put it to use in real-time on the floor. I think Patterson is smart enough and is infatuated with the game to the point where he, like Battier, can use numbers and information to improve his overall game.
And right now, improvements for the Rockets is a scary idea for the rest of the league to come to grips with.
Kevin Martin brings a lot to the table as a basketball player. As one of the most offensively gifted two-guards in the league, Martin is blessed with a consistent jumper, a quick first step, the ability to draw fouls, and an unorthodox shooting motion that makes seems like his shot should get blocked every time.
In his most complete season in the NBA, 2006-2007, in which Martin played a career high 80 games, Kevin averaged 20 points per game and shot 47% from the field. Over the next two seasons, Martin would increase his scoring average to 24 and 25 points per game respectively.
When the Rockets made the deal for Martin, they knew exactly what they were getting. And what they got has been a primary need for them for some time. Without a go-to scoring option on the perimeter, the Rockets often lost control of offensive sets by putting the ball in an incompetent wing player’s hands (*cough* Trevor Ariza *cough*) or having to force the ball into the post with the shot clock winding down.
They also lacked a player on the wing that could actually have a play focus around him. The pick and roll with Aaron Brooks is a standard basketball play and, if its run effectively, 50% of the time he will have the ball and 50% he won’t. That’s hardly something you can rely on if you need to get the perimeter offense going.
Martin is Houston’s first player since Tracy McGrady that has the ability to use off-ball screens to get to a spot on the floor and consistently hit a catch-and-shoot jumper. That’s a vital part of any successful offense. For those of you who watch basketball closely, you will notice how deadly the Celtics look when they get Ray Allen open looks coming off screens. It’s very easy to create that shot but having the personnel to make the shot is a whole different story. Being that Martin is one of the best shooters in the league in that exact scenario, this fits perfectly for Houston.
Martin is also quite effective in isolation situations. If the Rockets were going to isolate anyone in crunch time (pre-Martin), it was most likely Aaron Brooks. While Brooks is quick, shifty and a pretty good three-point shooter, he spent most of his time dancing a few feet beyond the three point line and never really felt 100% confident in whatever look he got. K-Mart is excellent at getting the ball to the rim, drawing fouls and getting his shot off quickly, all of which are major factors for a player in isolation.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, Martin scored .95 points per possession in isolation situations in Houston, the 37th best mark in the league. Martin also scored 1.11 points per possession on spot-up shots, shooting 44% from the field. Martin’s numbers during a brief stint with Sacramento before getting injured and then getting traded show worse results, which means the effect of his teammates should help Martin continue to improve his efficiency on the offensive end this season.
For all of those good things that Martin brings to the table, there is also one huge red flag: his lack of defense. Whether it’s a lack of effort, a lack of physical skills (court vision, lateral quickness, etc.), or unfamiliarity with defensive schemes, defense and Martin just don’t click. Last season, while Martin had a great offensive rating of 115 (meaning he’d score 115 points per 100 possessions), he also had a very poor defensive rating of 117. Synergy ranked Martin as the 96th best defender in the league during his time with Houston, but a small sample size and a better team around him may have skewed that data.
It can be easy to forget the fact that someone is a bad to very bad defender when someone is scoring at a high rate, especially when it is on a bad team. But now, in the midst of a playoff race, Martin’s defensive short comings will start to show more and more.
With Martin starting for the Rockets, they are forced to send at least one of their two best defenders to the bench (Lee or Shane Battier). When the Rockets gave the Lakers the most trouble earlier in the season, both Battier and Ariza started, split Kobe duty and were also able to hassle Ron Artest. Martin will not be the Aaron Afflalo type starter. He won’t start the game because he dominates one aspect of the game (offense) and play about 24 minutes while Battier gets the other half. Kevin will demand 30-35 minutes a game thanks to his superior and much needed scoring abilities.
The problem with leaving Martin out there for most of the game is that his backcourt mate, Brooks, is also a very poor defender because of his lack of size. The two haven’t played together for a full season yet but they did give up some gaudy numbers to the opposition’s starting one and two guards last season. In one particular game against the Jazz, Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews combined to score 53 points, dish out 16 assists and shoot 77% from the field on 26 shot attempts. Overall, the Jazz scored 133 points on 99 possessions. That’s a pretty horrific defensive effort from Houston.
My question is what the Rockets can do to solve their defensive issues, particularly in the backcourt? Do they have to cut Martin’s minutes down in order to have Battier and Lee play together for longer stretches? Do they go small for stretches, playing Brooks and Martin as the guards and Lee/Battier and Jeffries as forwards in order to defend? Or do they simply put Lee or Battier (with Jeffries getting a look or two if needed) on the opposing team’s best player for the whole game (say, Kobe or Carmelo) while the guards simply try to outscore the other team with a lot of shots?
I don’t see a lot of success coming from either of these options. I’ve argued that the Rockets should push the pace and take advantage of their offensive talents in order to mask their poor defense (at least in Martin and Brooks, a la Golden State) but with Ming back that doesn’t seem to be an option. Martin will have to improve on that end of the floor in order for Houston to succeed this season, because defense on the wings will be key.
If he does that, with Yao’s minutes being limited this season, his efficiency on the offensive end will likely make him the most valuable player on the team by season’s end.
- Kevin Martin will shoot a career high 43% from three-point range this season.
- Aaron Brooks will see his scoring average decrease this season.
- Luis Scola will develop a new flavor for his scoop shot this season by consistently backing in a flip shot off the right corner of the backboard that spins into the basket.
- Chase Budinger will shoot 38% from three-point land this season.