by Fox Doucette
Houston is the archetype of the modern NBA analytics revolution. The Rockets won 55 games last year by pulling off the curious combination of looking at the stats on the court and the effect that obvious lack of chemistry got them in real numerical terms.
The eye test guys always squawk about how you can’t measure things like team chemistry. If that were the case, Dwight Howard’s departure wouldn’t have been good for 14 wins.
The offense was 6.4 points per 100 possessions better, second only to Golden State’s unstoppable juggernaut in terms of efficiency. The defense, while 0.9 points worse on paper, was three ranks higher (18th vs. 21st) because the entire league’s offense got better, which raised everyone’s defensive rating (and remember, defensive stats are like golf; lower is better.)
Also, the team somehow managed to do all this with Mike D’Antoni as their coach, a guy who had wiseacres like yours truly convinced they were going to be the first team to give up 200 points in a game.
But that was then. This is now. James Harden learned the hard way that turning the ball over nearly 500 times won’t win you the MVP award. The Rockets got Chris Paul. Clint Capela got a year older and better-developed. Cameron Oliver left the Nevada Wolf Pack, the College of Champions that produced JaVale McGee and a certain wiseguy sportswriter.
But will that win them another 55 games…or put them over into legit NBA second banana territory behind Golden State?
2016-17 record: 55-27
2018 over/under: 55.5.
One game better than the Spurs? You sure about that, Vegas?
The biggest, most glaring question here is whether Houston’s going to be able to hide Harden’s atrocious defense once he’s back playing the two-spot as a wing shooter rather than being the primary ballhandler. Paul’s a very solid defender (a career 104 defensive rating, nearly 40 Defensive Win Shares, and a positive box plus-minus on that end) who can disrupt the start of a lot of the opposing team’s set pieces after made baskets.
Harden’s use in the Houston defense was so well-orchestrated last year that he posted a plus-1.5 DBPM, but that was the exception. When he has had to guard wing players, it has been an absolute horror show; he is still a career minus defender from the shooting guard position.
Harden also led the league in assists last year, but it’s going to be CP3’s job to pinball the ball around. Does this mean we’ll be seeing more spot-up catch-and-shoot Harden? Pray for the rims if so, because Captain Turnover is a career 36.4 percent shooter from out there. If Houston is lucky, having a greater percentage of those attempts assisted will be good for his percentage; his career-high for three-point accuracy (39 percent) came in his last season in Oklahoma City.
The team is otherwise a firm believer in positionless basketball; last season, the Rockets were 15th in the league in three-point percentage (35.7 percent) despite chucking up an NBA record 40 attempts per game from out there. Perimeter pinball is what this team does, and Capela is in the low post to act both as a hoover for rebounds (averaging over six offensive boards per 100 possessions) while proving an effective threat who can collapse a defense and, as he learns to pass more efficiently, get assists of his own on corner threes.
Capela is also a lockdown rim protector; a 0.9 positive DBPM and 2.1 DWS in only about 24 minutes a game tells that story. He will only get better as he enters his age-23 year.
You See A Pattern Developing Here?
We’re talking about Houston in defensive terms and trusting the offense to do as it does. That’s the kind of talk that drives teams about to make a great leap forward in quality.
If Houston continues to shoot the ball well, relying on the three-is-more-than-two principle coupled with Capela’s improving low-post touch (his ceiling is a rich man’s DeAndre Jordan), developing a top-ten defense becomes icing on the cake; that’s the stuff that 60-win teams are made of.
It all comes down to whether Harden’s going to revert to his Shaqtin’ MVP worst defensively, or if Chris Paul, at 32, hits the wall as he slides out of his prime, or if players can’t stay healthy. Barring injury, this team looks fantastic.
So what does that mean in practice? It means that as much as I would love to dump on Daryl Morey and find fault with his approach, this is a very well-constructed team that added the right piece at the right time. They’re not going to win a title, not against Kevin Durant and the Mad Bastard Mercenaries (dibs on the rock band name) in Golden State. But they’ll win Game 3 of the conference finals at home and do just enough to sucker people into wondering if they have a chance before they get wasted in 5.
So “conference finals”? Yeah, I’ll say that’s confirmed. These guys are good.