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2010-2011 Preseason - Rocket Point Guards

This is the first in a series where I offer my thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the Rockets roster.  This is not a statistics heavy analysis at all, it is my subjective observations on each player, his strengths, weaknesses and likely role on the 2010-2011 Rockets.

Let's start by stipulating that there will be no trade for the The Jacktastic Carmelo Anthony, The Reliable Danny Granger, The Athletic Andre Iguodala or even The Funky Andre 3000, despite the Rockets impressive list of assets available in a deal. 

Instead let us presume that the squad you see, with a couple of tweaks around player 14-15 maybe, is the roster the Rockets will take into battle for the 2010-2011 campaign.  Let's take a look at our players, and what they can do.  This is a subjective analysis, so feel free to offer your own conclusions, YMMV etc, etc.

Let us assume the following for Yao:

1.     The surgery is successful, and Yao can expect post-surgery Zydrunas Ilgauskas levels of reliability from his foot henceforth.

2.     Yao is fit to begin the regular season.

3.     Yao will be able to play about 12-20 minutes a game initially (first 20-30 games) and will work his way up to a "pitch count" minutes total of around 32 per game for the regular season, assuming the Rockets are performing well and don't have to lean on him too much.

4.     Yao will play about 75 games, missing a few due to soreness at the beginning of the season and minor problems later.

5.     Yao will say lots of drily funny stuff that flies entirely over the heads of the reporters asking him questions.

One more aside, let us consider something the 2010-2011 Rockets are not.  Small.  This is not a small team like last year.

A brief walkthrough - Yao 7'4", Miller 7', Jeffries 6'11", Hill 6'10", Patterson 6'10", Scola 6'9", Battier 6'8", Budinger 6'7", Martin 6'7", Hayes 6'6", Lee 6'5", Taylor 6'5", Lowry 6', Brooks 6', Smith 5'11".

You could feasibly put out a lineup like this: Yao, Hill, Patterson, Martin, Lee.  Who would they deploy it against?  The Lakers spring to mind.  The Rockets have said they consider Patterson a PF, but against the big chunky SFs around the league, like say, Artest (or Melo), Patterson could be pretty useful.  Patterson showed he could play SF, PF and even C at Kentucky.

Against a slower or larger PG, Lee can probably D up ok, and handle well enough, though that might just be a bit of wish casting.  Maybe Battier goes in at "SG" to guard Kobe.  Just a thought.

So, player by player, let's see what we've got. 

Today's installment - Point Guards.

Interestingly, Kelly Dwyer just ranked Brooks 21 and Lowry 29 amongst PG (see post here ) .  I like Dwyer's stuff, but really?   Really?  20 PG better than Brooks?  The corpse of Jason Voorhees Kidd?  I see Brooks around 10-14, Lowry about 22 - and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  But I am also considering future value.

(We'll go by traditional positions, but will talk about flexibility within those roles as well.)

PG - Aaron Brooks, Kyle Lowry, Ish Smith.

Aaron Brooks - by most statistical measures Kyle Lowry was the more valuable player than Brooks last year, but it seems likely that Brooks remains 1A, the starter, and here's why. His skills lie at the extreme end of the spectrum for their "type".  For instance, Brooks is ungodly fast and quick.  His ability to easily blow by about 80% of his defenders is an example of an "extreme" skill. Brooks' ability to score from range, due to excellent shooting space created by respect for his drive and a great-looking shot, is another "extreme" option.  Finally, due to his other "extreme" abilities, he can play the mid-range game, taking advantage of ridiculously easy-looking "stop and pop" spaces achieved by rapidly retreating defenders. 

There are only a couple of NBA PG who can score more fluidly off layups and floaters on deep penetration to the basket, and none of those, with the possible exception of S. Nash, D. Williams (for whom there appears to be little to no defense) and maybe Jennings, can shoot like Aaron can.  (Wall is going to have to prove it first.) Despite Brook's average passing ability, and below average D and rebounding, the fact that that his offensive game is so difficult to defend makes him the 1A, or starting, player.  Brooks is a nightmare defensive matchup for all but a few PG, and I believe you gain significantly more from his strengths than you lose from his shortcomings, though I have no good way of demonstrating this with stats.

Brooks is still a young player, and adding another skill to his arsenal isn't out of the question.  Simply having more mental focus and not gratuitously tossing a pass or three away per game would greatly improve his passing efficiency numbers.  If you've watched a lot of Brooks you know the phenomenon well.  A few times a game, every game, Brooks will essentially gift wrap a pass or two for the other team, with no pressure, missed teammate movement or any other evident reason for doing so.  Sometimes, occasionally, these are "highlight reel" type pass attempts, which you can live with, but more often they're just careless.  Sometimes Brooks turns the ball over because, well, just because.    

Maturity and focus can eliminate this defect, and greater familiarity and comfort with personnel and the offense will increase passing efficiency as well.  If Brooks can become a fearsome distributor to go along with his other traits, the sky is the limit.  Growing respect and reputation should see Brooks at the line more often on drives, and his generally excellent FT shooting makes fouling him a terrible proposition.

Some have suggested that Brooks is really just a small SG.  In response, consider that there have always been scoring PG.  In fact many, many PG through the years have brought more scoring than passing to the position.  There's nothing wrong with that.  It isn't breaking any universal laws, and isn't necessarily even dangerous, if your team has good secondary distributors.  That person was supposed to be TMac, who, say what you will, could really pass the ball.  Now maybe it is Kevin Martin, but the role could also fall to Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee or Shane Battier, perhaps Patterson, or even Yao and Miller.  In the "Small & Quick" lineup, the primary distributor is, of course, Kyle Lowry.

Lest it seem like too much criticism of Brooks, let us find some perspective.  This is a player that few people knew much about outside Houston, and who was not generally considered a top offensive option.  2009-2010 showed otherwise, with Aaron Brooks winning the Sister Kissing, Most Improved Player Award.  Rather than saying he improved, let us say he grew into his talents (and honestly, saying "improved" about such a young player starting for the first time in a full season smacks of idiocy silliness).   Brooks stepped into a much larger role last season, and saw much more usage.  His game largely did not suffer for it.  It may well be that some statistical inefficiencies detected in Brooks' game simply came from him trying to do too much on a team that was woefully short on offensive firepower.  That will not be the case this year, with Yao returning, a full season of Martin, Miller, Lee and Patterson coming aboard, and Budinger, Taylor and Hill hopefully making "the leap" from their rookie year.

Kyle Lowry - The Bulldog offers an extremely different game from Brooks.  Lowry is physically powerful in a way Brooks is not, despite similar heights.  I've described Kyle as a Free Safety playing PG, and I stand by that.  He has an NFL build combined with NFL aggressiveness and toughness, but NBA caliber speed and handle.  Lowry lacks Brooks' range on the three (though he's been steadily working on it, and we might see more accuracy this season), but that's the only real knock on his game. 

Lowry is, like Brooks, an excellent scorer off drives to the rim, but in a totally different way.  Lowry drives for contact, and finishes a surprising number of drives after contact is made.  He can usually get a shot off under heavy contact, even where doing so looks impossible.  Lowry lives to put the opposition in foul trouble, but could stand to improve his FT accuracy to make fouling him an even worse outcome for the opponent.  Kyle pushes the pace on breaks relentlessly, and is a better passer than Brooks, particularly on the break.  Lowry is also superior to Brooks at delivering passes into the post. 

Lowry lives to put pressure on the opponent:  pressure on defense, pressure on offense, and lineup pressure from opponent foul trouble.  While not by any means a dirty player, Lowry is hard-nosed and gets under the skin of opponents.  One of my favorite quotes from the estimable Blazer's Edge was that the poster (a Blazer fan) would take Kyle Lowry in a cage match with LaMarcus Aldridge, or perhaps, any other Blazer player.

Lowry is a standout on ball defender, and will muscle weaker PGs out of position and out of plays. He blows up screens, something Brooks has real trouble with.  Lowry is the better defender off screens and on the pick and roll.  He is fast and quick enough to defend most other PGs close up, with active hands.  This can grind some PGs to a halt, as they have little room to operate.  Lowry is a tenacious rebounder, and is amongst the top PGs in rebounding, particularly offensive rebounding.  Time and again I saw Lowry grab crucial boards when the team needed them.

Adelman often opts for a "small" lineup that sees both Brooks and Lowry on the court at the same time.  Lowry is powerful enough to hold many SG on defense, despite a height difference, and this lineup can create dreadful matchup issues for an opponent, with either player capable of causing havoc on drives to the rim.

If Lowry can add a reliable 3pt shot, there are then very few flaws in his game to worry about.  Sometimes he becomes over-aggressive and misses better or easier opportunities that would come from more patience on a possession.   His aggression sometimes leads to out of control play, particularly on offense. He's not terribly turnover prone, though.

Losing Lowry for 3 weeks last season was the final blow to the Rocket's playoff hopes, which were still somewhat realistic when Lowry went down.  Since this is a subjective analysis, it may be fair to say that Lowry was often the difference between winning and losing many games.  His will to do whatever it might take to win a contest is something that is hard to measure, but clearly evident to an observer.  Obviously management thought many of the same things, matching a rich Cleveland offer, and signing Lowry to a deal that was larger than many (but not me) predicted.

Ish Smith

Don't call him Ishmael.  Or do. I'm not sure if he cares one way or another.  The undrafted rookie out of Wakeforest showed us a great deal in summer league.  He proved to be a reliable point, with excellent vision and distribution skills.  His passes sometimes anticipated teammate intention to a degree often unseen with Brooks or even Lowry.  Smith appeared to take good care of the ball, with such a fluid handle that any ball-handling mistake looked all the more shocking.  Going by what I saw in summer league, Smith is lightning quick and can dribble to almost anywhere on the floor at will, much like Brooks, but with more ball security and far less scoring explosiveness.  Smith's ability to dribble anywhere seemed more like Nash - the purpose is to set up a pass, rather than Brooks, where the purpose is to set up a shot for himself (note that this isn't a complaint, but a comparison).

His D looked competent, with him hawking the passing lanes a few times for steals resulting in simple breakaway buckets.  Those won't come as easily in the NBA. There is not much more to go on other than some summer league fun, but that evidently was enough for the Rocket's front office to sign him to a deal.  (I also had wondered about undrafted Euro point Stefan Markovic, another classic PG distributor, but at 6'5".)

Smith's Wakeforest numbers suggest a throwback pass first point.  His raw assist numbers, assist rate, assist to turnover rate and possession use number all indicate a very competent distributing point.  Smith also showed himself to be a good rebounder in college, despite his small size. 

The bad part?  Well, shooting from range, from mid range on out, seemed to be a conundrum. 3pt shooting, even college 3pt shooting, appeared more of a challenge than Smith could conquer. FT% was also plain bad. What does a FT% of 46%, 29%, 79% and 50% across 4 college years tell you, because I'm boggled.  Anything other than the junior year number of 79% (with lower minutes played) is simply not acceptable from a point guard that scores most buckets off drives to the hoop.  Smith's scoring was similarly enigmatic, with his senior year seeing him score about 13 a game in 36 minutes (compared to about 7 per game in 32 minutes his sophomore year).  Summer league action showed Smith to possess an array of floaters, scoops, and tricky layups that reliably found their way into the basket. A few long-range makes from Ish Smith in Vegas may signal hope for an outside shot, but the sample size is, of course, miniscule.

For a 3rd point and 15th man you could do worse than Ish Smith.

Roles - The PG platoon should remain much as it was last year, with perhaps more minutes for Kyle Lowry and the occasion game where Courtney Lee spends much of the game playing D on large PG.  This is a real source of strength for the Rockets, who got tremendous production from the position if Brooks and Lowry are taken as a two-headed monster. 

The only matchup problem this position doesn't inflict on opponents is size, and the rare but intriguing idea of a posting PG.  Lowry is able to defend all but the largest and most powerful PG, and Brooks is able to torch all but the fastest.  The opposing PG who are problematic are that way for nearly any team. 

Without a real "star" at the position the Rockets are able to attain "star" level productivity, with greater versatility.  Lowry and Brooks rotating in an out at the position allows Adelman to ride the hot hand, and also has the bonus effect of blowing up opponent's second units, who always face a dangerous starter-level PG.

Ish Smith offers a nice insurance policy in the form of a PG who can actually handle and pass on what looks to be an NBA level, which is all we would expect out of the role.