Know Your Enemy: The Houston Rockets

Kurt —  September 29, 2008

This is the latest in a series here at FB&G that will run through the start of the season, focusing on some of the top teams in the West and maybe a couple from the East. Today we talk about the Houston Rockets.

Last Season Record: 55-27 (fifth seed, but had the fourth-best record, just two games back of the Lakers)
Last Playoffs: Lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round in six games
Offensive Rating: 106.8 (17th in the league)
Defensive Rating: 101.6 (2nd in the league)

It would be a clash of organizational philosophies if the Lakers and Rockets met deep in the playoffs this year. On one hand you have the Rockets, who have had Yao and McGrady in their fold for years, but it has been GM Daryl Morey who put many of the pieces around those two anchors to make a contender. Morey comes from a statistical analysis background, and the Rockets are the most stat-driven team in the league.

Earlier this summer I called Lakers spokesman John Black and said since basically every team how had an advanced stats guy, I was hoping to interview the Lakers one. Black’s answer: “Phil Jackson doesn’t believe in that.” And in the Laker front office right now, if Phil doesn’t believe in it, nobody does.

The philosophies may be different, but these franchises may have assembled the two best and deepest rosters in the NBA.

The Rockets were a 55-win team last year despite a serious amount of injuries, and in the off-season made maybe the biggest trade among the contenders, picking up Ron Artest from Sacramento. (What, you thought I was going to say Brent Barry?)

What Artest means is that the Rockets come into the season with what should be the best defense in the league. On the wings Artest will probably start but Battier will come off the bench, but both provide a lot of wing defense (and likely will play together in the right matchups). With those good wing defenders comes the ability to funnel penetrating players to a 7-6 player who alters a lot of shots. When you miss, they are one of the better rebounding teams in the league (seventh in defensive rebounding percentage last season). You don’t get a lot of second chances.

The Rockets are going to create matchup problems for a lot of teams. Not so much at the PG spot, where Alston is solid but not spectacular (even if he did drop 31 on the Lakers once last season). But the next guy out on the wing, Tracy McGrady, creates a host more problems. When healthy, he is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. Health will be key for him — last season he shot just 42.9% (eFG%) on jumpers and had a below average true shooting percentage of 48.7%. Bottom line is his outside shot was of and he did not get to the line a lot — he averaged 5.3 free throw attempts per 36 minutes, his lowest rate since his second year in the league. But that is not necessarily the McGrady we will see this year – if he gets his game back (and we saw stretches of it last season) he will be a force.

At the forwards, Ron Artest is not an efficent scorer but he can put up points and provides someone who can shoot the three and play down on the block. Luis Scola averaged 10 points per game and had a very nice true shooting percentage of 54.8%; he has a nice offensive game. Then there is the center — when healthy Yao Ming is one of the two best centers in the game. He had a PER last year of 22.7 and his true shooting percentage of 58.7% is very efficient. The question here again is health — Yao played 55 games last year (57 and 48 the two years before that), and is coming into this season off playing in the Olympics this summer. How many games does he play this year, and can they keep his minutes down?

Off the bench, the Rockets bring some real quality — Shane Battier (who may start at times), Carl Landry, Dekembe and the finger wag, Luther Head. This is a deep and talented team.

Matching up with a healthy Rockets in a seven game series will be tough, for the Lakers or anyone else. It will not be easy to score on them. For the Lakers, they need to push the tempo (the Rockets were 20th in the league in pace), get them out of their game by running. The there will not be a lot of easy baskets, but with the quality of the Rocket defense you do not beat them one on one easily — you do it through cuts and passing and off the ball movement. Thee goal is to create open looks before the defense can adjust and rotate.

The Lakers were 1-2 against the Rockets last season, and a healthy Yao Ming put up big points. While Bynum can do some good if he is physical on defense, Yao cannot totally be stopped. Tracy had a huge game against the Lakers at the start of the season. Rafer Alston had one as well.

The real question for the Rockets will be health, particularly when the post season arrives. The Rockets are better prepared to handle an in-season injury — this is a deep team, and they had their best run with an undefeated February last year without Yao. But if they are going to win it all they need all their pieces when it matters. If they have them this is a team that could win a title.