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.

Kurt

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27 responses to Know Your Enemy: The Houston Rockets

  1. BRING THEM ON!!! I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE SEASON TO START!!!!

  2. I can’t find the interview, but I’m pretty sure Andrew listed Yao as his toughest defender. He said something to the effect that it’s difficult for him to adjust against a player that is actually bigger than him, which is surprising since Yao has never been known for his defense.

    The Rockets are going to very tough. I’d hate to face a healthy Rockets team in the playoffs.

    I really, really like Scola. I think Artest is going to have DPOY type season. And T-Mac is T-Mac.

    Good preview.

  3. Offensively, the Rockets were a below-average team last season. They’re probably going to be more familiar with Adelman’s Princeton-style offense this season, and Laker fans remember how efficient it can be.

  4. hey Kurt, you mentioned something that made me think it might be worth a separate write up.
    you said, (paraphrasing) that when the Lakers can get out and run, they should put some points on the board and some distance from their opponents.
    this reminded me of the finals last year, (and the playoffs up to them) last year, there were a few times when the lakers played LAKER BALL, not unlike the “showtime” Lakers with magic, where they got a rebound and were off to the races. this team was fun to watch, (both teamsa actually, the Magic led team, and last years team when they played LAKER BALL).
    in those games where we dominated the Celt’s, ran out to huge leads, it was because we played our style of ball.
    now I know we couldn’t impose our will throughout, primarily because we couldn’t control the boards.
    but this team, this year, should be able to really focus on grabbing boards, altering shots to get the boards, and get out and run.
    I think a factor in this is because Phil allowed some freelance for a few seconds at the start of the offense, and if nothing opened up, they went into the triangle set.
    I hope to see more of that this year, and it really is why I love the Lakers, watching them in the 80’s, that Showtime era, (with Chick too) , well, that was a very special time indeed, and a blast to watch.
    I hope we get more of that this year. let the “towers” disrupt the shots, grab the boards and get out on the wings. Trevor will help this, Kobe too, LO as well, the key will be a PG who can push the tempo. maybe Jordan will step up, but Fish is still one of the best. also, Pau runs the floor well too, so Andrew can be the trailer, and the one to stay back in case of a turnover, etc.
    it seems like we could find the stats on when this team ran out to huge leads, what worked, etc.

  5. 4. Chris, remember Riley’s mantra for Showtime:

    Rebounds = Rings

    It’s true again this year, especially if the defense creates rebounds to grab.

  6. I actually like the Rockets and find myself wanting them to do well. Obviously this is not to say that the Lakers won’t handle them as they should, but for some reason all of the hard luck and feel good press about them year end and year out has carved out a little soft for them when I hear anything about them. Of course with Artest this will probably all change, as he can never keep himself out of trouble on any level. So it will be interesting to see how they are protrayed this year in the media.

  7. #4. Chris,
    I think we did a fine job running in the playoffs against Denver and Utah. It was the Spurs and the Celts that slowed us down. Part of that is something that you and Kurt both mentioned, our inability to control our own defensive glass. But the second part was pure scheme from those teams. The Spurs rarely attacked the offensive glass, so even though we rebounded fine, there were few chances to get out and run because the Spurs made a consistent effort to get back and set their D. Boston was very much the same way, they attacked the glass with their PF and C but dropped everyone else back to prevent the break. It’s tough to get out and run without some breakdowns (even if they are very subtle) from the defense in their transisiton from offense to defense.

  8. It’s very hard to know how the Lakers will match up with the Rockets. So many injuries muddied the matchups last season. I don’t think Pau even played a game against them. Yao missed one, and Bynum played under 20 minutes (only 5ppg) in both games he played in. Then you have Tracy who had to leave halfway through one game. Then there’s the Artest addition. Not the clearest of pictures to ponder off of. Lot of guesswork needed.

    Houston are the team in the West that I’m most worried about. They bring what Boston brings. They have that toughness, that unbelievable defense, they’re even better on the backboards. They have two top tier defenders in Artest and Battier to throw at Kobe Bryant and Battier in particular does a great job. Houston, like Boston, get the Lakers offense out of rhythm and stymie the role players effectively. They force Kobe to score big, and take lots of shots to do it (splits: 33ppg, 29FGA, 40% FG%, 4 turnovers). They do everything that bothers the Lakers. That’s why they scare me.

    Like Boston they also have three top scorers including a powerful small forward in Artest who’ll likely trouble the SF by committee (like Bonzi Wells did). I think Lamar Odom’s ability to play small forward will be very important for this matchup, and I think he could defend Artest better than the other options. Houston also have McGrady who can match, not all, but a large portion of what Kobe brings to the table.

    I’m very interested to see how Pau Gasol attacks Houston’s physical power forwards. He has a huge size advantage over Landry/Hayes/Dorsey and still a pretty big size advantage over Scola. He should be able to shoot over these guys. His ability to create his own offense and give the Lakers a second go-to scorer will be very important. If he only shoots the ball If he attacks Houston like he did Boston, taking only 10 shots for 15ppg, I think the team could be in trouble offensively. The team needs an aggressive/assertive Pau Gasol and if they get it they’ll be in great shape.

    I really like what Houston have going on their bench too. Deep squad. More good defenders, rebounders, some shooters. Lots of quality role players. They’re going to keep coming at you and attacking.

    In terms of the Rockets weaknesses …. Rafer Alston is their weak spot in the starting lineup but the Lakers likely won’t be able to exploit that. Another big weakness is Yao’s inability to defend when he’s moved far away from the hoop but the Lakers will struggle to exploit that also. Perhaps the Odom-Gasol pairing would be a good choice for big minutes, at least in the regular season, to see if they can get at Yao and take that Rocket’s interior defense out of their comfort zone. Probably won’t work too well, Bynum needs to play big minutes to protect the boards and defend Yao in the post. Be tough to exploit that at a high level. Their third weakness is how they defend long PF’s which Pau could exploit.

    I think Houston will match up extremely well against LA. Very close, very tough series. That would be a great series to see. I regard them as the biggest threat to LA in the West.

    With Houston and their health, who knows if this matchup even has a chance of happening come playoff time.

  9. It will take a near miracle for this Houston team to seriously contend. Everything looks right and mighty on paper, but they are unproven. Their winning streak, which contributed heavily to their final standings came without key pieces, and their newest prize has not played ONE game with them.

    I sincerely do with they do well, since I believe T-Mac and Yao to be above average citizens in the NBA, but them incorporating Artest and having a serious run at the championship is as unlikely as Ariza playing more minutes than Lamar.

  10. Houston has to talent to go far, but they have two big question marks: 1) Can McGrady and Yao stay healthy or at least recover enough for the playoffs and 2) Can they throw off the McGrady curse and make it out of the first round?

    Also, wrong post, but this is the new one.

    http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-spw-lakersider30-2008sep30,0,4847394.story

    Lamar doesn’t look to be a happy camper.

  11. http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-spw-lakersider30-2008sep30,0,4847394.story

    Lakers’ Lamar Odom unhappy with idea of being sixth man:

    “The Lakers convened this afternoon for a media session in El Segundo before the start of training camp Tuesday and Odom voiced his disdain for Jackson’s idea.”

    This could be a positive if it gives Odom incentive to play the best basketball of his career. Or it could be a HUGE negative if Phil brings Odom off the bench and Odom begins to feel sorry for himself.

    This was one of my main concerns heading into this season … I hope Kurt is right about Odom in the starting lineup.

  12. My bad … sorry for the double post.

  13. 10. Lamar doesn’t like the idea of coming off the bench. He doesn’t like the idea of losing his starting job. Shocking, just shocking.

    This is what Phil wanted, to light a fire under Lamar. Motivation through the media. Larmar will work to show Phil why he should start. Phil gets what he wants. Odom’s ruffled feathers get soothed after a while. This is not a matter of Odom being “unhappy” as not liking the idea Phil didn’t want him to like in the first place.

  14. Honestly, a little more anger from the guys can’t hurt. We’ve all talked about how upset all the guys should be from the way we lost in the Finals and hoped that it would provide motivation for a better result this season. Last year, we all talked about Bynum’s emergence, but few talked about the role that Kobe’s parking lot cell phone video could have played in motivating Andrew. I remember reading an article where Andrew’s mentor issued the following quote when speaking to Andrew: Are you going to take this as a negative and cry about it?” he asked. “Or are you going to take it as a challenge?” And the same is going to hold true for Odom. Is he going sulk and go all “woe is me” over this, or is he going to get upset, get motivated, and take this as a challenge to rise to the occasion and provide what the team needs? Everyone on these boards knows that I am an Odom supporter, so it’s no surprise that I think Odom can and will play well and step up to Phil’s challenge.

    (BTW, that quote was from an ESPN the Magazine piece on Bynum. It’s a good read, and if you didn’t catch it earlier this year, check it out)

    http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?name=20080128/everbodylovesbynum

  15. Coach Adelman was/is leaning towards starting Battier and bringing Artest off the bench. W/delay in Battier’s recovery from surgery,that may be shelved for now. But Artest off bench would solve many Rocket problems,chief being no one off bench who could get their own shot.

    Vs the Lakers,great matchups all up and down the lineup-if they’d only meet in Playoffs.
    Yao vs Bynum. Yao’s strengtn,size and soft touch vs Bynums’ energy and athleticism.
    Scola vs Gasol. Scola’s hustle and uncanny ability to make junk shots vs Gasols’ passing and shooting skills. European readers can prob give us a good analysis of what happened when they met in assorted Euro/International contests.
    Arizza vs Battier.(Assuming these are the eventual starters at SF.)Youthful energy vs veteran cunning. Battier’s 3pt shot vs Arizza’s hi-wire act. Altho both will spend their time on the court guarding…
    T-Mac vs Kobe. Is there anybody who wouldn’t want to see these two going against each other in a series?
    Alston vs Fisher. Two solid pros who get the job done. Leadership,clutch shooting,adequate D,executing coach’s plans.
    Bench:
    Dorsey,Landry,Hayes vs Lamar. Different specialties vs Lamar’s all-around game and quickness.
    Artest vs Walton,Radmanavich. See above.
    Barry vs Sasha. Qui-Gon,Anakin. :)
    Farmar vs Brooks. Heart vs ligthning.

  16. Hey I have a question for Kurt (and others)

    Why would the lakers sign Andrew Bynum now for potentially a max deal, when they could just wait till next summer and match any offer a team makes? I mean, the max another team could offer is max deal anyway, so the Lakers won’t have to worry about paying him more next summer. Why do it this summer w/ Bynum’s agent aasking for Max deal when next summer, most teams probably won’t even offer Bynum max deal?

  17. Don’t forget Steve Francis. If he can start playing like how he use to, then the Lakers might have extra some troubles.

  18. some extra troubles *** sorry about that

  19. Well check this out, Theus is going to run some triangle this year up in Sacramento:

    http://www.sacbee.com/100/story/1276001.html

  20. Hey everyone, new to the site, but I come here everyday. Not sure if anyone is aware of this but it appears that Kobe actually can worsen his finger. Here’s a small quote from what the column states.

    “And it would take an extreme, freakish play in which his finger got caught in a jersey and pulled for it to become dislocated again — essentially enough force to cause a new injury, not merely aggravate the current one.”

    http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/columns/story?page=lakersphil-080926

  21. #17: Kenny,
    Technically, you are correct. Bynum will be a RFA and the Lakers would have the ability to match. However, unless you’re a cheap team like the Hawks or the Clippers, you don’t ever let it get to that point with players you actually want to keep. When you do, you risk alienating/upsetting that player and creating a rift in the team/player relationship. I mean, look at the Hawks, they just did this w/ Josh Childress and he bolted to Europe. Look at the Clippers: when Maggette and Brand were RFA’s they let other teams sign them to offer sheets (Maggette w/ the Jazz and Brand w/ the Heat) and then they matched those offers. Good for the Clips right? In the short term, yes, but in the long term both Brand and Maggette left the team the first chance they could, with Brand even using an opt out clause to make it happen. In the end, extending the players you want to actually keep by offering them the money before they become RFA’s is the best route, I think.

  22. McGrady says his shoulder is arthritic. He’s going to have surgery after the season. My money says he won’t last the season. Neither will Yao.

    Being a Laker fan, I’m not knocking them for being hurt, because we all know about injuries too well, but this is the one thing this team seems to never be ableto over come. I expect them to be better, but not better than the Lakers, even if healthy, and itjust doesn;t seem like they ever will be healthy.

  23. Darius & Kurt,

    I agree. Phil said that to light a fire under Lamar. It he absolutely has to respond, big time. He has to be amazing this year. No less. It’s a contract year, following a Finals where his toughness was questioned. How LO responds to this challenge will determine his future. Shave the star in your head, be the star. I love Lamar and want to see him stay, and I never have placed the blame on him, but considering what is on the line, and what everyone wants to see from him, he has to have a “wow” type of year. He has to have a year like Carlos Beltran has a few years ago, or C.C. Sabathia and Manny had this year. When it was time to play, win and earn that contract, they were lights out.

  24. 17. Kenny, Darius said it well in #22. There are just differrnt sets of rules for 17. Kenny, Darius said it well in #22. There are just different sets of rules for how you deal with your stars, with the face of the franchise guys. Bynum gets that treatment. Which means you work out a deal before Oct. 31, and not risk letting the resentment fester.

  25. Brandon (11),

    Odom’s comments suggest to me that he really doesn’t understand his situation. VladRad started at the 3 last year. Though Luke may not demand minutes in the beginning of the season, you can be sure that he also will be playing at the 3. Kobe may switch down to the 3. Phil mentioned increased playing time for Trevor at the 3–including starting sometimes–last year. This is to be Trevor’s make or die year.

    It’s not just about starting. Odom must either be used at multiple positions–or spend some time on the bench.

  26. Houston looks good on paper, but they play in a tough division and a tougher conference; Yao and McGrady have consistently shown as much toughness as a roll of wet toilet paper; and Artest is never more than three seconds away from a season-wrecking meltdown.

    Don’t forget that this guy once asked to take a month off to promote his rap album just a month into the season, a fact which was overshadowed days later by the brawl in Detoit. And Ron Ron had previously applied for a job at Circuit City while playing for the Bulls because he was bored and wanted discounted CDs. You can’t make that stuff up. (It was on “RealSports.”)

    This is not the type of player who leads teams to titles in today’s NBA. I was very thankful the Lakers didn’t trade for him over the summer, and time will show he’ll tank the Rockets with his attitude — so long as the “Big Two” and their annual season-ending injuries don’t kill the team first.

    I’m more concerned with the Hornets, Blazers and even the Jazz than I am Houston.