I t was only eight months ago that the perception of Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets in some NBA circles had shifted from ahead-of-the-curve trailblazers to borderline laughingstocks who accrued little more than burned-up cell phone minutes. Dwight Howard had joined Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony on the list of superstars who had eluded the Rockets, despite iPad presentations and a nonstop flurry of gain-an-inch deals that had netted Houston some prime trade assets. By August, the Rockets had parted ways with two starting-caliber point guards, splurged on two unproven free agents in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, and on the surface looked like a franchise without a clear path up from mediocrity. The vultures (and critics) were circling: Perhaps Daryl Morey's approach just didn't work in real life.
Eight months later, after the stunning acquisition of Thomas Robinson — a top-five pick Houston nabbed without actually losing enough to get that high in the lottery — the Rockets are among the league's most-envied franchises. Their out-of-nowhere deal for Robinson drew a giant collective gasp around the NBA. They're 31-27 against one of the league's toughest schedules, a strong no. 4 in John Hollinger's power rankings, and a very good bet to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. They have reinvented themselves around a superstar and an offensive system that represent the on-court actualization of NBA advanced stats — all 3s, free throws, and shots at the rim, accomplished at a hyper pace that makes Houston perhaps the league's most entertaining watch. "I've become a believer," says Kelvin Sampson, Houston's lead assistant. "It's fun to watch, and it's fun to coach."
Best of all: Houston should be able to carve out enough cap space this summer to make a run at any free agent, including Howard. And if they strike out again, the Rockets can simply carry over all that cap room to 2014 or 2015, both loaded with potential franchise players who might be happy to join up with James Harden. Heck, even if Houston splurges this summer on an almost-star such as Josh Smith, doing so would not necessarily prevent the team from reentering the free agency sweepstakes for a real star the following summer. "I don't think it's mutually exclusive," Morey says when asked whether spending this summer would take them out of the 2014 derby.
Houston still has a ton of upside assets, including a new one in Robinson, and by July 2014, some of those assets will have reached a point at which they could be both more appealing league-wide and more expendable from Houston's perspective. Deals attached to Lin and Asik already expire after the 2014-15 season; Chandler Parsons will be halfway through his ultra-cheap rookie deal after this season, and thus halfway to a big raise; and the rest of the roster is littered with young players.
But the Rockets aren't crowing. Morey understands how much work, and how much luck, went into landing Harden, and he realizes they need two more things to become a real contender: a second star and a good defense. "We haven't done anything yet," Morey says. "We are still on pace to be a no. 6–no. 10 seed. We still have a long way to go, but we definitely like our position better. We probably got the hardest part done, but now we have to get a second star to go with James. Until we become a real contender, it's fair for the critics to sit back and say, 'What have they really done?'"
The all-offense attack is fine, though Houston's decision to trade away its entire power forward rotation in the span of an hour last week will test the coaching staff. Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris had both become proficient 3-point shooters, especially from the corners, a key skill for any power forward in Houston's pace-and-space system. Robinson is not a 3-point shooter, and the coaches don't yet know what to do with him. Learning the playbook is not an issue, because Houston doesn't really have a playbook. "We don't have to stop practice and say, 'OK, now let's go over our plays,'" Sampson says. "We don't have any plays. During the flow of the game, very rarely do we run an actual play."
The first option for Houston is always the fast break. If they can't manage that, the Rockets essentially just shift into pick-and-roll mode. There are a few pick-and-roll variations, and Houston can use two or three of them on the same possession — the Harden/Asik pick-and-roll in the middle; the Lin/Asik or Parsons/Asik pick-and-roll on the wing as a second option; a Carlos Delfino/Asik pick-and-roll as a crisis third option; and various sets that have Harden fly off two screens on the right wing, take a dribble handoff at the right elbow, and then run what amounts to a high-speed pick-and-roll toward the middle as a shooter — usually Delfino — fades to the right corner.
The results have probably been even better than expected internally: Houston is fifth in points per possession thanks mostly to a shot selection profile that represents the next phase in what teams like Orlando, San Antonio, and Denver have done over the last few seasons. Houston is second in the league in 3-point attempts, third in shots from the restricted area, first in corner 3s, and in the top 10 in free throws per shot attempt. Houston is on pace to average the fewest midrange 2-point shots in recorded NBA history, per both Hoopdata and NBA.com's stats database. It is just about the exact vision the front office and coaching staff outlined in a series of meetings that started after last season, and it's something they began to execute in the preseason — before acquiring Harden. "It started to come together in our last two preseason games, and we got really excited," Sampson says. "And then we got even more excited when we got James."1
Fitting Robinson in this scheme will be tricky because he can't shoot 3s. Houston can't stick him in the elbow areas, near the foul line, because stationing a big man there just gets in the way of Houston's pick-and-roll game. "The elbow is a no-fly zone for us," says Sampson, who does not hide his anxiety about the in-season trades. "My initial impression of the deal was: We're going to have to figure out how [Robinson] fits with us offensively. It is absolutely a concern."
But Houston wants to be a top-10 offensive rebounding team, Sampson says, and Robinson can help there. Another intriguing potential solution: Donatas Motiejunas, a 22-year-old Lithuanian 7-footer who has flashed a super-intriguing skill set in just 115 minutes this season — almost one-third of which came in Houston's first two games after the trade deadline. Motiejunas runs the floor hard, and Houston can stash him in the corners as a 3-point threat when they pair him with Asik. Motiejunas can hit from there, and he has already shown he can drive from the corners when defenders close out on him, dribble toward the lane, and fire creative interior passes. He has been diving hard on pick-and-rolls when Houston puts him in that role, and when it's Asik rolling down the lane, Motiejunas can flash to the opposite block for quick-hitting post-ups; he has a nifty, and very fast, jump hook.
The coaches love his motor. He plays defense hard and with an understanding of the team concept. Motiejunas will have to prove himself on the glass and in the post, but he stands as a very important piece for the remainder of this season if Houston is to clinch a playoff berth.2 The Rockets could also play even more with Parsons and Delfino at power forward in small lineups, a setup that has been very successful so far — though mostly in brief stints. But the coaches aren't ready to go that route, even if the front office thinks it could work. "You don't want to get stuck playing 40 minutes a game with your small lineup," Sampson says. "That's your curveball lineup, not your fastball lineup."
Morey has correctly noted that small-ball lineups tend to improve a team's offense and hurt the defense, though the gains on offense typically outweigh the vulnerabilities on D. He sees the league evolving to a point where the curveball and fastball can switch places. "It's just math," he says. "There are a larger supply of good players who are shorter, and getting more of those guys on the floor just works." Morey admits the game slows down in the postseason as defense becomes more important, but he's convinced small ball could succeed in that environment.3
Defense is the larger question for the Rockets, both this season and going forward. Houston is 22nd in points allowed per possession, though they rate slightly better than average when Asik is on the floor; they collapse into a Kings-level sieve when he sits. But even better-than-average typically isn't quite good enough for title contention, and Houston has massive problems along the perimeter. The Rockets want their perimeter players to help aggressively in the middle when necessary, but those perimeter players don't execute the "recover" part of "help and recover" all that well. Harden has a bad habit of turning his back completely to his man when he shifts his attention to the middle. He's blind to shooters who smartly shift a few feet toward the corners, and that extra distance makes it very hard for him to contest those 3-pointers in time. Here's Harden lingering needlessly into the middle as his man, Keith Bogans, fades toward the left corner:
And here's Bogans about to launch a wide-open corner 3 as Andray Blatche preps a nasty back-screen to take advantage of Harden's wandering focus:
Parsons is better at tracking the ball and his man at the same time, but when an opposing ball handler kicks the ball back out, he will often lunge for a steal instead of simply retreating to his guy. Lin and Harden are both guilty of the same sin now and then, and Harden will just stand and watch after a failed steal attempt instead of battling back into the play. That kind of gambling yields open shots and open driving in the lanes, and the latter can lead to drive-and-kicking. Here's Parsons sagging off Deron Williams to squelch a potential Gerald Wallace drive:
All's fine so far. But look at how Parsons leaps to try to steal or tip Wallace's kickout pass instead of scurrying right back to Williams:
This kind of gambling gives players in Williams's position the choice between an open 3 or an open driving lane, and the latter can lead to an open 3 someplace else. This is a big reason Houston's opponents have shot 37.2 percent from deep, the seventh-worst defensive figure in the league, on the fourth-most attempts per game. And Houston has allowed a lot of those juicy corner looks it loves to get on offense; its opponents have hit a whopping 43.5 percent on about 5.5 corner 3s per game, according to NBA.com.
"Some of my gambles have hurt us," Parsons says. "And Coach McHale will definitely let me know which ones."
Harden's fundamentals will eventually break down if teams put him through multiple screens, on and off the ball.4 Lin is prone to ball-watching and thus vulnerable to backdoor cuts along the baseline, breakdowns that can be fatal against opponents with shooting bigs who can drag Asik up toward the elbows.
Here is Bogans beating Lin backdoor over the weekend:
And here's Chris Paul about to catch a pass from Blake Griffin for a layup attempt:
It's a work in progress, of course. All of these guys are young; Morey claims Houston would be the least-experienced team to make the playoffs in NBA history, in terms of collective minutes played entering a season. And everyone is still learning to bring appropriate focus on defense while expending so much energy running back on offense. "Sometimes I think our offense takes away from our defense," Sampson says. Finding a second above-average defensive big is a must, both to keep the defense afloat when Asik sits, and to patrol the back line when Asik is guarding someone like Tim Duncan far from the hoop.
Houston should also look for a defense-first wing player ASAP. "We haven't quite reached the stage of fitting puzzle pieces yet," Morey says. "But we're getting closer, and we may think about adding a wing stopper."
Those are the small steps, and it must be a relief to be even thinking about them. A franchise that looked from the outside to be in chaos just eight months ago has taken some important larger steps, putting itself in position to take the next one. But the Rockets know better than anyone that putting yourself in position to do something big doesn't necessarily mean you'll get it done. We know they'll work like hell to find that second star, and that any premature schadenfreude at their failure to do so will be dangerous.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. Houston's "McDonald's" Road Jerseys
As long as we're on a Houston kick, I have to get this out of the way: I love these red-and-yellow duds, even if the joke among Houston fans is that these uniforms double as an advertisement for fast food. Houston is generally a sharp-looking team, but its standard uniforms are just a hair on the bland side. These aren't.
2. The League's Leg-Kick Overreaction
We saw the latest evidence on Sunday in Dallas, when officials whistled Vince Carter for an offensive foul on a 3-point try in which Carter just barely extended his legs toward a defender after his release. The league has mandated a crackdown on the Reggie Miller move, and officials in some cases are overcorrecting by penalizing what really amounts to run-of-the-mill shooting mechanics. That's bad in a vacuum, but it'll prove good in the end if it turns out to be a phase in the process of officials finding the right happy medium.
3. Mirza Teletovic's Slow Curve
It's always tantalizing when an international star comes to the NBA, but Brooklyn's home loss to Houston over the weekend reminded me of the main reason Teletovic hasn't yet earned consistent minutes: He's still in the early stages of learning NBA defense. Houston's spread pick-and-roll attack flummoxed Teletovic, especially when it was his job to rotate from the weak side into the middle. This will come with time, and Teletovic's shooting will buy him that time.
4. Ben Gordon's Defense
Gordon isn't new to the NBA, so he has no such excuse for his total disregard of defense during another losing season for the Bobcats. Gordon's supporters would note that he might play a bit harder on a contending team, but he's not on a contending team, and he should at least reach a borderline acceptable effort level before mounting a childish one-man mutiny against Mike Dunlap. Gordon's too undersized to be anything like a stopper, but his defense — in every phase, half-court and in transition — has reached a new low.
5. The Josh Smith/Al Horford Pick-and-Roll
Larry Drew has gotten astonishing mileage out of this play, especially in crunch time and out of timeouts, considering it should be in every team's scouting report by now. Here's the latest gem — a go-ahead late-game Horford dunk:
The play happens so fast that the two Milwaukee players defending Atlanta's corner shooters don't have time to process which one of them should crash on Horford at the rim. Atlanta might even be better off running this so that Kyle Korver ends up as the weakside shooter, since no defender is going to leave Korver without thinking very hard about it.
6. Kemba Walker's Surge
Walker has come scorching out of the All-Star break, putting up 25 points per game on 53 percent shooting over Charlotte's last four contests. Walker can still go through some wild stretches in which he dribbles into a crowd without a plan, but if he can consolidate these gains over the season's last few weeks, the Bobcats' outlook gets a bit brighter.
7. Alan Anderson's Shot Selection
The good news: About half of Anderson's shots are 3s, and he's shooting a respectable 35 percent from deep while manning both wing positions off Toronto's bench. He also has a cool post-basket celebration you might not have noticed. After a 3, Anderson will take his left hand and run it once up and down his right arm. I asked him a few weeks ago what that was supposed to signify. The answer: Anderson is pantomiming the act of reloading a rifle or shotgun, since he has nicknamed his jumper "The Gun."
The bad news: The other half of Anderson's shots are very difficult 2-pointers, and he's making fewer than 40 percent of those while jacking up a lot of them on a per-minute basis. Anderson's a designated bench scorer, but he needs to dial back the contested jumpers and off-the-bounce midrangers.
8. The Lakers' Early Screening Action
The Lakers don't have an offensive system as much as they engage in a series of possessions that maximize their star talent and emphasize whatever happens to be working on a particular night. One thing that has worked pretty consistently: early screening action between guards and wings. Take this Steve Blake–Metta World Peace action from Sunday's win in Dallas:
This is a nice way to catch the defense off guard, and if the player defending the screener (Jae Crowder here) stays attached to that screener, Blake has a clear path into the lane because the Lakers start this action with no players on the same side of the floor as the Blake–World Peace screen.
L.A. also has cleared the right side for early Kobe Bryant/Steve Nash pick-and-rolls, a reprise of the Bryant/Ramon Sessions play that forced Denver into uncomfortable switches during the playoffs last season. Bryant and Nash can play either role in that combination, and Nash has even received some easy buckets by slipping into the paint after screening for Bryant:
9. The Versatility of Nene
It's easy to forget what a wonderful, multi-skilled player Nene is, with so much focus on his contract and his health. But, holy cow, is this guy good at just about everything — passing, cutting, screening, guarding in space, hitting open midrange jumpers, explosive post-up moves, boxing out, etc. My new favorite wrinkle: Washington has been using Nene as a ball handler in surprise pick-and-rolls it springs on defenses from unpredictable places. Watch out when a Wiz point guard enters the ball to Nene at the left elbow and cuts toward the foul line as if he's going to continue toward the baseline — a standard NBA action. Just when the defense assumes the normal NBA stuff is coming, that point guard will veer right into Nene's man, setting a pick for Nene to use on a dribble drive toward the hoop. He got a monster jam against the Raptors over the weekend out of this action.
10. The Brandon Bass–Jeff Green Pairing
This just hasn't worked well, regardless of whether Boston pairs these two in big lineups or small ones. Boston's opponents have outscored the Celtics by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions in the 500 minutes these two had shared entering Monday's game. Boston's overall scoring margin was exactly even going into that game, and no other two-man combination that had logged at least 200 minutes had a worse differential than -6.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.