Herein is a series of thoughts on how the Rockets are playing. They’re subjective, and not particularly informed by stats, or perhaps by anything. Consider it an old-style scouting analysis. Perhaps there will be a follow-up with stats. Perhaps ‘Shakers will provide statistical confirmation, or denial of the assertions and questions here. Perhaps they’ll find nothing of value here at all.
It’s not that I’m “done” with basketball stats, it’s that I’m just not sure what we’re in the process of proving or disproving, and I’m not sure I have the tools to do the job anyway. In the early days of statistical sports analysis, the enthusiasts, starting with baseball, attempted to answer questions about the game. They did this by means of stats, as they’d provide an objective basis for conclusions. This went rather well for many of the participants in what began as a reviled cottage industry. Perhaps you have heard of Nate Silver, or Bill James?
After a certain point though, ratios and metrics were mentioned, and lauded or decried, seemingly simply because they could be derived from that data-sets. There didn’t seem to be a fundamental question about a sport underlying them, they simply could be calculated, and presumably had value because they were derived from “measurables”, so there they were, offered in their profusion.
It’s somewhat like other things we can count. We can measure it, count it, so it must have value, right? Well, does it? How do you know? For example, how valuable IS a rebound? Are all assists, or rebounds equal, or are some worth more, or less? How can the home enthusiast know, without making it a life’s work to do so, or relying on a “black box” of sorts?
Baseball came upon a time where stats and old school scouting worked very well together. In conjunction. The Astros may have destroyed this with their cameras and software, but in basketball, I think the value of experienced scouting will persist. There’s too much locked in a basketball player’s game, I think, than can be found in the equivalent of launch angle and spin rate and various speeds.
So, lengthy disclaimers and speculation aside, here are some thoughts on the Rockets.
CAN you beat them inside?
I’m not so sure you can, except with the likes of Lebron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis and maybe Kristaps. That is to say, players with the size of many centers, but the skills of guards and wings. Look at last night’s Memphis game. Memphis had a perfect player to dominate the Rockets in Jonas Valanciunas, a skilled big with a classic Euro big-man profile. He had a good night, going 6-9 for 16pts and 10 rebounds. That’s not enough to beat the PocketRockets scoring machine. Not only does the big have to do well, he has to do better than nearly anything else would, and that means a lot of scoring, because the Rockets do a lot of scoring. Meantime, Russell Westbrook had a layup and easy mid-range (get used to it) festival for 33pts, and practically no free throws, despite physical defense.
And going the other way, who is Valanciunas guarding? It’s always, always, going to be a guard or wing.
In the end, I honestly don’t think most (or all but maybe two to four) teams can feed the big man the ball inside fast enough, and well enough, to exploit the Rockets’ lack of a center. Can the big pass out of a double? If he puts the ball on the floor, he likely loses it. He can also be fronted and denied, or attacked by an exceptional help defender, like Robert Covington.
Finally, it generally takes time to set up the post, and possibly a repost, and an opponent better get at least a 60% TS out of it. Even if they do, they’re losing a possessions game, with the Rockets often acting very quickly on the shot clock. The Rockets might even encourage such an inside attack, due to all the time it consumes, and possibilities for errors.
Sure it might work sometimes, if the Rockets are shooting badly, especially. One game won’t bring back the glory days of NBA centers, though, no matter how much the oldsters on TNT want it.
How much do rebounds matter?
I have a sneaking suspicion rebounds fall into the category of “things that could be counted fairly easily for old boxscores, and therefore, were counted and counted things are valuable things”. Sure, it’s better to get more rebounds than fewer, all things being equal. All things are not equal right now, with the Rockets approach. I’d love to see how often teams throughout different eras of NBA history won or lost games compared to winning or losing the rebound battle.
Hasn’t Boston been playing a kind of five-out small ball, too?
Yes, they have. The two teams will meet on Saturday in a fairly big contest, and we’ll know a bit more. My theory on this is that Boston is rather good, with three good to great wings, and a good PG. As I see it, they’re held back by their scheme, and that means by everyone’s darling, Brad Stevens. From what I’ve seen, Boston is truly dangerous on offense when their star level players play like stars, play off-script. Jason Tatum unleashed is scary, as is Jaylen Brown. Their offense, however, seems to be one that raises their floor tremendously, but also puts a ceiling on their output. NBA stars need to play like stars to get maximum value from them, offenses designed to make any sort of team competent on offense don’t extract maximum value.
Can the Rockets keep this up?
It’s easy to limit minutes in 30pt blowouts. Ok, real answer, this is a deep bench filled with guys who can do what the Rockets need. The team goes 11 or 12 deep, when Gordon is healthy. The Rockets’ system is simple and straightforward to an experienced NBA player, and therefore the new additions are fitting right in. Mike D’Antoni has been using those players, too.
Westbrook may be the main beneficiary of PocketRockets, but there are others.
While the media is rightly beginning to notice Bestbrook, who is scoring super efficiently, hitting his jumpers at a great rate in the last month, and generally featuring in Rudy Gobert’s nightmares, there is another. Austin Rivers is beginning to look like a lesser, but lethal, combination of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Always a powerful player off the drive, Rivers seems to be realizing he only needs to beat one man. If he does, he’s either at the hoop, or passing out to an open shooter. How on earth can a defender leave Rivers and let James Harden alone?
This needn’t be the endpoint of the Rockets’ experiment.
Mike D’Antoni (and perhaps Daryl Morey) are going down swinging. This is what D’Antoni always wanted to do. This may be the start of what this sort of Rockets team can do, rather than the finished form. There are no maps for where the Rockets are now. The way I like it.
Are turnovers down so much (generally) for the Rockets due to far less inside passing?
I suspect this is true. Without a center, or inside game, if the Rockets are passing inside, it’s usually to an open shooter, not Clint Capela (who was in fact good at catching these passes). Usually the Rockets drive to the inside, with little to no passing, and only move the ball from wing to guard to wing (or whatever) along the perimeter.
How many NBA turnovers does inside passing generate? A majority? A very high percentage of such passes? Does a potentially higher turnover rate lessen the impact of a coming dunk or layup, thereby?
Will James Harden please stop floating slow passes to teammates?
Is it a ruse for Harden to get the ball back, because there’s no way his teammate can can shoot off such a floaty pass before a defender arrives?
What are your thoughts?
Can The PocketRockets keep it up?
This poll is closed
Mark Cuban has some helpful suggestions that would make it possible.