November 8, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Conspiracy Theories Be Damned – Just Enjoy The Game

Jeremy Lin, James Harden and Dwight Howard

Despite problems showing on both ends of the floor, the Rockets are 4-2 with potential for more

I’m not a big fan of hyperbole in much of anything, least of all sports. Overly simplified explanations for problems or successes are almost always inaccurate when it comes to the intricacies of performance and they almost always create expectations that are unfair of both the performer and the fan.

For the Rockets fan, the diehard who reads ClutchFans and watches every game with great intensity, this generates a kind of duality that is difficult to resolve. In this case it is the macro versus the micro, and both are a problem.

The Macro

The macro is epitomized by current sports culture as driven by highlight reels. Before ESPN, fans, writers and others only had their personal observations from watching games, box scores and reports from other broadcasters/journalists on which to base their assertions about a player or team. For the most part, they stuck with what they saw, fearing that if they went only by a box score or, for journalists, stories they didn’t write, they might sound like an idiot — at least for those who cared about sounding intelligent.

Today, with highlights splattered across networks and the Internet, and every news outlet, blog and gossip column digging for the tiniest morsel of dirt, everyone is an expert, except they aren’t.

I respect the opinions of some national commentators, but for the most part their narratives are based out of little more than some highlights and a handful of observations. Take LeBron James. For years, he was killed by the national media for not being a winner. He gave up the ball too often in the waning moments — because being unselfish is akin to being soft — and he couldn’t lead. Put him on a loaded Heat team and he wins a title. Now, he’s obviously a winner.

Nevermind the fact that his numbers across the board didn’t change from his time in Cleveland. Nevermind that he still deferred at times in critical situations. Now, he’s one of the true greats because he “learned how to win.” Or maybe he just learned that he needed other winners around him to win. Of course, even that “decision” was met with stultifying scrutiny until he got his ring.

In similar fashion, the collective jaw drop by national media members at Dwight Howard choosing Houston over LA would be comical if it didn’t fit neatly into their narrative about Howard the player. Like LeBron’s exit from Cleveland, Howard was met with derision because he dared to leave the vaunted Lakers. At least with James, the argument was over HOW he exited rather than why. For Howard, the discussion becomes his fear and insecurity when, in truth, he picked a better team if not a more glamorous city. No one argues his game must improve, but the myth that a player must have Kobe-like intensity to win a championship is nonsense. Unfortunately, it is one of the primary driving forces behind the public’s perception of Howard as a player.

The Micro

On the other end of the spectrum is the dissection of every tiny detail, the micro. I don’t mean intelligent analysis from brilliant minds of the game or even the study of quantitative metrics. For me, the micro is more about scrutiny based on the tiniest detail, the best example which is what I call “camera face.” This is the moment when a person is caught on camera for a few seconds or even a single frame and how fans and pundits extrapolate from there. One smile in the wrong moment — during a bad loss, for example. One glare. One mouthed curse word. That’s all it takes for a player or coach to be judged as soft or mean or uninterested or dispassionate or whatever other negative terms might be applied.

Instead of a rational dialogue about the entirety of a player’s game, we get a wealth of conspiracy theories and conjecture. It is understandable that the average fan would not have the time to study film and take the time to gain insight into how the game is played. It is also reasonable to believe that most people will never have the level of expertise necessary to work in sports. It’s why I cut even seasoned writers slack because, despite devoting a large amount of their lives to the game, much of what they do is report on what they see, not study every nuance and become experts on the motion offense or individual player tendencies.

Yet, there is a great desire it would seem by fans and casual observers to apply a sort of Occam’s Razor approach to sports analysis. If there is a rumor of players bickering in the locker room, the entire team is in turmoil and that two-second shot during the game is proof. It is the same overreaction that causes people to want to bench players after a single game or fire coaches in midseason for a losing streak.

But that kind of fandom is as old as sport itself (people just watched in person before the cameras were beaming hi-def signals into our homes). A newer phenomena is how this information is disseminated and legitimized by the Internet. Just as the web fuels the fires of the ridiculous (conspiracy theories) and the untoward (sex scandals), a single rumor started on a message board can go from outlandish to implausible to possible to a legitimate theory with little or no actual fact to back it up. It’s analysis paralysis spread into the realm of legitimate thought and it can be infuriating.

Years ago, a friend of mine who worked in sports media told me that we will never know what really goes on behind closed doors, in locker rooms, in meeting rooms, in training rooms. That inner sanctum is guarded like Google’s search algorithm or the codes to missile silos. It is sacred to players and coaches because of the privacy it affords them both from gawking fans and the prying eyes of the media. Still, we speculate.

Solving the Conundrum

Unfortunately, the whole thing frustrates the hell out of me, not just because the behavior of both ends of the spectrum is annoyingly pervasive, but also because I don’t have the answers either. Maybe Howard is too jovial. Maybe there are rifts between players that are only spoken of in hushed tones behind closed doors. Maybe winning and losing is simple or maybe it is ridiculously complicated. I don’t know.

But, I do know that, despite a really disturbing loss to the Lakers Thursday night, the Rockets are 4-2 and a mess on the floor. That indicates to me they have the talent to beat most teams they should (even Miami lost to Philadelphia already) and will struggle to figure out how to win against good teams, at least for now. They are better than we think and worse than we think too. Truly, we don’t know who they are at this point. It’s too early in the season.

If 30 games from now, the defense still looks out of sync and the offense is stagnant, well, I’ll consider the possibility that Howard hates our point guards or that he smiles too much. Maybe I’ll lend some credence to the critics and bend an ear to the conspiracy theorists. For now at least, I’m just going to enjoy watching some basketball.

Posted in Analysis, Houston Rockets | Tagged |
October 30, 2013 at 11:23 am

Jeff Van Gundy picks Rockets to win it all

Jeff Van Gundy

JVG picks the Rockets to win the 2013-14 title

You have to love Jeff Van Gundy. Despite being unceremoniously booted by the Rockets in 2007, the ESPN analyst has been nothing but glowing in his praise of Houston’s NBA franchise ever since.

The former Rockets coach was on Ric Bucher and Chris Townsend’s show on 95.7 FM in San Francisco on Wednesday, and when asked for his picks for the playoffs and Finals, Van Gundy threw them a curveball (full audio — comments start at 10:45 mark).

“I love the Rockets (this year),” said Van Gundy. “I think the Rockets will come out and play in the Finals and I think the Rockets will win the championship.”

This brought out pure shock from the show hosts, both of whom quickly asked for clarification.

“I think they’re going to win it (all),” said Van Gundy. “I think (Miami) is great, but I really like Houston’s makeup.”

Van Gundy clarified that the Rockets have to “make steps defensively” but that the potential is all there to do that.

“Howard helps them with that [and] I love Beverley,” said Van Gundy. “I think he’ll set a great tone on the ball. So if you can defend the basket and the ball, I think you’ve got a great, great chance. I love their depth. I love Parsons, Harden.”

Van Gundy added that the power forward position could be an Achilles heel and that he wasn’t in love with that part of the lineup, but felt that Asik provides the team with a key trade piece to make a necessary improvement there.

“They don’t have a sure answer (at four) but they have that trade chip,” said Van Gundy. “I could see them (trading) Asik for a very good four-man, if they need to.”

Posted in Houston Rockets |
October 30, 2013 at 10:36 am

Rockets Playbook: The Primary Baseline Out of Bounds Set

In the first edition of a series of occasional breakdowns of the Rockets’ offense, let us look at the Rockets’ primary baseline out of bounds set (short “BOB” or “BLOB”) that was in the Houston’s playbook last year and is again this year.

It’s quite simple to run and yet not particularly easy to defend, which is why many teams, including last year’s Rockets, occasionally utilized similar sets in their half-court offense based on screen-the-screener action, starting out with a flex cut.

Brad Stevens, considered by some to be an Xs and Os wizard, actually has the Celtics running the very same BOB set this year.

It may take a bit to get an open shot out of this particular BOB set at times, which is why the Rockets don’t go to this set with less than nine seconds on the shot clock. With more than nine seconds, however, it is the Rockets go-to set from baseline out of bounds.

Take a look:

This compilation obviously is not indicative of how often the Rockets score or get fouled out of this set (surprisingly, it does not work 100% of the time!), but I’d like to think that you get a pretty good visual of what it looks like when the Rockets execute the set well and how the Rockets are progressing from one option to another.

So let’s break it down (this particular example can be seen at the 0:11 mark of the video).

It starts off in a 1-4 flat alignment — one inbounder and four guys across the baseline. One guard/wing in each corner. One big man on each block.

Houston Rockets Playbook - Baseline Out of Bounds Play

The big man in line with the inbounder, which almost always will be the Rockets’ center, releases high, while the inbounder (usually James Harden) passes him the ball.

The center then goes on to pass the ball over to the power forward, who released high himself as soon as the center caught the ball.

Houston Rockets Playbook - Baseline Out of Bounds Play

The inbounder then proceeds to set a “flex”-screen for the player standing in the near-side corner, who cuts through (making a “flex” cut).

The power forward looks for the quick hitter to the guy cutting through, which, if successful, would look like the first two clips of the video compilation.

If that pass is not there, the center simply goes on to set a down-screen for the player that set the flex screen, who can either pop out for the jumper or curl off the pin-down towards the paint.

Houston Rockets Playbook - Baseline Out of Bounds Play

Harden is exceptionally good at reading his defender and adjusting accordingly, i.e. fading out and looking for the jumper if the defender goes under the screen or curl towards the basket if the defender fights over the screen.

Houston Rockets Playbook - Baseline Out of Bounds Play

Perhaps more importantly, Harden rarely does what a lot of players tend to do out of this action whenever the defense goes under the down-screen, which is settle for the 18-foot jump shot.

With Harden, it’s almost exclusively drives to the rim or three pointers whenever defenders — like, in this particular example, Paul George — go under the screen to avoid Harden curling towards the basket.

Houston Rockets Playbook - Baseline Out of Bounds Play

How Howard and Asik Change This Set

Every now and then, opposing defenses will manage to take away both the drive and jump shot (see 2:14-2:38 in the video compilation), in which case the Rockets can let the guy coming off the down-screen post-up, isolate or go into some sort of two-man game with the center.

I suspect that this season we will also see the Rockets go to Dwight Howard in the post in these situations, especially when Harden isn’t in the game.

If the opposing defense is somehow taking away the pin-down/curl option like the Magic and Sixers do in the last two clips of the video compilation, the Rockets will usually swing back to the center, who will likely find himself wide open for a jumper.

When it’s a non-shooter like Omer Asik or Howard playing center, the Rockets will have the guy who made the flex-cut go on to set a flex-screen for the player in the opposite corner, with the center looking to hit this player cutting to the basket, as Asik does in the last clip.

If that’s not there either, there are several things the Rockets could do next. They could post-up Harden if he’s being fronted, like he is by Jrue Holiday in that last clip. They could swing it to the power forward on the opposite wing, if his defender leaves him to clog to the paint as Thad Young attempts to do in that last clip.

roi6 Rockets Playbook: The Primary Baseline Out of Bounds Set

They could also go into the same screen-the-screener action on the opposite side, in which case Marcus Morris — rather than fading out to the three-point line — would set a down-screen for Toney Douglas.

This is something you may see the Rockets do when Howard and Asik are playing alongside each other.

Houston Rockets Playbook - Baseline Out of Bounds Play

Really, though, it’s not worth talking about what the Rockets may do at that point since teams rarely have been able to force Houston’s offense to go to as many progressions.

There’s a good reason the Rockets chose to keep this set in their playbook, after all — they’ve been quite successful at getting quality looks out of it, while mostly avoiding having to go to their secondary options. You can’t ask for much more.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Rockets Playbook |
October 29, 2013 at 11:54 am

Rockets to begin season with Beverley, Asik as starters; Lin off bench

Omer Asik will start alongside Dwight Howard for the Rockets.

Omer Asik will start alongside Dwight Howard for the Rockets.

The Rockets look poised to open the regular season where the preseason left off, with Patrick Beverley and Omer Asik in the starting lineup and Jeremy Lin coming off the bench.

Head coach Kevin McHale won’t formally tip his hand until the league-mandated deadline of 75 minutes before Wednesday night’s tipoff against the Charlotte Bobcats. But Chandler Parsons ended the suspense Tuesday by telling reporters at Toyota Center that the lineup is “the same as how the preseason ended”.

Indeed, it seems to be the identical lineup to the one that excelled to finish the exhibition slate, leading the Rockets to wins over Western Conference heavyweights San Antonio and Memphis. As a result, it’s of little surprise to those around the team.

Asik missed much of training camp and the preseason with a calf injury, so there wasn’t an extensive opportunity to test out the two-center lineup of Asik with Dwight Howard.

But the duo started the final three games of the preseason together against Dallas, San Antonio and Memphis and looked increasingly comfortable, culminating with a stifling defensive effort that limited the Grizzlies to 73 points (32 points on 20% shooting in the first half, when Asik and Howard played).

McHale said early in training camp that Asik was one of the team’s “five best players”, and as such, the coaches wanted to find a way to maximize his time on the floor. At least to start the season, that includes a spot in the starting lineup.

With the point-guard debate, the move to start Beverley became increasingly popular throughout the preseason and culminated when McHale broke his “rotation” of alternating starts between the two by allowing Beverley to start the final two games.

The logic, of course, is that Beverley has a skillset that may fit better with the starters. Lin is the better creator of his own offense, but that might not be needed as often with James Harden, Howard and Parsons all on the floor. Meanwhile, Beverley’s superior defense, rebounding and reduced turnovers could make him a better “fourth wheel” candidate.

On the other hand, Lin’s isolation abilities could be better used to anchor the second unit off the bench, much like Manu Ginobili with the Spurs and Harden when he was in Oklahoma City.

Neither lineup is necessarily a long-term decision. McHale has said on multiple occasions that he could experiment with different variations throughout November and December. But given the impressive finish to the preseason, this seems the sensible place to begin.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
October 24, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Harden, Howard show signs of real chemistry in dominating Spurs

Preseason or not, the rest of the NBA has to be adjusting their collar just a little bit after what they saw Thursday night.

James Harden and Dwight Howard started to show some real chemistry together as they teamed up in the third quarter to destroy the Spurs, helping fuel the Rockets to a 109-92 win in preseason action.

Harden was just 2-10 in the first half and Howard turned it over four times, but both came out of the locker room at half ready to roll. The two team leaders were models of efficiency to start the third, combining to hit 10-11 shots for 24 points. In the end, Harden finished with 22 points and 11 assists in 30 minutes and Dwight finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds.

While the game itself was meaningless and the Spurs were without Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili, this is still an important moment for this team as Houston’s title hopes — this year and beyond — rest on the success and development of this pairing.

The quarter itself was eye-opening. The Rockets as a team hit 14 of their first 17 shots in the period as they turned a tied game into a 22-point Houston advantage in less than ten minutes of play.

“It’s awesome,” said Chandler Parsons, who scored 16 points and teamed up with Harden for one incredible fast break play. “It’s a great style of play to play. It’s a lot of fun, it’s entertaining and we’re really good at it.”

Kevin McHale said after the game that this team gets along great, but on-court chemistry doesn’t just happen overnight.

“Chemistry is always one of those ongoing things,” said McHale. “If we’re talking about if they get along, they do. Very well. Do they know each other’s nooks and crannies and how to play? That doesn’t happen in three weeks. That happens over time.”

Thursday’s display was a sign that it’s starting to happen.

Posted in Houston Rockets | Tagged , |
October 23, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Podcast: Rockets red hot, but power forward position still a big question mark

Houston Rockets podcastThe Rockets are 4-1 in the preseason and look absolutely terrific as their core players, led by James Harden, are shooting lights out from beyond the arc.

“This is the best team we’ve seen in the preseason by far,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle of the Rockets. “This is going to be one of the top teams in the league. I was looking at their third team out there and they looked like a real NBA team.”

Dave Hardisty and Lance Thompson fire up the podcast to talk about:

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts | Tagged , , , |
October 23, 2013 at 11:12 am

Kevin Durant to Houston? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Kevin Durant to the Houston Rockets?

Kevin Durant to the Houston Rockets? That’s extremely unlikely

This morning, Grantland.com revealed a portion of their NBA Preview of the Houston Rockets where analyst Jalen Rose boldly predicted that Kevin Durant would leave Oklahoma City for Houston in a few years to join his good friend James Harden with the Rockets.

While the idea of adding one of the world’s two best basketball players to our beloved Rockets is certainly tantalizing, it is also far-fetched. Here’s why:

According to ShamSports.com, Durant is under contract contract with the Thunder through the 2015-16 season, with no early termination option or other way to opt out of his contract before then.

Meanwhile, the window for the Rockets to have significant cap room will most likely be limited to the summer of 2015, and that’s only if Houston does not elect to decline its 2014-15 team option on Chandler Parsons and re-sign him to a huge new deal. Assuming that Parsons receives a large contract (either in 2014 or 2015), the Rockets will not have nearly the salary cap space to sign Durant to anything remotely approaching what he can (and should) command on the open market: a maximum contract starting at no less than around $21.17 million (which is 105% of his 2015-16 salary). It is also likely that, rather than letting the contracts of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik expire and losing them for nothing, the Rockets will either re-sign one or both of Lin and Asik or trade at least one of them (probably Asik), taking back additional salary in the process.

Even if Durant’s contract ended in 2015, it would require a fairly significant increase in the maximum salary cap to be able to add Durant, even if he took a discount similar to the one Lebron James took with the Miami Heat in 2010. This even accounts for the Rockets being stripped bare, with just the contracts of Dwight Howard, Harden, and the miniscule cap holds for Parsons and Patrick Beverley remaining on the books. Just those four roster spots would occupy no less than $45.33 million (once you add in eight incomplete roster charges).

One way in which the Rockets could conceivably add Durant would be via a sign-and-trade deal, with Houston likely parting with Parsons, another significant player (not named Harden or Howard) and multiple draft picks. Even then, the Thunder might balk at any trade scenario for Durant–let alone one with a Western Conference rival–unless they were absolutely convinced that he would leave Oklahoma City without the Thunder receiving any compensation in the process. Also, don’t discount the fact that both Russell Westbrook–who Rose speculates could leave the Thunder for the Los Angeles Lakers–and Serge Ibaka are under contract with the Thunder through the 2016-17 season. Assuming Westbrook can fully recover from his knee injury, it would be hard to see Durant walking away from a team that sports another top-10 player in the league and another player who is an elite rim protector.

Bottom line: While Rose may be drawing a lot of attention with his prediction of Durant joining the Rockets, even a cursory look at the salary cap situations for both Houston and Oklahoma City reveals that such a move would be quite difficult to effectuate. It sure won’t be for a lack of effort by Daryl Morey and the Rockets to make it happen, however.

2016 is a long ways away and a lot can change between now and then, but if you’re waiting anxiously for the Rockets to add Durant, well … don’t hold your breath.

Posted in Houston Rockets | Tagged , , |
October 20, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Asik, Howard Starting Together — What To Look For

Dwight Howard and Omer Asik

Omer Asik was set to make his preseason debut on Monday against the Dallas Mavericks, but it got a whole lot more interesting on Sunday when coach Kevin McHale announced that he will try starting Asik and Dwight Howard together that night.

This will be the fourth power forward starter that McHale has tried in five preseason games for the Rockets as Asik joins Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and Omri Casspi.

So now the science experiment gets really interesting as we get our first real look at two top 5 defensive centers playing together. I’ve been a big believer that this is not a sustainable lineup, that Asik and Howard on the floor at the same time is best suited for specific matchups or short bursts when the Rockets need elite paint protection.

It’s no secret that Asik has not been happy since the Rockets acquired Howard. He was a huge positive last year, yet he lost his starting spot after a tremendous season and is likely to see less playing time. Starting Asik could go a long way towards finding a lot of court time for him.

If it’s going to work, here are some of the questions we hope Monday night can help answer:
Read More

Posted in Houston Rockets | Tagged , |