Preview & Chat: The Houston Rockets

Kurt —  November 9, 2008

Records: Lakers 4-0 Rockets 4-2
Offensive ratings: Lakers 110.7 Rockets 105.2
Defensive ratings: Lakers 88 Rockets 98.6
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Rockets Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady, Ron Artest, Luis Scola, Yao Ming

The LA Times Misses the Point: We rarely get into what the beat writers say about the team here, mostly because they have a hard job and the guys following the Lakers do it really well. But today, the meme seems to be “the Lakers aren’t shooting well.”

This is where using traditional NBA stats is lacking. First and foremost, what really matters most is not points per game — that’s a stat where the pace a team plays at impacts that number dramatically. The Lakers play at one of the fastest paces in the league (third right now) so PPG is high for the Lakers. In any game, the two teams playing each other are going to have the same number of possessions — what matters is who uses those possessions most efficiently. Right now, the Lakers are sixth in the league at 109.7 points per 100 possessions. Maybe not what we expected, or where it will be at the end of the season, but not bad.

As for shooting, using straight FG% does not take into account the bonus the Lakers are getting from shooting threes. Part of what Fisher and Radmanovic bring to the table is that they spread the floor for Pau, Bynum and the slashing Kobe. Fisher and Radmanovic are both shooting 50% from three. If you use eFG% (created by Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, by the way) you get Fisher at a decent, but a bit low, 46%, while Radmanovic is at 64%. Overall, using eFG%, the Lakers are at 15th in the NBA in eFG%, a little low.

The other thing that makes up for that is how often the Lakers are getting to the free throw line, something else that traditional stats don’t capture well. The Lakers are fifth in the league in getting to the line, and as a team that shoots free throws well that gets them a lot of extra points.

The one stat that combines threes and free throws is True Shooting Percentage, which is really a points per shot attempt stat. Use that and the Lakers are at a solid 53.9%, which is 11th in the league. That’s a far cry from 21st.

Lakers notes: Let’s talk a little more about the Lakers defensive start to the season. Kevin Pelton over at Basketball Prospectus has an amazing discussion and breakdown of what the Lakers are doing:

The explanation of what the Lakers have done differently has focused on their borrowing concepts from the Boston Celtics. However, in closely scrutinizing the League Pass replay of their game against the Nuggets, I didn’t see much similarity to what the Celtics do, which is relatively simple fundamentally. No, the Lakers are throwing out the most extreme defense we’ve seen in the league in some time. To find an analogy, I have to go back to the Seattle SuperSonics of the 1990s under George Karl, who utilized a version of the SOS Pressure Defense created by long-time assistant Bob Kloppenburg.

One thing not getting talked about is that the Lakers aren’t fouling much — their free throws to field goal ratio against is the lowest in the league. They weren’t bad last year (ninth in the league) but four games in they are on a pace for a number that would have been the lowest ratio since 2004. Put it this way, teams are averaging 20 free throws a game against the Lakers, when the league median is 26.8. (This will be put to the test tonight against a Rockets team that is very good at getting to the line.)

The other thing is rebounding — the Lakers have been the best defensive rebounding team in the NBA this year (just 19.8% of opponents misses lead to a second chance, the league median is 26.8%). Offensive rebounds often lead to easy put backs, and easy points. Also, rebounds help fuel the Lakers transition game.

Ever wonder if I sound like a Muppet? Rebounding is one of many topics that the brothers Kamentsky and I discussed when I was on their ESPN 710 radio podcast this week. (Others include cats in hats.) Give it a listen.

Just say no to McDyess. As tends to happen with any free agent, there are some Lakers fans who think picking him up is a good idea.

McDyess is a good player, no doubt. But I’m from the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school. Right now the Lakers are so deep that guys getting the MLE are barely getting any playing time, and we already have a rotation right now along the front line (Gasol, Bynum and Odom) that works very well. Whose minutes are you going to cut back? Would he be better insurance than Powell? Sure, but McDyess wants to play, and if he comes here his minutes would be limited (plus he doesn’t know the system, which is why Phil is not traditionally a fan of mid-season additions.

Plus, this would not be cheap — the Lakers are in the luxury tax already (to the tune of $11 million). Whatever you pay McDyess would be doubled, because you’d have to pay the tax as well. Is McDyess a decent one-year rental for $5million is a very different question when you are talking $10 million. I just don’t think you run this big a risk at this price.

The Rockets Coming In: I have now watched about two-and-a-half Rockets games, and I’m still not sure what to make of this team. There are moments they have looked like a potential contender, and moments where they have looked pedestrian, a little lost and disinterested.

They are certainly a good team, and as you would expect that starts on the defensive end. Yao alters a lot of shots in the paint (being 7’6” will do that) and they have good perimeter defenders, particularly Artest when he is interested. However, they have not looked dominant on that end yet, with teams exploiting McGrady at times. Remember that they are without the very good defender Battier right now, when he gets back all that may change.

On offense, the box scores may say that McGrady, Yao and Artest are all scoring about the same per game, but the offense runs through McGrady. He gets the ball on the wing and that sets up just about everything they do. He is playing some very efficient ball (a team high PER of 23, he is assisting on 31% of his possessions used and getting to the line a lot. Regular commenter here Steven is a Rockets fan and was good enough to send in some very detailed thoughts, including reminding us that McGrady is still injured right now.

So why’s he playing? Because w/out his playmaking the Rockets are incredibly bad on offense. He is the only Rocket who can get Yao the ball when Yao gets into his sweet spot. He remains the only Rocket who can consistently get the ball to the Rocket mini-PFs when they’re open. What has been amazing is how easily McGrady has been getting past his defender and into the lane considering he’s playing on half a leg.

Steven is not as big a fan of Artest as some:

Very good 3pt shooter when his feet are set, overpowers other players when he drives towards basket and makes most of the FTs those barely controlled crashes earn. But, IMHO, his disadvantages far outweigh what he brings. He is a very good man-to-man defender who uses his long arms to knock away the ball, but is horrible on help defense.(Not all Ron, but w/Battier the Rockets were a top defensive unit, while w/Ron playing in Battier’s spot they are a sieve.) When he dribbles to set up a shot he usually misses-badly. When he drives he is just throwing up garbage and is relying on bail-out fouls.

All that said, this is a pretty stagnant Rockets offense, there is not a lot of off the ball movement. The spacing is pretty good (most of the time) but this is not going to be confused with Rick Adelman’s Sacramento teams in any way.

The other Rocket I’ve liked is Aaron Brooks, the backup PG that we West Coasters will remember from his days at Oregon. He brings a real burst of speed to an otherwise fairly deliberate team, and he is pesky on defense. Like Farmar off the Lakers bench, he gives the Rockets a real boost when he enters the game.

Here are the two things I don’t get.

1) They don’t play Luis Scola in the fourth quarter, and they limit his minutes. He has the second best PER on the team, has a very good true shooting percentage of 60.6%, scores almost as many points per minute as McGrady. He starts, but for some reason Adelman seems to bench him for the fourth. Not sure what the logic there is.

2) This is an average rebounding team. They shouldn’t be, but they are. They are 12th in the league in defensive rebounding, 23rd in grabbing offensive boards. The reason the Blazers won two nights ago, besides Roy’s amazing shot, was that Portland grabbed 34% of their missed shots for the game.

Keys To The Game: This game is going to be the first huge test of the Lakers new defensive scheme. One, because I don’t think we’ll see the disinterested Rockets at any point tonight, second they are a team that presents matchup problems.

Picture it: McGrady gets the ball on the wing, so the Lakers bring Gasol from the weak side to the strong side ready to zone. Except, to do that now on the backside Radmanovic is going to have to cover Scola — Camby kept leaving Scola and Landry two nights ago (because Camby loves to come from the weak side to block shots) and that pair combined for 34 and 16. Bynum can’t leave Yao alone. The Lakers rotations on the weak side of this defense and their aggressiveness will be tested tonight.

Steven thinks the Rockets offense, as they are playing it now, will play into the hands of the Lakers:

Normally an Adelman offense w/a big setting up in the FT area would create huge problems for the strong side zone. But this Rockets team doesn’t run anything close to a classic Adelman offense and the way the starters have been playing plays directly into the Laker Zone. The wild card is McGrady. If he can get into the lane Scola, Hayes, Landry and Yao should feast on open looks.

This game may be a challenge to watch if you like flow, the Lakers and Rockers are two of the top five teams in the league in getting to the line. If one team can get a big advantage in trips to the line it could decide the game.

Some other thoughts from Steven:

The faster the tempo the better for the Lakers. The Rockets have shown little inclination to hustle back on D and are giving up a lot of fast breaks.

Second Units. The Rocket Second Unit has to outplay the Laker Second Unit or the game will be over by half-time.

Rebounding. If the Lakers don’t dominate the glass there will be some very angry coaches after the game.

Rust. Can the Rockets take advantage if the Lakers start out misfiring from their time off?

Kobe vs Artest. Will the more mature Kobe get baited into a duel w/Artest? If he tries to score on Ron every time the Lakers could sputter to a halt and stand around and watch. Don’t think it will happen, but it could.

Brooks. He is starting to do a WOW! thing or two every game. Just enjoy.

Where you can watch: Remember this is a 6:30 (Pacific) start, and you can catch it on Fox Sports and League Pass everywhere else.