Thank God it’s over.
Tanking is so complicated, isn’t it? Where do the priorities lie? Good is bad, bad is good, the sky is green and money grows on trees. Pigs are among our most prolific aviation specialists. Your heart wants the team to win, but if you believe in the plan, your brain wants them to lose. The best night you can hope for is an efficient 40-piece from Jalen Green in a close loss.
It’s over. We’ve got our groove back - the Houston Rockets want to win. Here are five individual stats that could have a huge impact on whether or not that goal is accomplished.
Jalen Green’s True Shooting Percentage (TS%)
Green has a lot of priorities this year. His defense needs to improve. Based on what we’ve seen in preseason, the effort is there, but the know-how is still progressing. Green needs to stop ball-watching. He needs to understand that if he’s not doing anything, he needs to be doing something. As my least favorite manager used to say - “if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean”.
(A co-worker of mine used to have a rebuttal: “minimum wage, minimum work!”. That doesn’t apply here).
His playmaking has room to improve as well, although it’s been steadily progressing. Green’s elite first step allows him to create advantages, and his ability to make basic reads from them is great. It would be nice if he added some more complex passing to his arsenal, but it’s a lower-level priority.
His first priority is scoring efficiently. It doesn’t even matter how it happens. If Green is the best finishing guard in the league but his three-point percentage is slightly subpar, we’ll take that. If he’s a knockdown long-range shooter who struggles in the midrange, we’ll live with that too.
It doesn’t matter if his points per game make a jump, either. His roughly 22 per game from last year will suffice - as long as his TS% makes a leap.
Dillon Brooks’ TS Percentage
Same stat, different player - and a very different context.
The Rockets need Green to be one of their top self-creators. That isn't so for Brooks. The more complimentary his role is, the better. Still, he needs to be efficient. Brooks is the best defender on this team, so he can’t be an offensive liability.
We all know what we’re hoping to see from Brooks. Less isolation, and more corner threes. So far, so good - Brooks has barely taken a shot in the preseason. Of course, he was ejected five minutes into the first game. Hopefully, we don’t see too much of that either. Keep those hands above the belt, Dillon.
Keep that TS% around league average, too.
Jabari Smith Jr.’s Three-Point Percentage (3P%)
Green needs to be a self-creator. Brooks needs to be a role player. Smith Jr.’s optimal role is unclear. In all likelihood, it’s somewhere in between those two extremes.
I’m happy to admit that I was one of many who scouted Smith Jr. poorly. I did not think this kid could create his own offense. Lately, it’s looking like he can. Smith Jr. can be weaponized on the elbow and in the high post. His handle is a little better than advertised. It’s not great, but it doesn’t need to be. If Smith Jr. can shake the defender with a pump fake, he’s got the goods to put it on the floor and get to the rack. If he’s got a mismatch (which, at 6’11, he often does) it doesn't even matter: Smith can just shoot it.
That’s fantastic. Still, Smith Jr.’s value will be limited if he’s not a floor spacer. He needs to knock the three-ball down with some consistency to best compliment Alperen Sengun, Amen Thompson, and others. If he’s a three-and-D wing plus, that’s a beautiful thing, but if he isn't at least a three-and-D wing, those extra skills will only travel so far.
Alperen Sengun’s Defensive Metrics
Here I go again...
Listen. There are five stats here. This is one. Get. Off. My. Back.
I philosophically believe that a big man should be a plus defender. Always have. It seems that the Houston Rockets agree. It’s not a secret that if the Rockets had their way, Brook Lopez would be on this team.
Sengun will never be Brook Lopez. He doesn’t need to be - Lopez never possessed Sengun’s floor vision. Still, he needs to be positive on that end of the floor this season.
The preseason has been extremely encouraging. Sengun looks better in Ime Udoka’s hedge and recover scheme than he has playing drop coverage under Stephen Silas. Whether he’s got slow feet or not, he’s got quick hands. Sengun is obviously smart, and that’s starting to look like it will translate on the defensive end.
I’m cheating a bit here. I’m not citing a specific stat. When you’re trying to measure a player’s defensive impact, you need to use a holistic approach. Cross-reference a handful of compound metrics. Compare lineups. Most importantly, use your eyes.
If you watch Sengun closely, he’ll repay you on the offensive end.
Amen Thompson’s Assist-To-Turnover Ratio
This one might be more significant to the future than the present. It still counts right now. The Rockets have been playing 0 minutes per game with quality point guard play for years. If they can play 48 minutes per game with quality point guard play this season, that will go as far toward improvement as anything else.
Thompson will struggle this year. He’s a rookie, so that’s to be expected. His unique skillset may not translate from day one. Defenses will pack the paint and dare Thompson to shoot. We know he’s going to wreak havoc in transition, but his offense in half-court sets is something to keep an eye on. If he can’t produce, Udoka may reduce his minutes until he can.
After all, the tank is over.