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[The Athletic] Can Rockets make playoffs? How good is Christian Wood? Oladipo part of future?

Discussion in 'Houston Rockets: Game Action & Roster Moves' started by Sooty, Feb 24, 2021.

  1. Sooty

    Sooty Contributing Member

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    Can Rockets make playoffs? How good is Christian Wood? Oladipo part of future?

    The morning after the Rockets’ eighth-straight loss — a listless 120-100 blowout at the hands of the Chicago Bulls — frustrated head coach Stephen Silas talked about the spirit and morale of his new group.

    “Honestly, it could be better. We had a discussion about that today, and I’m very in-tune to the group dynamics and the spirit of the group. Our spirit isn’t great right now and we gotta figure out a way for it to turn in the right direction. You wouldn’t expect the spirit of a team that has lost as many games as we have in a row to be great. It’s natural, human nature to go into your shell and be in self-preservation mode. I talked to the group about accountability to each other and making sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to that.”

    These are tough times in Clutch City. Gone are the 65-win seasons and championship expectations. With a new coaching staff, sizable roster turnover and a shifting reality, the Rockets are venturing into new, unknown territory and are learning the hard way how to grow. At 11-18, Silas and the coaching staff are desperately seeking a healthy roster, undying effort on both ends of the floor and, most importantly, wins.

    How do you evaluate a team in flux? How much is Christian Wood’s absence hurting the group? What can you make of Victor Oladipo’s role and future? Is small ball the answer?

    The Athletic’s analytics wizard and former NBA executive Seth Partnow stopped by for an in-depth conversation on all things Rockets and all things analytics.

    Kelly Iko: Glad we’re doing this again Seth!

    There’s no beating around the bush here — the Rockets look BAD. They’re on an eight-game losing streak, are now three games out of the last possible play-in seed and have been absolutely decimated by injuries. Over this period, they rank dead last in the league in offensive rating (101.8), 23rd in defensive rating (116.8) and are second-to-last in net rating (-15.0).

    Given head coach Stephen Silas’ background — he was the lead offensive assistant on the Dallas Mavericks, who had the best offensive rating of all time just last season — it’s surprising that they have looked so disjointed recently. Silas has said that he likes most of the looks they are creating but that they just aren’t falling. We know prior to this skid, Christian Wood looked like an All-Star, Eric Gordon was enjoying an underrated excellent year and John Wall was looking like his old self again.

    We’ll get into their defense later, but what are you seeing offensively? Is this just as simple as the Rockets missing Christian Wood and Victor Oladipo? Is it due to a lack of continuity in lineups and rotations? Or is there something more to it?

    Partnow: You hit on the combo of the two things that most usually explain such a run: absences and poor shotmaking.

    Among the players on the post-Harden roster, Oladipo and especially Wood have to be considered two of the top three or four offensive options. It’s no accident that the Rockets’ play has declined over this losing streak, which overlaps perfectly with Wood’s injury layoff. We can argue about whether the production would have been sustainable, but Wood’s combination of scoring efficiency (63.2 True Shooting) and volume (26.2 Usage) put him among the game’s offensive elite over the first chunk of the season:

    [​IMG]

    You don’t simply replace that production — especially having just traded one such player away,

    I think you’ve covered Oladipo’s struggles both in terms of his physical health and his play on the floor well. But even with those foibles, he’s missed five of Houston’s last six and was limited in the one game he did play.

    Those two represent a large share of the Rockets’ shot creation ability, still an extremely important skill for a roster built to maximally benefit from Harden’s abilities. With only Wall to set the table for them, supporting players like P.J. Tucker, Jae’Sean Tate and Sterling Brown haven’t really been able to expand their offensive roles to take up the shots and touches which would normally go to Wood and Oladipo.

    Instead, Wall has had to jack his usage all the way up to 34.2 percent over this stretch, which would be the highest mark of his career by some distance. I think it’s fair to say that’s asking too much of him given where he’s at in his career and the injuries that have afflicted him over the last three seasons. His efficiency has plummeted as a result.

    And then, on the other side, the Rockets just aren’t making the open shots they do get. Nearly a quarter of Houston’s shots during this streak — 23.9 percent, to be exact; a healthy figure — have been uncontested 3-pointers, per NBA.com tracking data. The Rockets have only made 28.1 percent of those shots. League average this season has been around 39.5 percent, a mark which the Rockets had actually been slightly exceeding (40.2 percent) prior to Wood’s injury. That may have been a little bit over the head of Houston’s shooters, but not by much.

    Lest this be seen as making excuses, the return of players to the lineup or the end of a poor shooting run won’t suddenly make the Rockets a good offense relative to the rest of the league. But they won’t be the worst offense in the league, as they have been over this last stretch, either.

    Iko: That’s an interesting point you just brought up. I think there’s a belief that because of how injured this team has been, once Oladipo and especially Wood return, most — if not all — of Houston’s offensive problems will be solved.

    The added usage and time on the ball for Wall has helped in some areas and hurt in others. Because he’s playing on some sort of a minutes restriction (around 31 per game), Wall wants to help his team as much as possible when he’s on the floor, and without Wood or Oladipo available, it’s essentially left to him and Gordon to generate offense. Like you said, asking this much out of someone coming off a long-term injury is a lot, but Wall has actually looked great since returning, notably becoming a better isolation scorer.

    [​IMG]

    Wall has talked about how much the game has changed from when he first got in the league, moving from traditional rim-running bigs to the versatility and uber spacing we see today. Playing smaller now while Wood is out also changes things, and we’ve seen some of the early growing pains of small ball.

    But what about his backcourt partner, Oladipo? He hasn’t exactly played great since the trade, which has irked some fans. Wall played for years alongside Bradley Beal, a bonafide elite offensive weapon. Oladipo isn’t quite of that ilk, but what does analytical history tell us about taking players and putting them in larger roles? What should Houston be expecting from him long-term, as it pertains to an offensive fit with Wall (and Wood also)?

    Partnow: In the past, I’ve frequently used Oladipo as a case study in how different roles produce different play styles as well as how playing alongside an especially ball-dominant player can warp a player’s production. Up until his quad tendon injury in 2019, Oladipo had a reasonably consistent usage pattern. Sure, he had the ball a lot his rookie year, when the Magic tried to convert him into a point guard. But other than that, his big blip was the one season he spent alongside Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City.
     
  2. Sooty

    Sooty Contributing Member

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    Victor Oladipo Usage By Season

    [​IMG]

    While Wall has tended toward ball dominance himself, he has also managed to coexist with other offensive creators such as Beal. So were Oladipo healthy and whole, I wouldn’t expect a repeat of him being shunted aside as he was in OKC. Furthermore, given the rest of the Rockets’ roster, there are still plenty of touches and shots to go around for a player with Oladipo’s talents. There are opportunities for Oladipo, but as for what the Rockets can expect from him, I’m not sure I have a good answer there. I thought your previous article was very perceptive in terms of identifying the specific difficulties a player like Oladipo might have if shooting pull-up jumpers becomes more of a physical challenge.

    Which is OK! My read on the trade which brought Oladipo to Houston (instead of Caris LeVert) was that Rockets management was more interested in taking a wait-and-see approach with that role and roster spot than locking it down right away. In that sense, Oladipo’s struggles make things easier in that there won’t be a hard decision to make this offseason. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and retaining Oladipo is a priority? What do you think?

    Iko: No, you’re not wrong. The Oladipo situation is a “wait and see” approach, at least from my perspective. I know Silas was high on him for his two-way ability and was instrumental in that decision to bring him on board, but I don’t think Houston’s front office is losing sleep about how it’s gone so far. If he wants to stay, I think they’ll find a way to sort that out. If he prefers to ply his trade elsewhere, you won’t see a Harden situation, with the team trying everything in their power to hang onto him until they can’t. But how do you incorporate analytics into a team in flux or one that is sort of stuck between two realities? Doesn’t that make it somewhat difficult?

    I wanted to pick your brain about something related to this before we pivot. Earlier, you mentioned the number of wide-open threes this team is generating and missing. All things considered, this team’s offense (aside from transition) is predicated on playmaking and creation from Wall, Gordon and Oladipo. Their shooting has looked considerably worse this season than in the past. Ben McLemore is in a rut, missing 34 of his last 42 attempts, but the Rockets never really had what you would consider a steady supply of sharpshooters. Does their outside attack look much less potent now simply because James Harden isn’t the central force anymore?

    Partnow: “Look” is the operative word here. For the most part, the Rockets during the Harden era were about volume as much or more than accuracy from deep. A big part of Houston’s perimeter attack was the threat of his pull-ups from deep, so let’s cut that part out and look just at catch-and-shoot attempts. Aside from 2018-19, the Rockets have been in the top five in catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts every year of the tracking-data era.

    At the same time, they haven’t been exceedingly accurate especially in recent years:
     
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  3. Sooty

    Sooty Contributing Member

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    Houston Catch & Shoot Threes By Season

    [​IMG]

    So with the drink-stirrer removed — and no disrespect to Wall, who I think has exceeded all reasonable expectations — the sort of sheen provided to the shooting around Harden has been removed, and now it’s sort of just OK. They are a better group of shooters than the percentage of makes would indicate because the volume of threes almost necessitates a tougher mix of attempts, but it’s nothing close to the elite group assembled in Utah, for example.

    Iko: That makes sense — much different circumstances now, therefore you can’t view it with the same lens as during the contending years.

    Let’s talk some defense. Silas actually came into the season adamant about playing more traditionally, using drop coverage with Wood and DeMarcus Cousins and not so keen on small ball — although those groups had been key in some early-season comebacks.

    At one point after the Harden trade, Houston had the league’s best defense, showing a swarming, aggressive style. It’s dropped a good amount since the losing started, currently 23rd in defensive rating since Feb. 6.

    The Rockets are essentially forced to play small until Wood is healthy. Against the Bulls, they looked uncomfortable on both ends of the floor, but that might simply be more general losing streak-ish than scheme fit. Some of the current players played in this style last season under Mike D’Antoni. What’s their overall defensive outlook from your vantage point?

    Partnow: With or without Wood, they really lack the sort of versatility and unexpected rim protection that Robert Covington and to a lesser extent Jeff Green provided last season. It’s much harder to survive playing small if your small guys can’t play “up,” and with those two plus Harden and Westbrook in the backcourt, the best version of the squad had that.

    While these Rockets might be among the very few teams with enough guys to guard teams with multiple big wing scorers, between Tucker, Tate, Danuel House and so on, they are light at either end of the position spectrum. Wall had fallen off precipitously on the defensive end even before his rash of injuries, which makes point-of-attack defense a challenge. Wood has probably been better than expected on the interior but there are some matchups where he just doesn’t have the body strength to provide much resistance.

    And while the personnel is imperfect, between the shortened preseason, Harden drama, fallout from that trade, all the injuries — and, oh yeah, a new coaching staff trying to implement new schemes — it would be more surprising if Houston had actually managed to field a consistent, coherent defense.

    Iko: It wouldn’t surprise me if this is a season-long problem, with the amount of turnover and learning on the fly this team has had to do. Lack of enough practice time makes it even harder.

    Is this problem realistically fixable? Shoring up their rim protection would help in other areas, not having to compensate in other areas or take gambles like “shrinking the floor.” They signed Justin Patton recently but he hardly moves the needle, which explains their interest in names like Dewayne Dedmon.

    Am I off in that thinking, that better rim protection would go a long way?

    Partnow: In a vacuum, it couldn’t hurt! But the question is whether the rim protection available for easy addition is actually useful. I think we’re seeing that a “drop only” rim protector has to be very good to avoid being an overall liability in today’s game. Does Dedmon have enough mobility or offensive juice left to be able to get and stay on the floor?

    Patton is a pure flyer as a development prospect and represents an interesting reclamation project. If I remember correctly, he broke his foot in what was literally his first team workout after getting drafted a few years back. So he’s a guy whose career never got a chance to get started. I’d be lying if I said I had a good feel for what to expect from him, considering that he was drafted four years ago, yet fully 30 percent of his career NBA minutes came Monday night.

    Iko: Overall, would you give their chances of making the play-in? At 11-18, they’re dangerously close to the last-placed Timberwolves but can they still make a second-half push or should this team be looking towards the future?

    Partnow: They’re only three games out of a play-in spot … but they would have to pass four teams to get there, only one of which, the Thunder, is definitively not interested in chasing that spot. And then if they make the play-in, they then need to win a couple of single-elimination road games in order to be ceremonially buzzsawed by the Jazz, Lakers or Clippers in the first round? If they make a run and it happens, great. I don’t think I’d be willing to part with much in the way of forward-looking assets to help it along.

    We alluded to it earlier, but because of some of the names involved in the moves before and during the season, it’s not as obvious they are turning the page as it might have been. I think we agree that regardless of what has been said publicly that was always at least a strong option. With the season having gotten away from them a little, I would be very surprised if that isn’t how they approach the rest of the season.

    Iko: Before I let you go, I want to hit you with some quick-hitters:

    • Do you like their current offensive setup — or at least the idea of it — juxtaposed with their roster, compared to the rest of the league?
    • Does Tate’s success give NBA teams a blueprint of incorporating undrafted players into their rotations, or does Houston’s league status make it easier?
    • Silas has stressed the importance of playing faster and acknowledges the team struggles and slows down in the half court. Does pace = success?
    Partnow: Let’s take those in order:

    • To me, the current roster and scheme is like looking at a caterpillar entering its cocoon. We know what it used to look like, and that it will look very different in the near future. But right now it’s in a sort of in-between state.
    • The top 300 or so players in the world are reasonably easy to identify as such. While a few of them aren’t playing in the NBA at a given time, whether because of draft eligibility rules or that some of them might have better gigs in Europe or elsewhere, the NBA fills about half its roster spots with these top guys.
    • For the other 200 or so spots counting two-way contracts, I don’t think there is much to separate the 301st best player in the world — were such an exact determination possible — and the 700th. At that point, it becomes more about the fit of skillset to opportunity. While the Rockets’ system sometimes provides unique opportunities for players with unusual skill combinations, the same can be said to some degree of every team. Identifying which of those players will provide that fit is a lot of educated guesswork and finger crossing, which some organizations have more skill in attempting than others. It’s not as if the value of finding a rotation player for “free” in terms of asset costs isn’t well understood. But the success rate for these types of players sticking is relatively low so it can be a lot of work for limited immediate return.
    • It depends. There’s a quote by the late, great Pete Carrill, longtime coach at Princeton who was quoted in John Feinstein’s 1988 book “A Season Inside:
    Coaching isn’t very hard, you know. My players tell me how to coach. The way they play tells me what I tell them to do. If a guy can drive, I tell him to drive. If a guy can shoot, I tell him to shoot. If a guy can pass, I tell him to pass.”

    In other words, playing fast is good if the players are well-suited to playing fast.

    There are certainly elements of this roster that should excel in a faster-paced game, notably Wall and Wood. But what about Gordon or Tucker? It’s possible we’re just arguing over terms here, as playing quickly in the Wooden “be quick but don’t hurry” sense is good. But I’m don’t have a strong opinion about what the ideal pace of play in terms of getting up and down the floor would be for this roster.
     
  4. RedIsen

    RedIsen Member

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    Thanks for posting. Nice to see Wood's name in the that top right quadrant with the other all-stars. Definitely a bright spot we can all point to, and it shows how much his injury affects the team.

    Partnow comparing this team's style of play to an in-between state is interesting. I know I kinda got caught up in expectations of passing and ball movement, so seeing the current Rockets play like a worse version of last years team has been painful. Will we see something resembling an offense by the end of the season?

    I'm also curious about his point about the team's open 3pt shooting. I think he's right to a certain extent in that there should be regression to the mean. Wondering much that applies to a team ranked last in 3pt%, and still takes the 3rd most 3's in the league. Has a team ranked last going into the all-star break ever salvaged their percentage?

    Like previous years we're shooting a bunch of 3's despite not having good shooters. Partnow acknowledges this. And if anything, we have even worse shooters this year. McLemore and House regressed so badly, it'd take a hot streak for them to be considered statistically mediocre. On top of that we all know Wall being forced to play high usage hero ball is never going to work.

    Not trying to shift responsibility off of Silas onto Stone and the front office, but its apparent this team does not have the players to run a functional offense. I don't think Wood being healthy solves all the problems either. Hoping for a productive trade deadline.
     
  5. Os Trigonum

    Os Trigonum Houston Knicks fan
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    tl/dr version: no.
     
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  6. Verbal Christ

    Verbal Christ Member

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  7. Nook

    Nook Member

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    I am just glad that we are finally showing good ole fashioned ball movement.

    [​IMG]

    Some of those passes by Wall to Tate and then Tate passing it right back to Wall for a 30 footer were BEAUTIFUL.
    [​IMG]
    Basketball is for entertainment, who even looks at the scoreboard.

    [​IMG]
     
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  8. D-rock

    D-rock Member

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    Silas realizing that team needs to return to small ball is more than a little shocking.

    He fought this idea from the beginning.

    Nets are showing us that using small ball (5 Out + Switch Everything), even without KD and DJ, works. Especially if used surgically to extend leads and moreso to fight back after giving up huge deficits.



    CF hated small ball but it was extremely successful for Rockets last season.

    But if Silas wants to play faster then he needs to acquire more players that play that way organically. Especially players that dominate the ball.

    Wall SHOULD love playing fast due to his speed but too often he slows the ball preferring to set up half court offense so he can iso instead of attacking in transition at breakneck speed once ball is rebounded.

    Until Silas gets more players like this, not role players, but starters that prefer playing fast, Wall will continue to control the pace to Silas preferred system's detriment.
     
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  9. Le$$

    Le$$ Member

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    [​IMG]

    You kidding me? Wow gonna ruin the tank for what? Lakers beat down?

    Get out of here already with dis. John wall even admitted that winning streak was fluke lol.
     
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  10. Russjr2

    Russjr2 Contributing Member

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    I will not pass judgement on this team until we overhaul the roster. THIS team is just leftover players playing together for the time being. Add in all the injuries too and we have no real chance to win many games....
     
  11. Le$$

    Le$$ Member

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    John Wall PG (Healthy)
    Micheal P Jr Sg
    Kevin Jr SF
    John Collins PF
    Woods C

    Give me this team and then we can start talking about playoffs.
     
    #11 Le$$, Feb 24, 2021
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2021
  12. Fyreball

    Fyreball Contributing Member

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    There's honestly no sense in getting into a philosophical debate about how to best use this roster. Everybody knows this team will most likely look VERY different come March 26. Discussing things like John Wall's usage rate, or how best to balance the minutes among our wings seems like a waste of time. This is just a ragtag bunch of spare parts being showcased for a fire sale in the next month.
     
  13. kjayp

    kjayp Contributing Member

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    Gap year... just enjoy watching guys develop - and determine with whom to cut bait...
     
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  14. D-rock

    D-rock Member

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    Why do you even post?
     
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