After a disastrous start to the season, the Houston Rockets appear to have stabilized a bit. They still haven't resembled anything like their best form from last season, but they are playing better in fits and starts, and they're finally getting healthy (Trevor Ariza notwithstanding. God damn it).
So a time like this when the team's neither completely broken or running all cylinders is perfect to try to suss out who's worked well together.
[All stats are from before Wednesday's game against the Washington Wizards.]
Starting with the four-man lineups (with a minimum of 30 minutes played together), one significant trend emerges immediately:
Clint Capela is in 9 of the Rockets' best 11 lineups in terms of net rating, a significant enough number to say that he's been an integral part of the team's best play. Although we didn't need these lineups to know that -- he's the only Rocket with significant playing time and a positive net rating on the season.
Even though he's been starting alongside Dwight Howard, we can compare the two to see why Capela's been more effective.
They're pretty close across the board (though Capela wins more categories, especially on defense), but one thing sticks out like a sore thumb: the turnovers. One would expect a younger player like Capela to be less secure with the ball, but our guess is that he simply doesn't force the issue as much as Howard does. There are times when you can all but see Dwight thinking, "I'm a star center, and dammit I'm posting up this possession! [gets stripped]"
On the defensive side, you can understand why Capela would have better numbers. Sure, Dwight's thicker than Clint, but he's also 30 and on the wrong side of multiple back and knee injuries. Capela's mentally ahead of where we'd expect him to be, but his athleticism really shines through.
Now, let's take a look at three-man lineups, still with that 30-minute caveat. This time, we're going to sort by defensive rating, because an interesting trend emerges:
Corey Brewer, for all his foibles offensively (though his three-point shooting has ticked up the past 6 games to an almost-passable 30 percent), seems to be a common thread in a lot of the Rockets' best defensive trios. That Brewer-Terry-Howard trio is the best on the team in terms of net rating, too. This is just downright confusing.
Individually, Brewer's defensive stats are terrible. His defensive rating on the year is a terrible 110, and he's giving up better-than-average field goal percentages from every distance on the floor. Basketball-Reference grades him as slightly better than neutral in terms of Defensive Win Shares, but terrible in terms of Defensive Box Plus/Minus.
It's nice to know that he's not hurting when the Rockets are playing some of their best defense, but there's only one statistic to explain it -- he's part of some of the Rockets' least turnover-prone lineups. Brewer's averaging half a turnover less per game than he had last season, and if you turn the ball over less, you're going to give up fewer fast breaks.
That may be the key to solving a lot of the Rockets' problems, actually. We know their fast break defense has been terrible, but a large part of the problem has been their frequency. Only the 76ers average more turnovers per 100 possessions and more points given up from turnovers.
Combine that with the pathetic amount of missed layups from the team (which has thankfully let up in the last week or so), and you have a crippling problem. That could be why Brewer and Capela pop up in the Rockets' most successful lineups so often -- they take care of the ball.
Unfortunately, the Rockets aren't benching their most turnover-prone player anytime soon -- that's Dwight. Ty Lawson's right behind him, and his giveaways could reasonably be expected to come down, an encouraging sign. Until then, it's on J.B. Bickerstaff to keep mixing and matching to find a rotation that can take care of the ball better.