It’s official — after years of half-seasons and broken hopes, the Yao Ming era is officially over in Houston. The Rockets have been essentially playing without Yao for a while now, so it won’t be a huge transition for them, but at least they now know that they won’t b building around Yao going forward. In Yao’s absence, Daryl Morey has built a team of fast, sweet-shooting offensive players that don’t play defense terribly well, and while the team was over .500 last season, it wasn’t able to grab the final playoff spot in the West. Here’s what Morey and Co. should focus on if the lockout ends:
1. Play Defense.
The Rockets were 6th in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency last season. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where they need to make their biggest improvements. Morey has been described as “bringing the Moneyball” philosophy to basketball, and two of his best players, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, fit that mold — they weren’t big college stars, they’re not great athletes, but they’re both superlative offensive players because of their uniquely polished offensive games. (In fact, I even compared Kevin Martin to former SABRmetric darling Adam Dunn a few years back.)
The problem is that while baseball position players’ defense isn’t nearly as important as their hitting, basketball players have to play both ways in order to be successful. Scola isn’t a great defender by any stretch of the imagination, and Martin is horrifyingly inept defensively, which will make defensive success tough for Houston.
(Of course, Morey was lauded as a “Moneyball” GM for embracing +/- stats and players like Shane Battier — players who don’t have great stats, but impact the game in positive ways by taking smart shots, playing good defense, and having good intangibles. In other words, Morey was compared to Billy Beane for valuing the exact opposite kind of players that Beane did in Lewis’ book. What I’m saying here is that I’m not all that thrilled about the return of “Moneyball” as a buzzword.
Maybe the answer can be former defensive phenom and#2 pick Hasheem Thabeet, who is still young and can block just about anything. If he can find some way to play serviceable NBA basketball and take pressure off Scola defensively, the Rockets would really benefit. Then again, Hasheem Thabeet is not good at basketball, which is an issue the Rockets will have to deal with. In fact, forget I wrote this paragraph unless Thabeet miraculously finds his game. If that happens, disregard these last few sentences.
2. Find a way to run the ball.
The Rockets have some serious weapons in transition. Kyle Lowry is a lightning-quick bowling ball of a point guard, Chase Budinger can run the floor, soar through the air, and stretch the floor, and Martin is deadly trailing the break and shooting those threes. The Rockets also have a lot of other quality athletes on their roster who haven’t quite put it all together in terms of their skills, and a more open game could work well for them.
Basically, the Rockets are a team with a lot of solid role players, some serious defensive issues, a few semi-stars, and no true star. They can be dangerous, but unless they find a way to miraculously turn themselves into a defensive powerhouse or find a two-way superstar, I don’t see them making it out of the first round of the loaded Western Conference.