The Trouble With Luis Scola

For the past two years, writers and commenters on this blog have tried to trade Houston's steady starting forward Luis Scola upwards of 200 times. And we've done so despite steadfastly maintaining our innocence in the matter.

We have never wanted to trade Luis just to get rid of him. We like Luis and we always have. Problem is, as he entered his prime and as his value peaked, everyone decided that if someone had to go in order to beef up the youth movement, why not cut losses with our aging friend from Argentina? It was for the cause, you see.

Ironically, after years of silly hypotheticals, Daryl Morey actually traded Scola to New Orleans before David Stern sent him back. It's one thing to gleefully consider random possibilities, but when they actually take form (much less, dissolve hours later), it all makes for an eye-opening experience.

This season, however, our eyes have opened to a deflated Luis Scola. Experts had pegged this to be the start of Scola's decline, but we didn't believe them. Scola's clever, athleticism-be-damned game is suited for an old man and we figured the trend would continue.

So far, it hasn't. The experts, by most accounts, were right.

Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated threw Scola on his Most Disappointing Players list today. You could say a list like this is premature, unless you consider that we're almost a fourth of the way through the year. Here's what Lowe had to say:

When the Hornets nearly dealt for Scola in the aborted Chris Paul trade, the skeptics noted Scola's career-best season in 2010-11, at age 30, defied normal aging curves that could manifest at any time. Is that happening now? Scola is shooting a career-worst 46.7 percent from the floor, getting to the line less often than ever before and rebounding more like a small forward. Some of the rebounding decline is due to playing heavy minutes with a rebounding monster (Samuel Dalembert), but the Rockets overall have rebounded much worse with Scola on the court.

One of the league's craftiest post players is struggling badly on the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop, where he usually feasts on mid-range jumpers. He's shooting just 27 percent on the play so far, and while some of those looks are open shots that will fall soon, he has been ice-cold when defenders can contest his shot. Scola is a below-average defender who struggles to make multiple cuts on the same defensive possession, so if he's not scoring efficiently, the slope becomes slippery.

As Lowe points out, Scola's rebounding numbers are down, his shooting percentage is down and if he isn't going to score, he isn't worth much. And that's a sad statement to make, because few players have played as consistent basketball -- both in the stats and in pure hustle -- as Luis Scola ever since he arrived.

But how much is Scola to blame for his statistical decline? As Lowe notes, Scola finally has a legitimate center next to him in Samuel Dalembert. Add to that Kyle Lowry's rebounding surge (those boards don't come accidentally, mind you -- Lowry goes and grabs them with some Philly fervor) and 6-foot-9 Chandler Parsons' contributions on the boards and you have to wonder how one could expect Scola to maintain his past production. He's still grabbing two offensive boards per game as he always has and the team itself is rebounding the ball just fine. I think the worries about Scola's game lie elsewhere.

Another issue that really isn't in Scola's control is Houston's lack of center depth behind Dalembert. Kevin McHale has spent a good chunk of Scola's minutes playing him at center, which is a nightmare scenario for all parties save for the opponent. Take a look at Scola's compared production, courtesy of 82games.com:

Screen_shot_2012-01-20_at_2

We know Scola isn't a center. There's nothing to see here. In this case, it's not a Scola problem, it's a roster problem.

So, then, what's my real issue with Scola? It's simple: He's absolutely murdering the Rockets in the fourth quarter.

The Rockets were dead last in the league in fourth-quarter points allowed last season, according to TeamRankings.com. This year, they've improved defensively and now stand 21st in the same category. It's not a flattering number, but it does show improvement.

On the other hand, the Rockets ranked third in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring in 2011. This year? They've fallen all the way down to 25th. Rick Adelman's departure surely plays a large part in the decline, but in the absence of his offense, the Rockets have relied upon their most experienced veteran players for late-game contributions.

Undoubtedly, Scola has failed to answer the call. He's averaging two points per game on a paltry 20 percent shooting in the fourth quarter this season -- and that's excluding blowout games in which he hasn't played in the fourth. You could see it Thursday night against the Hornets: He passed up about five potential jumpers and turned the ball over twice, finishing 0-1 from the field in the frame.

I'm not asking Scola to be a fourth-quarter scoring machine. If anything, he's a valuable first-quarter scoring machine and normally gets the Rockets off to a fast start. But if the Rockets expect to start closing out games that they've won through three quarters, Scola must show up to play. He's got to increase his production late because that's when his experience should help the most.

If perhaps the most respected player on the roster isn't getting it done in important situations, what does that say about the team? Why, then, should Scola even be on the floor to close it out?

I'm not saying Scola is done as a productive player or that he is anywhere close to it. He's still putting up good numbers in a season that is demanding a lot from his legs. But perhaps it's time we reconsider what his role on this team should and should not be. Certainly, a Patrick Patterson power surge would help clear things up.

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