While much of the fanfare regarding the Ryan Anderson trade last week centered around Daryl Morey doing what he does and dumping the impossible, the move was actually somewhat of a rarity for the James Harden-era Rockets, as the main asset they got in return, Marquese Chriss, is still very much a project.
Generally, when in pursuit of a title, the NBA’s unspoken law says to get greedy on the margins of your roster and prioritize talent above all else, but the Rockets seem to believe they can buck that trend. And for good reason, as Ethan broke down over the weekend.
Still only 21, Chriss comes to Houston on the heels of a discouraging sophomore plateau. However, considering it was well-known upon his drafting that Chriss— a raw athlete who only began playing basketball competitively in high school— would take considerable time and effort to develop, it seems strange that the NBA community would sell it’s stock on him so quickly. Especially when one considers the only opportunity he’s had to learn the NBA ropes was for tanking Suns’ teams that had public issues with player development.
Fortunately for Rockets fans, based on his modern-big-man skill set, if Chriss is going to put it together anywhere, it’s in Houston. Let’s take a look at some reasons why it’s a natural fit:
The easiest place to project Chriss’ success with the Rockets is on defense. While it’s undoubtable Chriss regressed offensively this past year, it honestly wouldn’t be fair to say he got worse as a complete player considering how much he improved defensively. Per Synergy Sports defensive efficiency data, after looking completely out-of-sorts en route to finishing in the 5th percentile for overall defense his rookie year, Chriss jumped all the way up to the 60th percentile this past year.
Additionally, his Defensive Box Plus Minus (DBPM), which is an estimate of defensive points contributed over a replacement level player, jumped up from the league average 0.0 to a respectable 1.3 (which would’ve been top 5 on the Rockets). These numbers become all-the-more impressive when one considers Chriss played for the lowly Suns, who had the worst defense in the league by a decent margin.
Perhaps the most encouraging stat, however, is that Chriss finished in the 68th percentile for single coverage isolation defense. In fact, it was his best defensive play type. As I mentioned in my last piece, the Rockets switch an ungodly amount relative to the rest of the league, which in turn causes their players— particularly their bigs— to defend a ton of isolation possessions. Considering Chriss’ physical tools allow him to switch onto perimeter players better than most big men, Houston should be a seamless fit.
Unfortunately, despite what these stats might suggest, Chriss is still far from a finished product defensively. He’s a step out of position far too often, he struggles with early work, he forgets reads, and his motor is notoriously low. It’s unquestionable his instincts improved this season, but if he is to become the defensive player he’s capable of, he’ll need to stop relying on athleticism to make up for his lack of focus and effort.
Thankfully, Chriss is being thrown into an environment entirely opposite that of Phoenix. Houston doesn’t need him to develop the way the Suns did. He isn’t going to be gifted entitlement minutes based on his draft position anymore. If Chriss wants to see the floor, he’ll need to be locked in every possession, every day.
No disrespect to Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler, but sharing the court with non-token veterans like Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker will certainly help. Putting aside the strategic benefits from those two directing Chriss through traffic, the culture of defensive accountability they (along with assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik) have built tends to bring out the best for all parties involved. One scowl-faced chew-out from Paul after Chriss’ poor focus costs the Rockets an easy bucket might honestly be enough to remedy his apathetic approach.
Improved Shot Profile
For those wondering why it is that Chriss has struggled to put it together in the league despite having the three-point/lob-threat combination that all teams seem to chase in the draft these days, look no further than his shot profile. Despite having the skill set to play a modern game, Chriss was utilized fairly traditionally in Phoenix as he posted up nearly as much as he set pick and rolls (8% vs 10% of his possessions).
To give that some context, both PJ Tucker and Clint Capela set pick and rolls 10x as much as they posted up last season. Based on what analytics has taught us about the efficacy of those two play types and when one considers that Chriss may have a top five lob-radius in the league, it seems inevitable he becomes more efficient playing in Houston’s post-up averse system.
The Paul/Harden Effect
As The New York Times’ Marc Stein tweeted out shortly after the trade, a big reason Morey and the Rockets are betting on Chriss is that for the first time in his career, he will be playing with elite passers. Considering that 75% of Chriss shot attempts this season came without a dribble, it’s safe to say he’s more of a finisher than a creator. Therefore, the presence of solid playmakers is far more vital to his success than the average big.
It’s no coincidence that all the offensive play types that primarily require Chriss be set up by a guard (transition, cuts, pick and pop, etc.) saw a drastic dip in effectiveness when Eric Bledsoe left town for his sophomore season. While not an elite passer by any means, Bledsoe’s ability to find Chriss on time, and on target, mitigated many of his issues with offensive polish.
That trend continued this past season as Chriss’ best offensive minutes generally came when Devin Booker was on the floor to set him up. For this reason, playing with two future hall-of-fame point guards in Houston this season should make his life far easier than it was catching ill-timed lobs and pocket passes from Shaquille Harrison and Tyler Ulis last year.
Lastly, no longer will Chriss have to sift through a clogged paint on rolls or rim-runs due to the presence of Phoenix’s non-shooters (Elfrid Payton, Alex Len, T.J. Warren, etc.) The gravity of Houston’s shooters, mixed with Houston’s quality of guard play, helped Clint Capela to more easy buckets than he could count last season. It seems only logical that Chriss would reap those same benefits this year.
While it’s fair to say that much of Chriss’ struggles since coming to the league have been self-inflicted, it’s undoubtable that he wasn’t in the correct system to maximize his skill set. If Chriss buys in and comes to camp in shape this season, it seems entirely plausible he carves out a meaningful role. Otherwise, this could simply be the start of another pre-draft horror story of lottery pick turned youthful-journeyman. Let’s hope it’s the former.