Gut check time, Rockets fans. Patrick Beverley is out after a fluke that lead to a torn meniscus. This happens. It just happened to the Rockets near the finish line. The Rockets are still in control of their own destinies heading into the post-season. With a win over the Clippers they can stake their claim to the third-seed. With a win over the Thunder they can help cement their home court advantage through the playoffs. There are other games in there that the Rockets should win and, in some cases, win handily. Now, there's some doom and gloom among Rockets fans making reference to opposing point guards the Rockets may have to face in the playoffs. I just have a couple quick things to touch on here today before you start diving into rabbit holes.
Since when did point guard become the only matchup for the Rockets?
Seriously. When did this happen? Can anyone tell me? Beuller? Bueller? As near as I can tell there's four other players and an entire bench unit that needs to get involved in these games, too. I mean, a 1 on 1 format for NBA games would make for some VERY entertaining complaints about McHale's rotations but I don't think we need to worry about this format any time soon. No, instead, Rockets fans, do not key in on the fact that Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, Mike Conley, and Stephen Curry are all opposing point guards heading into the post season. Yes, all of these point guards are tough to defend. I'll even go so far as to say Jeremy Lin struggles against these point guards. What most people ignore is simply this; most point guards struggle against these players. These point guards will tend to get their numbers in no matter who they play. Why not think smarter, not harder?
What do I mean by that? Easy. If Chris Paul is lighting you up that means Blake Griffin isn't doing it. Griffin is a tough assignment for Terrence Jones but if you can goad Chris Paul into being a scorer you're better off than him being a playmaker. Damian Lillard going off on your team? Aldridge has been in a slump and they're plummeting because of it. As far as I'm concerned, keep making Lillard the focal point, it's not doing them any good. Russel Westbrook heating up? Awesome. The Thunder aren't nearly as scary when Durant's not ripping you apart. Lin actually doesn't tend to do poorly against Tony Parker and the Rockets have regularly beaten the Spurs. We'll see how we fare against them at 100% on the 14th of April. Goran Dragic will get his no matter what but the odds we see Phoenix in the first round? Minimal. Mike Conley isn't much of a threat. Stephen Curry? Go ahead and shoot all day you can stick Harden on him if that's what he wants to do. The blueprint for beating the Warriors is simple; "stick to home on the shooters and pound them inside."
Now, that's just a look at putting the point guard fears into focus. We still haven't even addressed the 400 pound gorilla in the room. So what does Rosie O'Donnell have to say?
Dwight Howard and James Harden are kind of good at what they do.
Why yes, Ms. O'Donnell, they are. Dare I say Mr. Harden is a top five player in the league and Dwight is easily a top 10 player in the league if you're being harsh on him. We've seen over the course of the season that the Rockets duo is extremely capable of putting up their numbers regardless of what you do to them. The thing that terrifies Rockets fans about opposing point guards is something the Rockets do to other teams two times over. Lest we forget, Houston has seen amazing development of this team primarily through James Harden. Harden has stepped his game up to an MVP level showing that he can score with ease, trust his teammates, distribute to them in a position to succeed, and that he's redoubled his efforts on defense to the point where lapses are more the exception than the norm. Dwight Howard is a nightly threat to put up 20 points and 15 rebounds on any given night. Go weak up to the rack and he's a constant presence ready to punch your shot right back down your throat. Night in and night out Harden and Howard are the beefy Veyron engine that keeps this turbo charged offense running and the rigid chassis that keeps it from ripping itself apart on the defensive end. That chassis was definitely supported by Beverley but we can't turn a blind eye to the fact that as the season grew older, so did our Rockets' maturity. Defensive effort became consistent and, in some instances, even locks down. The offense runs like a dream.
The team has gone through these growing pains both with and without Patrick Beverley. Yes, Beverley helped catalyze a lot of this growth solidifying. What he didn't do is make it as much all by himself. This team rises and falls with Harden and Howard but it seems like what compels it to grow is Beverley. That's the salient concern I think scares Rockets fans. With Beverley out will we regress or will we lose our resolve at times? The thing about growth, maturity, and poise, is that you will only rarely lose it once you've acquired it. Yes, you'll have lapses but they tend to be minimal (Notwithstanding a midlife crisis but that's neither here nor there). Rather, with Beverley out, the Rockets are left as a whole new entity given how they grew with him. The onus is on them to maintain the level they've achieved. The task of ensuring it stays institutionalized is on the shoulders of Kevin McHale. McHale has no problem getting this team to buy in on anything he's selling so there's no need to have any concern there.
Your concern isn't about growth or regression? It's about our bench? It's about the depth behind Jeremy? Oh well...
Our bench has been consistently underperforming most of the year.
Now, let's engage in a fun little exercise. When we're talking depth on this team we definitely have things to be scared of. When Donatas Motiejunas is playing well he's a valuable bench contributor. When he's not he's a liability. Omer Asik has finally bought in to the Rockets, which makes the bench a hell of a lot more imposing than it was earlier in the year. Jordan Hamilton, for all his highs and lows in such a short span, has shown to be a valuable contributor off the bench in short order. Outside of that there is reason to be concerned. Heading into the playoffs, though, a rotation of seven to eight players is very common. The Rockets right now are looking at a relatively stable 7.5 man rotation (Since DMo needs to get more consistent he gets the half mark). Having said that, this team has no problem running its starters and, oddly enough, their bodies have held up. Most injuries have been minor and caused little to no missed time comparative to years past. Funny enough, our main bench cog is the major player in flux here.
Jeremy Lin's production, in flux throughout the year, subject to slumps, subject to inconsistent role, and subject to just mind-boggling woes, will now get its final test. The embattled point guard will get his chance to sign off on his career trajectory. Fans and unbiased writers alike have manufactured excuses for Jeremy's performance throughout the year. Some of those excuses are wholly justified, others are stretches to say the least. What is not easily stretched, however, is the stark numbers. From these numbers we should get at least a semi-informed outlook on what we need to expect and, as fans, demand from Jeremy in this final stretch. Jeremy's advanced numbers aren't a far cry from Beverley's. Jeremy's true shooting percentage sits at 57.5% as opposed to Bev's 53.5%. His defensive rating is at 108 as opposed to Patrick's 107. Usage numbers also favor Jeremy by 5.8% (14.6% for Bev versus 20.4% for Jeremy). Jeremy lags behind Beverley in three-point percentage by only 1.7% (34 for Jeremy, 35.7 for Patrick). Where we wince a bit on this comparison is Jeremy's 19% turnover rate versus Patrick's 10.7%. A great deal of that can be attributed to Jeremy's role as a scorer versus an off-ball shooter. Almost inevitably this number should dwindle next to Harden as the player in control of the ball. It's on Jeremy to become an off-ball scorer, however, if he wants to truly excel and help carry this team deeper into the playoffs.
Sidenote: For anyone interested in crying sample size or role difference, Beverley has started 52 out of 53 games and played 1659 minutes; Jeremy has started 25 games out of 61 with 1754 minutes logged. This minutes discrepancy amounts to 10.5 minutes of play in the 9 game discrepancy between the two. Additionally, Beverley averaged 3 more minutes per game than Jeremy. Ultimately, any difference playtime would have on stats is statistically negligible and the case stands.
So what does this all add up to?
Well, simply put, the Rockets have matchup advantages at the shooting guard and the center position against nearly any team that they'll face in the playoffs. The point guard matchup isn't going to be dispositive of our fate. The Rockets will struggle against athletic teams because they've done so all year. Before Beverley went down you were right to worry about the Clippers and the Thunder. After Beverley went down you're still only really right to worry about the Clippers and the Thunder. Houston is still firmly in control of its destiny and, to revisit an earlier debate on the season may be better situated with Jeremy handling the point guard duties for the rest of the season. This is a make or break run for Jeremy in that if he fails to perform or becomes inconsistent and unreliable, expect his name to be warranted in trade rumors for the coming offseason and trade deadline. Losing Beverley shouldn't make any major alterations to your expectations of these Rockets if everyone plays up to what the stats say we should expect.