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Rockets post-mortem: What went wrong and how they can fix it

Discussion in 'Houston Rockets: Game Action & Roster Moves' started by mogrod, Apr 29, 2016.

  1. mogrod

    mogrod Contributing Member

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    Article written on Hoopshype.com. I really enjoyed reading this as it's an unbiased and informative look at what went wrong with the team this season and what they may look to do in the offseason.

    http://hoopshype.com/2016/04/28/rockets-post-mortem-what-went-wrong-and-how-they-can-fix-it/

    Nothing could have summed up the Rockets’ horrific season better than Dwight Howard hoisting up a three-pointer in the final seconds of Game 5 – down 33 points to a Warriors team playing without the best player in the world, Stephen Curry. After all the reported chemistry issues between Howard and James Harden, firing Kevin McHale 11 games into the season and struggling to make the playoffs, losing to the Warriors in 4-1 in the postseason again feels almost like a cruel twist of fate. After so much optimism following last year’s conference finals run, the most recent loss will likely put an end to an era of Rockets basketball that was supposed to last much longer.

    From top down, the Rockets are built to be an outlier. A team different from everybody else, aggressively pursuing every advantage in their grasp, from player personnel decisions to the way the team plays on the court. The Rockets shoot by far the fewest mid-range jumpers per game, attempting just 11.0 per contest while the league average is twice as high. They also led the league in corner three-pointers, and ranked near the top of the league in paint points and drives per game. The Harden trade was among the best trades ever made by an NBA team, and it’s clear that an incredibly amount of care and thought goes into the way Houston operates.

    On the flip side, the Rockets and general manager Daryl Morey are often vilified (perhaps unfairly) because of their perceived lack of emphasis on chemistry and continuity, only chasing talent and star power. People have criticized both Howard and Harden for their lack of leadership, and pointed to the acquisition of Ty Lawson during the summer as another example of the Rockets placing too much stock in talent over chemistry.

    Interestingly, the problem for the Rockets this season is extremely straightforward from a statistical point of view. Offensively, the team was great ranking 8th in efficiency at 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Despite all the talk about how Harden hogs the ball and Howard never gets touches, the Rockets were better than they were the previous year when they made the conference finals. In fact, in 2014-15 the Rockets defense was actually better than their offense, ranking 6th in efficiency compared to being 12th on the offensive end. Unfortunately, Houston was a horrible defensive team this season, ranking as the ninth worst defense allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions.

    The biggest question the Rockets have to answer is what went wrong with the defense, and how does that influence where the team goes next. Championship teams tend to be near or in the Top 5 in both offense and defense, and just a year ago the Rockets were pretty close to that mark.

    NBA defense has gone through several different transformations over the past few years – from the way big men drop down to the foul line to contain the pick-and-roll, to overloading the strong side and employing schemes that incorporate more and more switching. Especially this season, it’s become increasingly clear that there are multiple ways of building a great defense, almost regardless of individual talent. In team schemes, how many points an offensive player scores on his defender says almost nothing about said defender, because doing the right things within the team concept is the best way to make your defense better. The best examples of this are the Hornets, Celtics and Hawks, teams that managed to build a great defense despite not having an obviously intimidating rim protector. Each built their defense on different principles. The Hornets stopping all transition baskets, Celtics applying crazy pressure on the perimeter and Hawks’ defense working around the versatility of Paul Millsap.

    Being a great defense is about communication, execution, precision and effort before talent – or at least it can be under the right coaching and commitment from players. But this season, the Rockets showed none of the qualities that make up a good defense. Harden may the international Vine star of the team with his mistakes and laziness, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg of the Rockets’ problems.

    As recently as the 2014-15 season, Howard was still an incredible defender, one of only three or four players in the league who could guarantee a Top 10 defense no matter the talent around him. Even if Howard was just 85 percent the player he was with Orlando. With Howard on the court, the Rockets allowed just 97.0 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked the team as the best defense in the league that year, and just below the historically great defense of the Spurs this season. And after posting those numbers, even with the health concerns there was reason to believe Howard was still easily a max player, especially considering the strong playoff performances he’d put on.

    Howard completely disappeared this season, and it made practically no difference whether he was on the court or not. Howard posted his lowest PER since his rookie season, and his offensive game has now deteriorated where he is a clear minus on that end. With a 18.3 percent usage rate, Howard was responsible for the lowest number of his team’s possessions since Howard’s rookie year and ranked 228th in the league overall. In his best seasons in Orlando, you’d see Howard blow up a pick-and-roll at the three-point line and recover to the rim to block the ball on plays where you’d say to yourself “How can anyone score with that guy on the court?” This year, Howard ranked 96th among 125 players with over 200 plays defended at the rim, allowing opponents to shoot 49.7 percent at the basket. At the very least, Howard could always make the defense respectable. And while he isn’t bad, Howard certainly isn’t the singular answer to a team’s defensive woes.

    That being said, the Rockets perimeter defense hasn’t done anything to put Howard in a position to succeed. Harden, of course, does whatever he wants. Jason Terry can’t stop anyone. Lawson was a disaster during his time. More notably, however, both Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza are among the most overrated defenders in the NBA. Brewer mainly due to causing havoc and doing a ton of active-looking stuff, Ariza because he looks the part of a lengthy wing defender who can switch and cover ground.

    Brewer is a horrible defender, and among the most frustrating players to watch off the ball. Brewer is out of position with such frequency, and gets backdoor cut so often, that it feels like he’s doing the wrong thing as a matter of principle. Ariza works fine is certain situations, but he’s not mobile enough to get around picks and is at his worst chasing shooters – something the Rockets made him do to start Game 5 against the Warriors and ended up in Klay Thompson raining three-pointers on the Rockets.

    https://cdn.streamable.com/video/mp4-mobile/ytd0.mp4

    The Rockets have no discipline defensively and starting from the team’s leader, who was actually respectable the year before, everyone on the roster has to be better. Individually, taking pride in playing within the team concept both with effort and better execution.

    https://cdn.streamable.com/video/mp4-mobile/lbky.mp4

    The play above is a perfect example of a “What went wrong with the Rockets’ defense”. Beverley fails to show any effort on two drives to the rim on the same possession, Capela runs out to a shooter in a superbly lazy closeout, no one has any idea where they are supposed to stand and rotate to. In the entire possession, you won’t find one defender in a proper stance. I couldn’t diagram, draw or explain the reasons behind why any of the Rockets players are doing anything, and it’s obvious neither can JB Bickerstaff or anyone on the floor.

    WHAT’S NEXT?

    On the court, Howard and Harden paired together made perfect sense. Running spread pick-and-roll with shooters all around them was a sure-fire way of becoming a great offense. Pushing the ball and turning transition opportunities into corner three-pointers and getting to the foul line is smart. Howard could man the defense, and with tall and long wing players and a switch-heavy scheme, the Rockets could build a great modern defense.

    Reality turned into something else entirely. Howard doesn’t command the gravity of a DeAndre Jordan on the pick-and-roll, the Rockets were never able to find multiple good shooters to surround them with and we were forced to watch Brewer (and Josh Smith) brick endless jumpers. Howard declined really quickly, and those long wing players couldn’t stop anyone on the perimeter and were prone to simple mistakes.

    At the very top of the NBA, the margin for error is none, and while Harden is an awesome player who instantly makes an offense go, pure talent isn’t enough to compete with the best. The best player on a team has to set an example, and Harden coming into the season overweight and not ready to play was a sign that he didn’t handle the relative success well. Harden loudly proclaimed himself deserving of the MVP award, but it was the actual winner who came into the season with something to prove and better than ever.

    The general manager of the Warriors, Bob Myers, emphasized this point at the this year’s Sloan Sports Conference: “If Steph Curry, who won a championship, does the same thing this year that he did last year and acts the same way… you better believe everyone else is going to get in line.”

    If Harden doesn’t begin the lead by example, the Rockets ceiling will always be short of a championship.

    Like most teams in the rising cap environment, Houston will have max cap space this summer, and the first interesting domino to fall will be Howard likely declining his $23 million player option to hit the open market. Despite the fact that Howard had a bad year, it’s more than likely that he’ll opt out due to being dissatisfied with the way the Rockets have used him on the court, the chemistry issues with Harden, and the fact that during a summer when everyone has cap space, you’ll likely see desperate teams throw out money they’ll regret spending later.

    Before the season, the Rockets looked to be overflowing with frontcourt depth. Clint Capela had broken out in the playoffs with Donatas Motiejunas injured. Motiejunas himself had a great season and emerged as one of the league’s best post-up bigs and playmakers from the elbows. Terrence Jones was a surprise with incredible rim protection stats and was in the process of extending his range to the three-point line. Howard not being on the roster wasn’t going to be the worst thing in the world, and the frontcourt depth should have allowed the Rockets to look for a Howard trade to bolster their young talent on the wing and in the backcourt.

    Since then, Motiejunas has been either injured or terrible, and Jones has fallen off a cliff in virtually every aspect of the game. Had the Rockets negotiated an extension with either last summer, both could have commanded starting salaries north of $10 million for sure. Both are entering restricted free agency this summer and the Rockets could easily find themselves in a position where they aren’t comfortable matching other offers. In Harden, Motiejunas, Jones, Capela and KJ McDaniels, the Rockets had a core of five promising young players. Potentially, one of the bigs could have been moved to acquire point guard talent if need be. Now, that core has been slashed to potentially just Harden and Capela, since McDaniels failed to crack the rotation (though being only 22, there’s still a chance for him).

    Operating under the safe assumption that Howard isn’t coming back, the Rockets can potentially get up to over $40 million in cap space by renouncing Bird rights to their outgoing free agents. Al Horford would be the dream target, being a smart and versatile defender as well as a great locker room presence. About half the league is going to be competing for Horford, and so far the Celtics and Magic have been considered front runners, but if there’s anything the Rockets can do to get into the competition they will.

    Replacing Howard with a younger and better version would be to go after Hassan Whiteside, but with the chemistry issues that have plagued the Rockets this season, Whiteside would seem an even more volatile option. A slightly less well-known but great option would be going after Ian Mahinmi of the Indiana Pacers, who had a career year and is a wonderful defender in the middle. Mahinmi is currently one of the most underrated players in the NBA and should have deserved buzz for Most Improved. The team that signs him next summer will most likely end up a huge winner.

    On the wing, as better 3-and-D options than the Rockets have had, Courtney Lee is a solid possibility as a player who can work off the ball in catch-and-shoot situations, in addition to being a solid team and individual defender. Luol Deng would work as a slightly bigger version of Lee, and could play the majority of the minutes at power forward, being a clear upgrade on Ariza and Brewer at that position.

    Harrison Barnes will be a restricted free agent, and his ability to defend power forwards and stretch the floor would fit perfectly with what the Rockets want to do. Fresh off what is going to be a deep playoff run where he’ll undoubtedly have good moments, Barnes is extremely likely to entice offers this summer that will sound absolutely ludicrous, perhaps even near max money. It would be highly unlikely for the Rockets to sign a player to a deal that is clearly above market value. The Rockets already have their ballhandler in Harden, and thus it seems unlikely they’d be in the mix for a point guard like Mike Conley. Other names in free agency that the Rockets could target are Joakim Noah, Jared Dudley and Ryan Anderson, but what’s clear is that unless the Rockets get a big unexpected hit, this year’s free agency is unlikely to change their fortunes.

    Best case scenario for the Rockets would be to keep Motiejunas and/or Jones under fair contracts and hope both (or at least one) can get back to where they were a year ago. The offense isn’t going to be the problem next year either, and finding the right group of guys who can defend together as a unit could be enough for the Rockets to be quite competitive, perhaps even pushing one of the top teams in the first round of the playoffs. Hope McDaniels, Sam Dekker or Capela make an unexpected leap and that you can find an unexpected gem in the draft. Perhaps snag a restricted free agent or make a sneaky trade to get a young player whose team gave up on him too quick – a la Trail Blazers getting Moe Harkless for nothing.

    It’s been reported that the Rockets will evaluate both Morey and Bickerstaff during the offseason. And after such a disastrous season, who could blame them? But what’s frustrating is that the Rockets were just an average defense away from being a very dangerous team, even if they were never going to be on the same level with the Spurs, Warriors, Cavaliers or Thunder. Being more disciplined and cutting out the stupid mistakes on defense would have already made a huge difference. Houston ranked last in the NBA in points allowed off of turnovers at 19.6, and similarly last in defensive rebounding percentage. Transition defense and rebounding (to an extent) is about executing correctly the basic fundamental aspects of the game. Failing at the easiest metrics to correct isn’t fault of the management, but the players on the court first and the coach second.
     
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  2. Os Trigonum

    Os Trigonum It. Deserves. Its. Own. Thread.
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    that's pretty much the best article of ALL of them. Thanks for posting that.
     
  3. Sweet Lou 4 2

    Sweet Lou 4 2 Contributing Member
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    This nails it all.
     
  4. subtomic

    subtomic Contributing Member

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    A really great article.

    The only thing I'd challenge is the idea that we should keep Harden as our primary ball handler. Given his turnovers and inability to make timely and accurate passes, I think a PG like Conley would be a huge improvement and would relieve Harden of the burden of running the offense. Harden is a willing passer but that should be icing for this team's sets - we shouldn't be relying on him to run those sets.
     
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  5. Matt78777

    Matt78777 Contributing Member

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    that is a great read. Makes me cautiously optimistic that a new coach, a few good free agents (not necessarily home runs) and a humbled harden could swing our fortunes next year.
     
  6. Rocket River

    Rocket River Member
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    Hard to Evaluate the talent on this team
    because the coaching was so atrocious

    I mean McDaniels not being able to crack to rotation basically tells me nothing

    Rocket River
     
  7. snowconeman22

    snowconeman22 Member

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    It's a pretty good article , but a pretty simplistic use of stats . While in theory having the 8th most points per possession makes us a " top 10 offense " the fact is that there are certain attributes of our offense that make it worse than it appears on the surface . Having limited ball movement , a lack of diversity , and high turnover rate ... I would rank our offense as not in the top 10 .

    Howard's defensive decline is the best observation in the article . I do like that the article leaves gossip and psychology out of it for the most part and sticks to what actually happened on the floor .

    Harden is a great player , but we need to build around him and get a core of young talent around him if we want to try and win a chip . As much as I like Dmo I agree we can't rely on him , I really hope he comes back at a decent price .

    Clint is gonna have to take a step up next year unless we spend big free agent money on a center which I am against . We have got to get better perimeter options outside of harden , guys that are a real threat to score and drive or shoot respectably .

    Finally , I absolutely agree that the defensive system and scheme needs a serious revamp and hardcore offseason and camp of instilling .
     
  8. thedude077

    thedude077 Member

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    They should hire Jim Boylen as coach. He'll fix the Rockets problems.
     
  9. kjayp

    kjayp Contributing Member

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    What went wrong?
    Everybody went dysfunctional mental...
    How do you fix it?
    Clear out half of 'em and let the other half know that they're next unless they do their job...
    Get a real coach.
     
  10. carib

    carib Member

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    I liked that article, I think if we had a decent defense we would have won almost 50 games or more. The defense is the biggest problem of this team and from McHale to JBB it did not really improve consistently this season.
    On the offensive end we rely too much on one player for offense so a good defensive team like the Warriors or Spurs would be hard to score against. The offense just needs to be tweaked, find another creator (not easy), reduce turnovers and don't have bad 3pt shooters shoot threes. God help us if our best player gets injured unlike the Warriors.
    Though Morey has to take some of the blame because he assembled this team I don't think anyone could have foreseen how bad the team was going to be defensively. Though Morey has to take some of the blame because he assembled this team I don't think anyone could have foreseen how bad the team was going to be defensively. I believe Morey should be given another year to get the right personnel (coach that preaches defense, another playmaker and some decent shooters).
    One irony with the coaching situation, JBB was responsible for the defense while under McHale and he took over when McHale was fired and our defense was our biggest problem.
     
  11. ling ling

    ling ling Member

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    What went wrong? I think our offense had a lot of problems. If we can't score on 10 consecutive possessions, it's hard to stay focused on defense. I place most of the blame on Harden because he is the MVP and the one that could make the difference.

    1 - In the beginning of the season, the front line rotation consisted of Terrence Jones, Montrezl Harrel and Clint Capela and a hobbled Dwight. Disaster happened and got the coach fired. The team was just not ready to play. This one is on Morey.

    2 - The star players didn't want to play to their strengths and mopes around when they don't get their way.

    - Howard is still a 9/10 pick and roll player, but wants to be a 6/10 post up player.

    - Harden is a 9.5/10 SG but wants to play a 6.5/10 point guard.

    - Harden wants to play 2 positions on offense (point guard and shooting guard) and a totem pole on defense, and the coaches, GM allow him to do it.

    - The problem with him playing point guard is, he doesn't set the team up. He primarily sets himself, the SG up.

    - When Harden isn't playing the PG, he often stands in the corner. He doesn't even try to make his defender guard him.

    3 - There are no reliable, creative play maker. Did anyone see a pass between 2 players in motion in the 1/2 court offense this year? Even handing the ball off was a chore.

    4 - No reliable ball handler.

    Any player outside of Harden on the team that takes more than 3 dribble is a disaster waiting to happen.

    5 - No one can score on a fast break, outside of Harden and at times, Brewer.

    2 on 1 fast break? Yeah you know what's going to happen.

    6 - No reliable post play or inside scoring in the 1/2 court.
     
  12. SF3isBack!!

    SF3isBack!! Member

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    Who would have been our point guard if not for Harden though? lol.
     
  13. Newlin

    Newlin Member

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    Good luck threatening Harden or trying to hold him accountable. It does what he damn well pleases. Ask him to play defense and he gets you fired.
     
  14. TheFreak

    TheFreak Contributing Member

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    It's really not hard at all. You saw the talent 'perform'. You did not see what the coaches were doing to try to prepare the team, meaning you were not at practices, film sessions, coaches meetings, etc. Therefore it would be very hard for you to make a judgment on the performance of the coaches, but very easy for you to determine how well the players performed. Yet you're hesitant to 'evaluate the talent', and have no issue evaluating the coaching based on far less information. Why is that?

    That seems like a pretty simple concept. Yet year after year, fans blame the coaches for everything when the players don't play up to their potential. This article is pretty great, and does an excellent job of pointing out the issues with this team, but most fans will inevitably zero in on anything that mentions coaching, when it was a pretty small focus of the piece.
     
  15. ling ling

    ling ling Member

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    On this team? No one, but I'm sure Houston could find a decent PG w/ Beverley's salary slot.

    Anyways, a 9.5 Harden at SG and 6.0 Beverley at PG is better than 7.0 Harden at PG and 6.0 Beverley at SG.
     
  16. SF3isBack!!

    SF3isBack!! Member

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    Both coaching and talent were horrible. JB's rotations were among the worst I've seen for any coach and that includes Mchale who was an average to below average coach but JB was on another level of bad.
     
  17. ling ling

    ling ling Member

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    A 9.5 Harden at SG and 5.0 Beverley at PG is better than 8.0 Harden at (PG/SG) and 5.0 Beverley at SG.
     
  18. smoothie

    smoothie Contributing Member
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    sign me up for some combination of:

    C - biyombo, ezili, mahinmi, mozgov
    PF - ryno, teletovic, speights, dmo, powell, scola
    SF/SG - turner, bazemore, lee, crabbe, matt barnes,
    PG - ish smith, chalmers, delavedova, mo will.

    bring in a defensive coach like JVG, messina, boylen and i bet we're in the high 50's in the W column.
     
  19. cheshire

    cheshire Contributing Member
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    Lots of areas to fix, coaching first please.
     
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