When the Rockets traded Troy Daniels and not much else to get Corey Brewer in mid-December, it was met with a much more uniformly positive reaction from Rockets fans than the acquisition that soon followed -- the Smoove Move, as I decided to call it.
And, to further contrast Brewer with the higher-profile Josh Smith, the former has been an unquestionably positive addition, getting points on the fast break like we all expected him to, while shooting better than anyone could have imagined. So can we expect all this good stuff to continue? Let's start with the least likely element.
Here's Corey Brewer's shot chart from his Minnesota tenure this year, thanks to NBA.com:
1-for-16 from the left corner! That's just...[shudder]. Here's his shot chart in Houston:
Much better. How's this for a contrast: In Minnesota this year, Corey Brewer was shooting 19% on three pointers in 24 games. In Houston, 34% in 22 games. That's insane. The last time Brewer shot that well over the course of a season was the last time he was coached by Kevin McHale -- the 2009-10 season, in which he shot 34% on under one attempt per game. He's never been considered a shooter.
However, every perimeter player on the Rockets has to be a shooter, and Brewer's averaging what would be a career-high 4.5 three-point attempts per game. So he's increased his efficiency along with his volume, a spike which would make any stats head cynical. Is there a reason for Corey's improvement that's more than him just getting hot?
The most encouraging signs would be that his attempts are more frequently open, and/or they're more from the corners. Last year, according to NBA.com's player tracking data, the largest percentage (12.9 percent) of Brewer's three-point attempts were without any defenders within 6 feet of him (wide open). He hit 23 percent on those shots. Since joining the Rockets, a full 20 percent of Brewer's three-point attempts have been wide open, and he's shooting 46 percent on those same shots. So even with those parameters, a huge jump in volume and efficiency. That doesn't read as sustainable to me.
Of course, this tracking data only goes back one year, so it's possible he could be regressing now, and he was just unbelievably cold for a season and a quarter in Minnesota. That would be nice, and his basic career percentages back it up slightly, but it is also wishful thinking.
But what if he's shooting from better areas? According to Basketball-Reference, Brewer is indeed taking three-pointers from the corner at a higher rate -- 73 percent percent of his total attempts -- in Houston than at any previous point in his career. He's shooting 38% on those shots with the Rockets, which is actually not that big of a leap over his career rate from the corners, 33%. Now that's an encouraging sign.
Personally, I expect Brewer to regress a bit in the shooting department, but not to the point where him taking his wide-open corner threes will be a negative.
Corey Brewer has defended better since he came to Houston, but still not well enough to have a positive impact on the Rockets, if Basketball-Reference's advanced statistics are to be believed. His Defensive Win Shares, which are a cumulative stat, have improved from 0.4 over 24 games with Minnesota to 0.7 over 22 games with Houston. That's actually a pretty big improvement.
However, Win Shares are often skewed slightly by the team's overall record, and the cellar-dwelling Timberwolves would affect that stat dramatically in contrast to a playoff team like the Rockets. B-Ref's Defensive Box Plus-Minus stat, which focuses more on the difference between when Brewer is on the floor and on the bench, rates him at a slight negative to the Rockets, whereas he was a slight positive to the Timberwolves.
NBA.com's player tracking data is similarly middling in its view of Brewer. Let's compare him to Trevor Ariza, the man he generally replaces in the second unit, and one who we can pretty much all agree is a better defender than Corey, starting from the first game they played together. From inside 10 feet, opponents generally shoot around 3 percent better against Brewer than against Ariza. Once out on the perimeter, Ariza really becomes elite and Brewer becomes pretty good.
Which is completely fine! Brewer is a bench guy, and if Ariza wasn't considerably better than Brewer defensively, the Rockets would be in a heap of trouble (although if he could shoot bettter than Brewer like he was supposed to, that would help).
Kostas Papanikolaou, who has been largely erased since the Brewer and Smoove deals, is a rookie. Even though he can match up a little bigger than Brewer, I'd rather have a vet like Brewer out there. There just isn't enough data on Big Papa to really suggest how good of a defender he is so far, so that's simply my best guess.
Ah, the lifeblood of any Corey Brewer appreciation. A full 31 percent of Corey Brewer's points for the Rockets have come on the fast break, according to NBA.com's tracking data. We love to see the run-outs, and there's no doubt that the intangible energy Brewer has undoubtedly given Rockets bench units (and Rockets fans) stems a lot from how much he runs.
Running is only part of the equation, however. Brewer is a good finisher at the rim, shooting 63 percent on driving layups this season. For comparison, Trevor Ariza averages 58 percent on those same shots. It is a luxury to have a bench guy who can compensate for his shortfalls in one area with a bonus in another, and Corey has brought enough energy to allow us to forgive the drop-off in defense.
Before Corey arrived, the Rockets were already a fast break team, getting 15.9 percent of their points on fast breaks, fifth in the league. Since his arrival, that number has jumped to 18.4 percent, and moved up to fourth-best. That's incremental improvement, but Brewer has only averaged 24 minutes a game.
Why he's awesome
With Dwight's knees keeping him out another extended period, the Rockets will probably wind up going small a bit more, like they did during Dwight's earlier absence. If Corey can hold it together from long range, he will turn those small-ball lineups into a potential force, especially on the break.
More small-ball involving Corey would be a great thing, because he's fun as hell. As mentioned above, his energy has been vital to the Rockets bench's success. That energy goes beyond running, however. His gigantic, goofy smile always cheers me up as a fan when I see it. He's a great bench celebrator, a role every team needs filled. We know he loves Kevin McHale, the coach who drafted him back in Minnesota. One more player fully buying into a coach's system is always a great thing.
But how can words do him justice? To the vines!
Corey driving and scoring:
Never change, Corey.
UPDATE: Bonus Vine from last night's smackdown of the Bulls, sealed by the #HeadbandOfBrothers and this foolishness: