[Editor's Note: Erick Blasco is currently doing scouting reports on NBA teams for SB Nation and went to the Rockets/Bobcats game from the other night to take some notes. What do you think about his writeup? Is he on point? Has he missed anything? Fire away in the comments. -- Tom]
It’s hard to believe that as recently as two seasons ago, the Houston Rockets were an exceptional defensive team. However, as evidenced by Houston’s 99-89 defeat to the Charlotte Bobcats, that reputation has eroded away. What the Rockets’ defense now consists of is an incomplete mishmash of the too-old, the too-young, the too-slow, the too-frail, and the too-limited.
Houston’s base offense consists of various high-post sets, replete with backdoor cuts, pin downs, weak-side brush screens, and handoff/rolls. The basic idea is sound as Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes make decent passes out of the high post, while Brad Miller has terrific vision. The continuity leads to a number of down screens for Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger, and handoff/rolls for Martin and Kyle Lowry.
However, too many times the offense failed to open up leading to botched isolations for Martin and Lowry, the former prone to taking bad shots, the latter a limited jump shooter and creator.
To compensate, the Rockets crash the offensive glass often sending all three forwards to the glass to corral loose balls. This combined with Lowry’s tendency to overpenetrate affects Houston’s floor balance, leading to a number of times where the Rockets are out of position in their transition defense.
In the absence of Aaron Brooks and Yao Ming, Kevin Martin—6-17 FG, 3-8 3FG, 1-2 FT, 2 AST, 1 TO, 18 PTS—is perhaps Houston’s best offensive player. He has a tricky left hand dribble and an exaggerated ball fake which he uses to draw fouls along the perimeter.
However, of his six makes against the Bobcats, four were literally uncontested—two pull up transition jumpers, and a pair of wide open threes.
His lack of halfcourt success can be attributed to a timidity in Martin’s game. Despite his free throw rates, Martin tends to try to avoid contact at the basket. On one first corner drive, he took a handoff and sliced parallel to the lane, making no attempt to actually get to the rim. The result was a wild missed banked runner.
The same tendency was on display later in the game when instead of challenging a help defender strong at the rim, Martin veered off, switched hands, and attempted an awkward right-handed prayer that wasn’t answered. For the game, Martin forced two jumpers, missed all four shots in the paint, none in the immediate vicinity of the rim and only earned two free throws.
Defensively, Martin has trouble staying in front of his man, and is a complete disaster guarding the post. In five possessions where Martin was posted up (five times by Stephen Jackson, once by Boris Diaw) and the Rockets didn’t immediately double, the Bobcats shot 4-5 for eight points in five possessions, a terrible ratio from Martin’s end.
The fact is that while Martin is talented, he’s not tough enough to be a team’s primary isolation scorer, and he’s an awful defender who needs to be compensated for at that end of the court.
Luis Scola is extremely versatile on the offensive end. Though his post game was unsuccessful against the Bobcats‘ length—0-4FG—he has hooks and step-throughs with either hand. He ran the floor in transition, recording a layup and having his shot blocked in two attempts. He hit a pair of baseline jumpers, and knocked in one of three jumpers from around the free throw line.
Scola also passes well, and sets solid screens, but he didn’t take advantage of the opportunities he allowed himself at the free throw line, missing five of eight attempts, a costly ratio.
Defensively, Scola was a disaster, making one successful hedge, and many more poor ones. Shooters are unmolested by his contests, and he isn’t a shot blocker. Aside from rebounding, Scola’s a negative presence on the defensive end.
Shane Battier has lost a half-step defensively, but he still has a genius-level basketball IQ and is easily this Rockets’ team’s best passer. However, aside from a solitary post score, Battier was an offensive liability—1-9 FG, 0-6 3FG. Can the Rockets survive with Battier’s eroding skills and disappearing jumper?
Kyle Lowry is a gritty defender and a tough finisher which makes him a terrific backup point guard. As a starter however, he gambles way too often for steals, compromising his team’s defensive rotations. He’s a much better individual defender than he is a team defender. In fact, because he’s so sturdy, it’s difficult for opposing guards to have success against him despite his small size. Shaun Livingston tried to post him twice, resulting in an offensive foul, and a missed fadeaway.
Offensively, Lowry isn’t a good jump shooter, made several poor decisions with the ball, and tends to overpenetrate on his assaults on the basket. With Aaron Brooks back, Brooks becomes one of Houston’s primary iso-scorers late in the shot clock, and is a slightly better decision maker. Lowry would go back to being a rugged attacker on offense, and a sparkplug on defense. In the starting lineup though, his lack of discipline gets exposed.
Chuck Hayes is pressed into starting duty with Yao out, and supplied a respectable amount of offense, going 2-4 in four post possessions, and making several nice passes. He did foolishly try to bring the ball up once, resulting in a turnover though. Defensively, he has some trouble contesting along the perimeter, but his defensive rotations are solid, as is his rebounding.
He almost has to start because of Houston’s defensive problems, but again, can Houston survive with two subpar offensive players in the lineup, plus a backup in Lowry?
Brad Miller and Jordan Hill are inept defensively. Whereas Miller is too cumbersome, Hill is too inexperienced as the pairing of the two together allowed the Bobcats to atack the rim at will.
Miller did splash a three and he has excellent vision and touch from the high post—3 AST, 0 TO—but he needs to be paired with an excellent defensive rotator like Hayes to cover for the fact that he simply can’t move.
Hill, meanwhile, is still learning the game so his mistakes on the defensive end are expected. However, the more he plays, the more mistakes he makes that cost the Rockets potential wins. He does have a promising future though—he only goes to his right, but he has a tight spin to that hand, is aggressive in attacking the basket, can face and go, and has range out to 18-feet. He simply overwhelmed Boris Diaw with his athleticism—5-7 FG, 14 PTS.
Hill needs to get stronger though, needs to learn how to create post position with his lower body and not just his arms, and needs lots of practice time to understand the game, but the question with Hill isn’t whether or not he can be a valuable player in the future. It’s whether Houston will be better served trying to accelerate that future, or whether they think they can have some playoff success—with Hill’s poor awareness, it’ll be near impossible for the Rockets to do both.
Chase Budinger is a shoot-em-up wing with decent athleticism who likewise makes his fair share of mistakes on the defensive end like cheating screens and rotating late.
Courtney Lee has a reputation as a defensive stopper, but he’s only average on that end of the floor. His biggest failing is offensive awareness. For example, on a Hill post up, instead of cutting down the lane and fanning back to the weak corner, Lee cut and then took a step towards Hill. This allowed his man an easy opportunity to double Hill as Lee wasn’t spacing the floor properly. Hill spun right into Stephen Jackson, panicked, and threw the ball away.
Ishmael Smith is lithe, quick, and hit a nice floater in his brief court time. He was too small to offer much resistance to Shaun Livingston, and his handle was a bit shaky, but he looks like a respectable drive-and-kick third string point guard.
After examining Houston’s roster, the team is at a crossroads. Do they look at themselves as contenders and try to find some more balanced veteran role-players to smooth over some of their holes? If so, one more disciplined defender would be a must, as would a talented veteran player who could fill more than just one niche. The Rockets have the young assets to acquire these pieces, but should Yao go down again, it would all be for naught.
Or, do the Rockets build for a near-future without Yao which would implore the Rockets trading the likes of Hayes and Battier to get more playing time for young talent like Hill and Budinger.
Because as presently constructed, the Rockets have too many youngsters playing key minutes to play a grind-it-out gameplan, but also have too many niche role players starting to simply try and outscore teams. Plus, with Martin as the team’s best perimeter scorer, there will always be a relative softness to the Rockets, based on his frailty.
The Rockets are in an interesting dilemma because their troubles aren’t necessarily contingent on a lack of talent but a lack of a clear-cut identity. While the team can easily form one, it would be dependant on the team choosing one philosophy based on their roster’s dichotomic schism. And until Yao returns from his injury and develops a substantial sample size of playing time, the Rockets won’t have all the information necessary to make that fundamental choice.