The Houston Rockets had a strong season at 53-29, highlighted by a seven-game second round series with the soon-to-be NBA Champion Lakers, playing much of the series without an injured Yao, who is out for the entire season this year with continued foot problems. The Rockets were also without former star Tracy McGrady for much of the season, whose effectiveness has wavered of late as he’s been hobbled by a long career of injuries. This season the Rockets are without Yao, Ron Artest left for the Lakers, and Tracy McGrady won’t be healthy for a few weeks, when there’s no telling what type of level he’ll be playing at. Finishing last season with the 16th ranked Offensive Efficiency and 4th ranked Defensive Efficiency, many are writing off the Rockets this season, who lost their two leading scorers and didn’t add many scorers to make up for it. Unsurprisingly, though, statistics tend to shine favorably on the projections for Daryl Morey’s Rockets, and there is reason to still be optimistic.
Looking at the chart below, a picture is painted that isn’t in line with common perception for the Rockets, as it suggests Luis Scola and Carl Landry were both more valuable offensive players for the Rockets last season than the departed Ron Artest.
In regards to the Houston frontcourt, Yao will most certainly be greatly missed, as he scored on excellent efficiency, created a good share of his own shots, and was a huge help on the offensive glass, while he also provided good defensive value with his size and shot-blocking. There is reason to believe, however, that Carl Landry and Luis Scola could both fill in strongly in the frontcourt, as both were very efficient players, equal to Yao in Scola’s case and even better in Landry’s. Now, context is important here, and one obvious thing to consider is that Landry and Scola create less of their own offense than Yao, but both are better on the offensive glass and both finish with similar scoring efficiency, with Landry being a step ahead, one of the best finishers in the league around the basket, where he converts on 71% of his shots, while also being a respectable spot-up shooter from mid-range. It’ll be interesting from a statistical perspective to see how Landry and Scola perform in their new roles, as both will be required to increase their minutes, usage, and the percentage of shots they create in order to replace Yao’s offensive contributions. History tends to suggest that with these more demanding roles, efficiency will decline, but how much is the question.
The Rockets also have undersized F/C Chuck Hayes in the frontcourt, not a very efficient offensive player due to his poor TS%, but he makes up for it a bit with good passing and offensive rebounding, and historically he has had better seasons in terms of scoring efficiency, so there’s reason for some optimism there. Regardless, Hayes is valuable primarily for his defensive contributions, while he uses very few possessions on offense, though being efficient with those few possessions would definitely justify the Rockets keeping him on the court longer.
The Rockets fortified their frontcourt a bit more by adding second-year player Pops Mensah-Bonsu at F/C, an athletic freak who hasn’t played much in the NBA, but has had great success in Europe, is a monster on the offensive glass, a pretty good finisher around the basket, and a capable defender who will likely improve on this team. Mensah-Bonsu has a very limited offensive skillset, however, much like Chuck Hayes, and really struggles outside 5 feet. The Rockets also acquired Australian center David Andersen, a 29-year-old NBA rookie, who provides a different look in the frontcourt with a strong mid-range jumper and a finesse game, but he has a soft demeanor and isn’t a great rebounder or defender.
From an offensive perspective, the Rockets would definitely be best served starting Landry and Scola in the frontcourt, two highly efficient scorers who are both good on the offensive glass and have different skillsets scoring the ball, but Hayes will likely start with Scola for defensive purposes. The battle for minutes is generally wide open after Scola and Landry, however, as Mensah-Bonsu and Anderson could both earn spots in the rotation depending on how they play.
Moving down the roster to the small forward spot, we have the much discussed swap of Trevor Ariza and Ron Artest, one that common perception tends to give the edge to the Lakers, but statistics give a clear edge to the Rockets, and that’s before you factor in age, future upside, and potential character concerns. Ariza and Artest are both great defenders, Ariza more quick and Artest more strong, but they’re very different players on the offensive end. Artest used a lot of possessions for the Rockets last season, and managed to score a good number of points off them, but his IOE was a subpar 1.00, as he’s not especially efficient scoring the ball, doesn’t rebound the way he could on the offensive end, and didn’t dish out many assists with his passing abilities. Ariza, on the other hand, is a more efficient scorer, better on the offensive glass, and surprisingly dished out more assists per possession than Artest last season, though a lot of that is a function of the roles they were asked to play. A big point to note is that Ariza’s usage was almost 60% of Artest’s, and he was assisted on nearly 20% more of his scores, while there’s little chance Ariza could’ve maintained his efficiency if taking on the large burden of offense Artest did. In terms of where their scoring comes from, Ariza is a much better finisher at the basket, though Artest is better with perimeter jumpers, even though he takes a higher percentage of shots off-the-dribble than Ariza does. That said, Ariza’s jumper has steadily improved in his time in the league, and he exploded from behind the arc in the playoffs, while there’s much reason to think he’s not at his peak at the young age of 24.
The Rockets’ biggest issue looking at their roster is they don’t have many players used to using a lot of possessions, specifically in terms of creating shots for themselves, and this is most evident in the Artest for Ariza swap. Regardless, the move obviously makes sense for the long term, and Ariza was considerably more efficient than Artest last season, so it is possible he can still outperform Artest as he expands his role.
The Rockets also have Shane Battier on the wing, another efficient player used to playing with low usage, though he’ll be one of the main people the Rockets rely on to expand his role this season. Battier has played well in preseason and is a capable scorer at the basket and from behind the three-point line, though he struggles anywhere in between. Battier and Ariza together will make one of the best defensive wing tandems in the league, and they arguably complement one another better than Battier and Artest did last season defensively.
At the point guard spot, the Rockets have an interesting contrast in styles with Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry, Brooks doing most of his damage on outside jumpers and Lowry being relentless at attacking the basket. Brooks’ outside scoring is probably more needed from a fit perspective in the Rockets’ lineup, but Lowry is a better distributor, more efficient scorer, and slightly better on the offensive glass, plus he’s a much better defender, capable of being one of the best point guard defenders in the league, though Brooks is not bad on this end of the court, even in spite of his small stature. The Rockets will likely rely more on Lowry and Brooks for producing shot attempts this season, and it will be interesting to see who secures the bulk of the minutes as the season goes on.
The Rockets have also relied a lot on rookie wing Chase Budinger in the preseason, who has struggled with his efficiencies after having an up-and-down college career where he failed to live up to expectations, which allowed him to fall into the second round of the draft. Budinger is a capable finisher from behind the arc and at the basket, but he lacks a mid-range game, and he is a defensive liability on the perimeter. He’ll likely be forced into minutes until McGrady comes back, and will need to continue playing them if McGrady can’t return to form, something that is hardly a given.
As for McGrady, there’s really no telling what you will get from him. He hasn’t been an efficient scorer for awhile, and while he’s a good passer in the offensive game, all things considered he isn’t much better than an average player on the offensive end at this stage, and that’s if he’s relatively healthy. That said, he’s still capable of creating shots better than the other wings on the Rockets, and given their extreme lack of depth behind Ariza and Battier, he could definitely provide an offensive boost this year.
Defensively, the Rockets will miss Yao Ming, but they trot out one of the best defensive lineups in the league, as Lowry, Ariza, Battier, and Hayes are all excellent defenders at their positions, the team plays good team defense, and they don’t have many major liabilities in their regular rotation, excluding Budinger and Anderson, who are no locks to be in the rotation come the end of the season. The Rockets will definitely have a tough go of things getting into the playoffs again, as the West is improved and they have a ton of question marks, but it’d be foolish to discount this scrappy team, and GM Daryl Morey has acquired a lot of underrated players who have excelled in small roles with the team and could still do so as their responsibilities expand. Cary Landry, Kyle Lowry, and Trevor Ariza are the three players most likely to break out for the Rockets this season, and all three could potentially have career years, which would put the Rockets firmly in the playoff chase. The Rockets were also not an incredibly good offensive team last season even with Artest and Yao, while there’s good reason to think the defense won’t fall off that much, so there is some hope from that perspective in terms of the Rockets making the playoffs again.
From a statistical standpoint, the relationship between usage and efficiency and the importance of having shot creators in your lineup have long been hot button subjects to statisticians, making this a very interesting team to watch this season, as they’re challenging a lot of common perceptions with their roster makeup. Even if things go poorly this season, the Rockets have a lot of young talent in place on affordable contracts, and they will have a bit of cap space next season with Tracy McGrady’s expiring contract. The future of Yao Ming is obviously a major concern, and he has a player option next season, so that, too, could have a major impact on the direction of this franchise.