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Is Corey Brewer secretly good?

Corey Brewer often takes a lot of criticism ‘round these parts. Is it justified?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Is Corey Brewer, the man many of us love to rag on here at TDS, including sometimes even us writers, actually playing a lot better than we usually give him credit for? Are we holding last year’s atrocious season against him still? Perhaps putting to much focus and weight on his 23.5 percent shooting from beyond arc?

The quick and easy answer would be, “No, of course not, it’s Corey Brewer. I’d trade him to Sacramento tomorrow for one of the towels from DeMarcus Cousins’ locker.” But a closer look at some of Brewer’s metrics shows this isn’t as much of an open-and-shut case as it seems on the surface.

The main surprise comes on the defensive end, where Brewer has actually been better than anticipated this season, despite averaging the fewest steals per game (0.6) of his career. His advanced metrics, in fact, show him making a definite positive impact on that end of the floor.

His defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) of +0.54 ranks 29th in the league for all small forwards out of 80 eligible players, which puts him right around the top 35 percent of the league at his position. It’s not an elite number, but it is a very good one.

The Brew man also has a nice-looking defensive rating. His 102.5 mark is the second-best mark on the team. It’s also the main factor in his +9.0 net rating, which is tied for the second-best mark on the Rockets with Patrick Beverley, Yes, that means even better than James Harden, who comes in behind Brewer at +7.5.

His defensive field goal percentage of 44.0 percent is almost is full percent and a half better than Trevor Ariza (45.5 percent), and most would agree that Ariza has seen somewhat of a rebound season this year, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Well, Brewer has too.

By most measurements, he is having himself an effective year as a defender, but the same can’t quite be said about his offensive performance, which is where a large amount of the Brewer criticism originates from.

We already know that he can’t shoot. He never could, as he’s a career 28.4 percent guy from beyond the arc and a 42.3 percent shooter from the field overall. His ineffectiveness there is amplified in the Houston system with the Rockets averaging 40 three attempts per game, which leads the league, and 14.7 three-point makes, which also leads the league. All of the Rockets see a ton of open looks, and players like Ariza, Beverley, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson all make them at a healthy clip. Brewer simply does not, and the 10-year veteran never will.

But where he’s really slipped is his transition play. Two seasons ago Brewer was one of the league’s best in points per possession (PPP) in transition. That slipped last year to a middle-of-the-pack 1.10 PPP in transition and has fallen even further this year. Brewer averages just 0.77 PPP in transition this year, which puts him in the bottom 15 percent of the league in that category. And this is from a player who is third overall in the league in transition frequency percentage (for players that have played over 30 games.) Meaning he’s always running in transition. He’s just no longer scoring with the same effectiveness.

Yet the fact remains, for as good as the Rockets have been this year and all of the things they do well, they don’t have an overabundance of athleticism in the open court. Ariza is getting older and slower, Beverley and Gordon are fast, but their small size can be prohibitive on occasion. Harrell’s a great finisher, but lacks the raw, open court quickness of a smaller player. Brew and the suddenly blossoming Sam Dekker are pretty much the only guys on the roster that play any real minutes (here’s looking at you on the bench, K.J. McDaniels) that can do stuff like this:

So while this isn’t the Corey Brewer who lead the Headband Brothers triumvirate from two seasons ago, and his offensive rating of 111.5 is only worse than Sam Dekker and Nene among regular Rockets rotation players, he has a real, defined role on this team, despite his struggles on offensive side of the ball.

They key to keeping Brewer effective and useful is managing his minutes, and for large chunks of the season so far, head coach Mike D’Antoni has done just that. Brewer’s 15.8 minutes per game is the lowest amount of playing time of his career, and it’s gone a long way towards maximizing the things that Brewer does well, while minimizing his obvious faults.

The other key is keeping him out of the starting lineup and instead coming off the bench. He’s been a bust as a starter, racking up ugly-looking game plus-minuses of -20 and -8 in the previous two games he started (versus Miami and Milwaukee) while Ryan Anderson sat with the flu. He’s simply not disciplined enough offensively or a good enough shooter to keep the Rockets in sync while in the starting lineup. But coming off the bench, where his speed in the open court, finishing ability and renewed effectiveness as a defender can be best utilized, Brewer hasn’t been the dumpster fire the immense amount of criticism he takes would have one believe. He finished as a +25 in 23 minutes in his official return to the second unit against Memphis.

In fact, with D’Antoni mostly limiting his minutes, Brewer has made real, quantifiable contributions to this year’s squad. His defensive metrics, while certainly not the entire story, paint a positive picture of what he’s brought to the team this year. And while his struggles on the offensive end oftentimes balance out his defensive efforts (see his overall real plus-minus of -0.95, good for 39th out of 80 league small forwards, or right smack in the middle), Brewer has been better than we all often give him credit for (his value over replacement has fluctuated between -0.1 and +0.1, again making him right around average).

He still could get traded if the right deal pops up (though that’s appearing less likely in recent weeks), and hopefully the emergence of Sam Dekker this weekend as an emergency starter at forward keeps Brewer out of starting five, even in the event of an injured starter.

I may not be ready to declare Brew “good” this season, but after an objective look at his overall performance, weighted up by his defense, then back down by his offense to roughly a league-average small forward, how about we all settle on “not bad”?