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The Snows of May - A Lengthy Rocket Retrospective

Like a May snowfall, the Rockets season melted away. A Failure Analysis of sorts.

Top men.
Top men.
Bob Levey

Well, that was painful.  Only today am I really able to talk about this.  I'll ease my way into it with a metaphor, before I bludgeon you with 3500 words.

To Begin

A lovely dusting of early May snow covering blossoms and bright green leaves, has melted under the burgeoning sunshine into mud and muck and allergies.  There were some pretty moments, but now there's just mud and recriminations and phlegm.

First, credit to the Portland Trailblazers, a mentally tough, well-organized, team of considerable talent.  They never went away, never stopped shooting, never stopped making shots.  The total points scored in the six games favors the Rockets by 2, so close doesn't begin to describe this series.  The Rockets lead in every single game, moreover in the fourth quarter of every single game.  So without taking anything away from the indomitable shot making tenacity of the Trailblazers, I honestly believe the series was as much lost by the Rockets, as won by Portland.

But Portland earned the victory,  and now they will face San Antonio.  The Spurs are a team that many Portland commentators seem to think is an ideal matchup for them.  Many fans have so speculated over the past decade or two, few of those theories have survived a playoff brush with San Antonio.

There are some things that upset me about the way certain things happened in our playoff series, certain things that I don't believe were close to even-handed.  I'm willing to discuss those things at length sometime, but largely not here, and mostly not now.  There are also some criticisms and epithets previously leveled at the Rockets by certain opposing fans that I will no longer tolerate in this space. Recent events and facts have proved them meretricious and inane. (No warning shots will be fired.)

All that said, such an approach is not a way out for the thoughtful Rockets fan. It is not sufficient justification for a team that lead in the fourth quarter of every single game of the series.  Whatever may have been done poorly, a win was always possible, in every single game.  I do not believe that was the case last year, against OKC, but it certainly was this season, and that warrants a deeper level of scrutiny.

What I want to propose for discussion by all of the Rockets community here is an initial failure analysis of why the Rockets did not win this playoff series, when a victory in the series was entirely possible.  I'll offer a few thoughts, but want to hear yours.  Yes, this is the place to trot out your worn old hobby horses of criticisms, the ones we've seen all too much, the one we've thought must have been ridden to death by now.  Now is your chance to groom your pet peeve and put it on show.  Now is the time to take your axe off the grindstone and swing it freely.

The players failed to execute.

This seems fairly obvious.  The Rockets couldn't hold leads.  This suggests a failure to execute.  One way to hold a lead is to simply get stops while still scoring some, failing that, and the Rockets did fail that, it is to trade buckets.  I think that while many are rightly pointing out defensive failings, which I'll discuss, it is right to point out fairly significant offensive failings as well.

The possible defensive failings include but are not limited to the following questions:

Why did James Harden wait until game six to play passable defense?

Why did Pat Beverley have to get a horrible case of flu that required hospitalization?

Why did the Rockets play Terrence Jones on Lamarcus Aldridge for so long when that clearly didn't work? Why not use all your seven footers (DMo) to defend Aldridge and Lopez?

Why so many bizarre switches?

Why do the Rockets seem to blow their assignments so often?

What happened to Chandler Parsons - Guy Who Garnered Rare Praise From Kobe For His Defense?

Why do the Rockets not have anyone who is a plausible backup shooting guard to play some D against guys who are true SGs and not SFs or jumped up PGs?

What, exactly, is the Rockets defensive theory?  We know what their offensive theory is, what is their approach to defense?  Is there some sort of analytic justification for it, or will that come with a new assistant coach?

Some thoughts on the offense:

Did the Rockets install the basketball version of the (early, pre-modern) Run And Shoot with their offense?  Houston fans with long memories will recall the failings of various high flying football offenses come nasty brutal playoff time.  What worked so well in the regular season signally failed to carry the day in tight contests, close and late in games.  Are we seeing the NBA version?

Thinking about the offense, the following occurs to me, perhaps the more numerically astute here can set me straight, but here is my question -

Statistically, over a large sample size of a season, against the variety of teams, players and approaches that is the NBA, the Rockets offense can be shown, and has proven, to be very effective.  But what about when the games turn quite granular, as they do in the playoffs? These games represent small sample sizes, and repeated interaction with the same team. Does the offense work as well when the team faces not a largish sample comprised of the whole league, (opposition that must quickly prepare for another foe in another city), but the same opponent, again and again?  From observation, it would appear not.

Complaints often leveled during the regular season (and certainly the playoffs), maintained that at the end game of tight contests, or contests made tight by opponent comebacks, the Rockets offense went beyond stagnant to turgid and possibly pestilent.  The only answer when this happened seemed to be James Harden Iso Heroball.

Fortunately, in the regular season, James was usually up to the task.  In the playoffs, when Wesley Matthews was allowed to embrace the role of "James Harden's Anorak" with rather surprising vigor, he did not deliver the points, let alone the creamy deliciousness of points in rich TS% sauce.

Where were the plays that would spring the best (possibly most clutch 4th quarter) scoring SG in the NBA, without him having to put on a ball-handling clinic whilst being punched in the kidney?  Why in the 4th quarter of Game Six, facing elimination, but also so close to new life, was the Rockets sole plan to dump the ball into Dwight Howard?  (Not that Dwight failed to live up to his part of the deal, he did, and I'm more hopeful about him than ever.  )

In game six seeing what is billed as a mathematically superior, clever, lovely, Rockets offense reduced to plays, well not even plays, let's call it "action" that 1994 Rudy T would have thought coarse and unsophisticated, was a shock.  Hakeem could dump the ball out to various guys open at the 3pt line, or cutting to the rim.  Dwight didn't even have that luxury as 3 or 4 defenders swarmed in, (and still, he delivered).

I've said, possibly a couple of dozen times by now, that the offense is a work in progress.  It's a new creature being born, not something they've been running one way or another since the 1930s, like the Princeton offense. It is a new thing, and thus subject to revision, and we hope, improvement.

Novelty, however, is no guarantee of success, not even in Silicon Valley.  It might be nice inculcate some tried-and-true plays and responses to opponent defense, into this new creature being born.  If nothing else, there needs to be about 3 or 4 more ways to get James Harden the ball (with actual space to shoot) aside from "drive and dish", "Iso" and "half-assed hand-off screen at the 3pt line".

The whole point of analytics is to eschew the doctrinaire, to make instead the most advantageous decisions when presented with a truer picture of reality.  That is the theory and the promise. The reality, in the playoffs, was despite having one of the most gifted crews of offensive players in the entire NBA, the Rockets offense utterly failed to maintain leads against determined opposition. Even in the two wins, it was unable to close out a tough opponent without extreme efforts and heroics.

Some other questions:

Why don't the Rockets have a single distributing point guard? Jeremy Lin isn't one.  He's an attacker who will make some nice passes from time to time, much like the undersized SG he actually is.  Sometimes he does well with assists, but his assist rate is...not good.

Patrick Beverley isn't a good passer.  At all.  He's a wonderful find, a great bargain, a rabid dog on a team with too many chill bros. He does some vital things for the Rockets, but being a passing point guard isn't one of those things.  I'd be willing to bet that if you ran Terrence Jones at point, or Chandler Parsons, they'd put up more assists, and get the team more involved, than Pat does.

Canaan isn't a great passer either.  At this stage he's basically some sort of weird experiment to put Aaron Brooks' game into Kyle Lowry's body from what I can tell.

Along with the PG issues, why don't the Rockets feature any legitimate backup SG, and have instead 3 swingmen, none of whom can defend well or hit shots?

This is my "Swiss Army Knife" theory gone bad.  Having a couple of Swiss Army knives is handy.  But if you fill your toolbox with them, you won't be able to do a number of vital tasks.  Sometimes what you need is a hammer.  Sometimes what you need is a real saw, not a teeny one.  Sometimes you need more than SFs who can play some SG if its demanded, or some PF if that's what you want.

You need PGs who don't necessarily have the leather punch, the can opener, the tweezers,  the file and magnifying glass, but instead those most basic of PG attributes - great handles and the ability to make consistently good decisions when passing the ball.  You need a shooting guard who can you know, shoot, and also defend his position.

When opponents throw everything at James Harden to stop him and mostly succeed, as Portland did, not only do they stop the Rockets best scorer, they also lock down the Rockets best, and by far most creative, passer.  This proved to be a very big problem.

Why can't the Rockets "Go Orlando" ie 4-1 on offense?

This would be an excellent thing to do with a bench full of shooters who could, you know, actually make shots.  It would be an excellent thing to do late in games.  It would be a way of breaking down a swarming defense doubling onto Dwight.  People can say he's a bad passer, but he did that well enough to drag the Magic to the finals.  An ability to switch into this wouldn't even be against the Rockets philosophy.

The Coaching is Not Up To The Job - A crowd pleaser.

Questions about the Coaching Itself

Some people point to this as the primary reason the Rockets lost the series.  I'm not so sure, but I'm more receptive to the arguments than I was before the series.  Let's all talk about this now, and then, please, for the love of all that is bright, good and decent in this world, stop complaining about  it.  McHale is by all accounts, on his way back.  He is set to be coach, though perhaps with a lot more help, which is good to hear.  He's got a year to deliver some real results in the playoffs.

Whatever you think about Kevin McHale, the thing to get straight is, McHale did not invent the offense, he's not its true champion it isn't his baby.  It's not "McHale's Offense", it is "Chris Finch's Offense".  It is a modern offensive tale, inspired by the true, but possibly not entirely true, story of Rockets analytics.

Chris Finch, Head-Coach-In-Waiting, had better figure out how to get his offense to execute in tight games, how to get it to hold leads by scoring late and under pressure, how to get it to overcome very physical play with no foul calls. We know all these things can be done, because we've seen successful teams do them.  What we don't know is if this offense can actually do any of that in the playoffs.  The verdict isn't in, but the testimony of this series is not in its favor.

As for the defensive coaching, the Rockets lost their defense coach, Kelvin Sampson right before the playoffs began. Sampson returned to a head coaching gig in college (and hopes to avoid sanctions from that fountain of hypocrisy, the NCAA, this time). You have to let your assistants go on to better things, if you want good assistants.

Perhaps because of this, the actual, in place, Rockets defense didn't react to Portland's threat with anything approaching playoff speed.  In the regular season teams can take their time, observe what works and what doesn't, strive not to overreact.  They can then implement necessary changes based on what they're seeing game to game and practice to practice.

In the playoffs,a team perhaps gets a game to adjust, to figure things out.  Sometimes less than that.  Championships hang, often, on the thinnest of margins - ask the Spurs.  It is possible, without hating, or even disliking, Kevin McHale, to ask if he's the guy to make these quick effective changes in a playoff series.  Not game to game, but quarter to quarter.

When I look for true coaching problems in the series, I think I see a few.  The delay in switching to Asik or Howard instead of Jones on Aldridge possibly cost us the series.  Again, though, the Rockets lead even in the Aldridge "All Time Blazer Best" games.

One might also ask why, if it appeared that using taller more powerful players on Aldridge seemed to work, did Donatas Motiejunas not see a single minute?  If nothing else he'd have sold the contact from Aldridge's constant push off rather than seeming shocked by it over and over as most Rockets appeared to be.  If nothing else, he was six fouls in a bigger body that could get Howard or Asik some rest, or get them through their foul trouble.  It could be that a player who thrives on confidence such as DMo, couldn't be used.  None of us will ever know.

That said, the Rockets did in fact adjust, but they'd by then lost two close, winnable games, so the changes couldn't put them over the top.  They got beaten, at the last, by both a failure to execute on defense, and an amazing individual play. I think they'd made the changes that could have won the series, if it had started over, but with .9 seconds left, it was too late.

Many commenters when complaining about coaching basically say "Well if the team didn't do it right, that's on the coach."  But in the end, there's only so much a player can be told, and we don't know if the problem is that the players haven't been properly instructed, and failed to execute, or not.  Younger players tend not to execute as well as veterans, no matter what they've been told.  There isn't really a substitute for experience.

Is it the age and experience of the players that creates what we perceive as coaching problems?

At present the evidence isn't all that positive, but it is still possible that McHale could actually be a playoff winning coach, could make changes rapidly, but the Rockets players are too young, too inexperienced to execute changes on the fly.  Getting San Antonio to change things up quickly is fairly easy.  It's a veteran team, filled with (typically veteran) bench players who generally know their (limited) roles exquisitely.

Houston is not a veteran team. Both Portland and Houston are both said to be very young teams, but the Rockets starters, its core, are young, while only one of Portland's main guys isn't a true veteran. Damien (son of Satan) Lillard is considered a super young player of course, but it is worth noting that James Harden is only about 10 months older.  Portland's core players outside of Lillard have all played at least 5 years in the NBA.  Of the Rockets core players only Harden and Howard have done that.

Moreover, the Rockets' bench is filled with either prospects, (or suspects), or the bargain bin players the rebuilding Rockets have tended to collect in hopes of hitting a home run, rather than the specialists of a contender, who fill a small niche, but fill it perfectly.

In other words, in my view, its entirely possible that much of what we view as poor execution, or coaching problems are simply down to the age and experience of all the Rockets outside of Dwight Howard.  Harden may have 5 years in the NBA, but he has only two as a  starter and key player.  Dwight Howard, the one seasoned vet, is perhaps not coincidentally the only  Rocket who both performed both well and consistently in the series.

The Team As Constructed Wasn't Sufficient

As I see it, this hasn't been explored enough. If you follow the team closely you come to know all the players, and see what they're capable of doing on their best days.  You might well think that given  the peak of what can do when they're doing well, this is a roster fully capable of winning not just a series, but a title.  And that would be true, if every player played at his absolute peak, all the time.  Sadly, they don't.  Moreover, it seems for the Rockets, the gap between a good performance and a below average one, is huge, and they rarely perform in the middle of expectations.

It is difficult to see how the roster might have been better composed this year, however.  To get the two stars the Rockets have acquired over the past two seasons, the team has gone through incredible roster contortions.  Management has moved a simply incredible numbers of players in and out to make it all work.  It is a tour de force of front office labor, but it is far from a finished product.  How did the Rockets find themselves there?

There were players brought in before the big deals, namely Asik and Lin, who were expected to complement a very young developmental team that did not have James Harden or Dwight Howard.  Their deals made a lot of sense in the context of developing that sort of team.  Those deals are tougher, more poisoned, pills to swallow now that circumstances have changed so greatly.  But that is 100% hindsight, and there is little to regret there, of itself.

Then there are very young, talented, but raw, players like Terrence Jones and DMo.  It's one thing to develop promising, but incomplete, big men in the context of rebuilding, its another to do it with an eye to contention.  When the Rockets needed a savvy and tough defender and rebounder at power forward in this series, when they needed a player who wouldn't lose his cool, who could make his opponent uncomfortable without fouling, they turned to...Omer Asik, a center.  They did that not because they wanted to, but I suspect, earlier complaints about DMo notwithstanding, because they had no real alternative.

In the playoffs, as in much of the season, the bench wasn't used as many would like.  This perhaps is not because everyone but our lovable commenters are idiots, but perhaps because  the bench wasn't, in fact, usable.  Aside from calls to use DMo, and the deployment of a rookie who spent the year in the DLeague, who would you truly want to see in the Portland series?  Garcia?  Casspi?  Hamilton? Whomever it was who took Greg Smith's spot (a move we will regret, I'm thinking)?

The point being, the bench should be a collection of guys who can do certain things for the team when the team needs it.  Be it hold down the opponents offense, and holding a lead, to nailing threes, to grabbing rebounds, or providing a change of pace, or a bigger or smaller player in a key matchup, the bench needs to be able to answer certain questions for your team.

What question did the Rockets bench answer in the series?  You can assume various problems are all on McHale, but who, aside from DMo, really should have seen the floor?  Troy Daniels played very well, until Portland ran guys at him on the 3pt line and he stopped doing anything much.  That's not a knock on him, he was playing his 50th NBA minute or something. He could be the sweet shooting specialist that Garcia, Casspi, Hamilton and Brooks-On-The-Road were supposed to be, but weren't.

(Briefly, it might have been good to have Brooks, rather than a desperately ill Beverley in the series, as opposed to Jordan Hamilton, yet another intriguing project who probably won't be re-signed.)


Ok, that's pretty much all I have.  It's out of my system, and sadly, perhaps, into yours.  Please take a moment to reflect, though, on where the team is, and how far it has come.

Two years ago the Rockets were mired in something like the position of the Phoenix Suns, or Minnesota Timberwolves.  You may think Phoenix is a different case. Well,  Phoenix overachieved, and played really attractive basketball with a young cheap team. They have a lot of picks, a couple of exciting core players, some really interesting role players, plenty of room to grow. The future is bright.  Where have I heard all that before (with me saying it, most likely)?  Maybe with the high picks it really will be different.

Until James Harden arrived, the Rockets were good enough to challenge for a playoff spot, not quite good enough to make it. Bad enough to stay home, good enough to always pick #14.  In other words, in a sort of respectable limbo.

Two seasons later, the Rockets have (arguably) the best SG and the best C in the game.  (I think Dwight marked his territory pretty thoroughly in this series, James, not so much.)

This was a harsh loss, a close loss, and a loss that should be in some respects a more valuable learning experience than going out in the second round would be.  A second round exit, to, say, San Antonio, might lull the Rockets into believing they were moving along nicely. They might have thought, players, coaches and front office, that a title run was the next step, no real changes necessary.  No one thinks that now.