Earlier this week, ESPN released the statistic Real Plus-Minus (RPM) for public consumption. The most important aspect of that sentence is "public consumption," as this stat, or a version of it, has certainly been a common metric among the majority of front offices for quite some time. For those that don't know, basically RPM factors in the player's teammates and opponents (while the traditional plus-minus doesn't). In other words, Kendrick Perkins no longer gets statistical credit for getting to play most of his minutes with Durant and Westbrook, which means I can rest a little easier at night.
So what exactly does this statistic tell us about the Rockets? Great question, reader, great question...
It's safe to say Daryl Morey has been aware of this statistic and its merit for years, which explains why he was able to identify Patrick Beverley's value before anyone else – Beverley has the 6th best defensive RPM for points guards in the NBA and 5th best if you don't count Derek Fisher's rotting corpse. FWIW, he's also 3rd overall amongst point guards, which isn't to say that he's better than Tony Parker, for example, but that he's been better at what he's asked to do for the Rockets this season. There's a difference. In this case what Beverley does for Houston is fortified by RPM. We watch the games and know Beverley is invaluable to the Rockets and this stat confirms that. What about the superstars?
Let's start with James Harden and is 5th best offensive RPM ranking. We all know The Beard is an elite offensive player, but this helps us understand just how good he is. Harden's not a good player that benefits from a fast-paced system; he's flat out an elite offensive guard that has been carrying the burden of a #1 option all year. However, while Harden's offense grades out as top 5 in the league, his defense grades out in defensive RPM as atrocious.
He selectively gets back in transition, ball-watches on weak side assignments constantly, and gambles at steals he has no chance of getting. Harden's on-the-ball defense is serviceable, but the rest of his game on that end of the floor is undisciplined and careless and his ranking as 76th amongst shooting guards in defensive RPM is an accurate reflection of that.
Quick tangent: Being a star player and being a disaster on defense are not mutually exclusive. Harden is both a star on offense and a train wreck on defense. Why do you think the Rockets went after Howard AND held on to Asik? They needed elite rim protection to make up for their best player's porous defense. I'm not a Harden Hater or anything, this is just the reality of his game right now... okay, I'm glad we talked that out. I feel better.
As for Dwight Howard, RPM is an accurate reflection of his game as well. He's 7th overall in defensive RPM and one of only two players in the top 10 that actually plays more than 30 minutes per game (Andre Iguodala is the other). He's been cleaning up the Rockets' perimeter messes all season and that is reflected in both this statistic and by simply watching the games. As for offensive RPM Howard is actually a negative, which is a lot less of a big deal than it sounds.
First, only 11 centers in the league have an offensive RPM in the black, and only two players (DeAndre Jordan's dunks and Nikola Pekovic) have offensive real plus minuses over 1. Basically, this statistic is much more friendly to perimeter players offensively speaking than to centers, but that doesn't mean that it's ranking of Howard as the 20th best offensive center in the game in terms of offensive RPM is wrong. Howard's post moves look methodical, robotic, and predictable, which is strange for such an athletic guy, and he needs another summer at Hakeem Camp. His biggest asset to the Rockets' offense is running the pick-and-roll and catching lobs, which seems hard for any statistic, traditional or otherwise, to measure. The bigger point with Howard, offensively, is that I watch the games and get annoyed when they clear out for him in the post, and these numbers suggest that my annoyance is justified.
Finally, let's take a look at McDreamy, er, Chandler Parsons. He's the one major contributor on the Rockets whose nightly outputs aren't accurately reflected by RPM, IMO. He's 11th in offensive RPM for small forwards, which feels low to me even accounting for the differing roles other small forwards play. Corey Brewer, to name one, is ahead of Parsons in offensive real plus minus, but I'd be high in this rank to if I only shot breakaway layups while leaking out early on defense. My guess would be Parsons is penalized slightly because he gets to the foul line less than 3 times per game, but it still feels like he means more to the Rockets than his offensive real plus minus would suggest. However, it's also worth nothing that maybe we've been overrating his game. Not saying I think that, just raising the possibility.
As for Parsons' defense (which is negative per defensive RPM), we need to talk, Rockets Nation. Chandler Bang is an overrated defender. He, too, is undisciplined on weak side assignments and not a good enough on-the-ball defender to make up for those deficiencies. The main difference between Parsons and Harden on defense is that Parsons has the ability to become an elite defender. He's just not there yet.
In terms of the Rockets' role players, there isn't much that drops off the page in terms of RPM. Asik is shown to be an elite defender (which... duh!) and Houston is lacking one more solid wing player off the bench (though I still have hope for Jordan Hamilton). The one oddity was Jeremy Lin having a positive defensive RPM because he's awful on-the-ball, but maybe those Harvard smarts matter just enough off-the-ball to make up for his lack of lateral quickness.
Ultimately RPM isn't the end all, be all of statistics, just like no other metric tells the whole story. However, it's a great tool to supplement with other stats and actually watching the games, and it does a pretty good job of reflecting who is this Rockets team.