The 2015-2016 NBA season has already offered fans numerous pleasant surprises – the Dallas Mavericks being something other than a defensive apocalypse, Karl-Anthony Towns being so good, so quickly, everything about the Boston Celtics, and that kid Porzingis going from boos to ‘MVP’ chants just to name a few. And, like every season, it’s had its share of disappointments as well. The biggest disappointment however is down in Houston. The Rockets stumbled out of the gate to a 4-7 start and GM Daryl Morey fired Head Coach Kevin McHale Wednesday morning in a desperate attempt to get their season back on track in the Western Conference where every win is vital.
Firing a Head Coach one season removed from a 56-win season and a Conference finals appearance just 11 games in may strike some as a hair-trigger panic move. But, Kevin McHale’s firing has less to do with that the Rockets are losing than how the Rockets are losing. During their 4-7 start, the Rockets were routinely getting their doors blown off, losing by double digits on five separate occasions. On top of that, none of their four wins were by more than six points. Based on their point differential over McHale’s 11 games (-85), the Rockets are actually fortunate that they haven’t already played themselves out of the playoffs. So what happened over the summer to take this fringe title contender to such disappointing depths?
The only real major roster difference for Houston between this season and last is that they gave up a song in exchange for Point Guard Ty Lawson, whom the Nuggets were willing, perhaps eager, to part with after his second DUI arrest. Off-court concerns aside, Lawson is a very good player who would be held in much higher regard if only he had not played in an era up to its neck in great Point Guards. The Lawson trade made practical sense for both sides. Denver is not kidding themselves into thinking they’re going to win basketball games this year. For Houston, you don’t become a worse team by trading a lottery-protected first round pick and the end of your bench for Ty Lawson. Retrospection makes such judgments easy, but it’s clear after three weeks that Houston may not have given just how Lawson’s talents might fit in with their offensive and defensive schemes enough weight.
Under Morey’s direction, Houston’s offense has evolved into a wet dream of analytics-geared basketball. Every move made by every player is intended to set up one of four outcomes – a dunk, a layup, a 3-pointer, or foul shots. There is no better player in the world to serve as the centerpiece of such an offense than James Harden. Harden can create and make his own perimeter shot, and he’s smart and quick enough to be very effective driving to the rim. Those skills combined with unparalleled (though often exaggerated by fans and observers) theatrics make him better at drawing fouls than anyone in the League. However, utilizing his offensive arsenal to its fullest extent requires Harden having the ball in his hands. In the 2014-2015 season, when the Rockets were 12th in offensive efficiency**, James Harden possessed the ball for 6 minutes/game, which ranked 1st on the Rockets and 21st in the NBA. For perspective, that placed him one spot below LeBron James and his 6.1 minutes of possession/game.
This year, Harden has been asked to share the backcourt with one of the most ball-dominant players in the League. One season ago, Ty Lawson averaged a monstrous 7.6 possession minutes/game, which was 1st on the Nuggets and 7th in the NBA. The result of these two on-the-ball players sharing a backcourt has been Lawson failing in an unfamiliar role. He has the ball in his hands for 4.5 minutes/game, almost halving his figure from a season ago, and the drop-off in his points and assists totals is staggering. After averaging 15.2 points and 9.6 assists with little help around him last season, Lawson is averaging just 8.3 points and 5.3 assists on a team that just made the West Finals. Morey went out to get Lawson based on the belief that you can’t win a title with the League’s 12th-best offense. If interim Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff or whoever they install full time cannot find a way to make the Lawson-Harden backup pairing work on offense, then it may already be time to put the Ty Lawson move in the loss column and go back to a backcourt of Harden and now-backup Patrick Beverley. Because Lawson’s struggles are not just being felt on offense.
The Rockets ranked 6th in defensive efficiency one season ago, thanks to a starting lineup that featured three rock-solid defensive players in Point Guard Patrick Beverley, Small Forward Trevor Ariza, and Center Dwight Howard, who has been so maligned at this point that he’s criminally underrated. 6th is not elite, but it’s certainly very good and good enough to win the title if you have an offense to match. Through 12 games, the Rockets rank 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
To explain that calamitous, season-ruining kind of drop, many observers have pointed to an unacceptable effort level from Houston on defense. It’s true that the Rockets have done very poorly in many of the so-called “effort statistics” – points in the paint, rebounding, to name two where they have particularly struggled. However, it is tough to reconcile the narrative of team laziness with information we can glean from the player tracking revolution.
Thanks to SportVu, we know that only three teams travel a greater total distance/game on defense than the Rockets do (8.03 miles/game). We also know that the Rockets have been the League’s 5th-slowest team this year, with an average player speed of only 4.12 miles/hour. The problem isn’t that the Rockets aren’t willing to move on defense. The problem may instead be the speed with which they do it. Their absence of speed has resulted in an inability to close down on shooters, which has sent the shooting percentage of Houston’s opponents through the roof compared to where they were a season ago:
- Opponents’ Shooting % from less than 5 feet – 62.3%, 29th in the NBA
- Opponents’ Shooting % from 5-9 feet – 42.9%, 20th in the NBA
- Opponents’ Shooting % from 10-14 feet – 39.5%, 12th in the NBA
- Opponents’ Shooting % from 15-19 feet – 34.1%, 3rd in the NBA
- Opponents’ Shooting % from 20-25 feet – 36.2%, 14th in the NBA
- Opponents’ Shooting % from 25-29 feet – 37%, 26th in the NBA
Backcourt defensive stalwart Patrick Beverley has been bothered by early-season injuries, so there’s only so much choice McHale had in the matter regarding playing time, but if Houston is looking for an obvious quick fix on D, giving Beverley a heavier workload tops the list. Beverley is not just a marginally preferable defensive option to Lawson. Making that switch takes a defensive liability off the court and puts one of the League’s better and peskier defensive Guards on it.
Also thanks to player tracking, we now have a statistic to measure on-the-ball defense called “Percentage Points Different.” Percentage Points Different (PPD) is the percentage difference between the normal field goal percentage of a shooter throughout the season and the field goal percentage when a particular defender is guarding that player. Beverley’s impressive figure of -3.9% is clearly the class of Houston’s backcourt with Lawson and Harden checking in at 2.5% and 2.4% respectively. Beverley’s presence on D would go a long way toward ending their opponents’ tendencies to go insane from the perimeter.
This article has really piled on Ty Lawson, but that’s because when one examines the series of events that got Kevin McHale sacked 11 games into a three-year contract extension, the thing that really stands out is that their marquee offseason addition is hurting them on both ends of the floor. But, pinning this poor start on one player acquisition would be a gross oversimplification. James Harden’s shooting numbers are down across the board (thanks, Khloe. D’Angelo Russell, FLEE! FLEE FOR YOUR CAREER, IF NOT YOUR LIFE!), injuries have limited both Beverley and Howard, and it’s not immediately clear what they’re going to do at Power Forward for the rest of the season. All the same, even if one interprets McHale’s firing as a panic move, it’s not time for Rockets fans to panic.
Amidst this bad start, the Rockets have clawed their way to enough wins to keep a Postseason spot within arms’ length – they currently sit just one game out of the 8th seed with 70 games to go. If J.B. Bickerstaff cannot get solve their rotation issues and get better results in short order, a big-name hiring before Christmas would not catch anyone off guard. Kevin McHale is not the reason the Rockets started 4-7, but Houston is a savvy organization that has never shied away from bold moves. With all the talent on their roster, they should rebound to make the postseason comfortably.
** All statistics cited in this article were gathered from NBA.com/stats