A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Posts Tagged ‘Houston Rockets

James Harden sucks at defense, does it have to stay that way?

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“James Harden sucks at defense” became a meme near the end of this season, thanks to a handful of long youtube videos showing his lowlights over the year. On his worst plays Harden isn’t just bad, but an embarrassment, often standing in the middle of nowhere and making his team play 4 on 5 defensively. He was giving no fucks.

However, what’s interesting of course, is Harden on paper should not be a defensive sieve. He’s one of the biggest SGs in the league in length and strength, has adequate lateral mobility and his feel for the game is strong, which should allow him to read defensive plays well. This is compounded by how in Oklahoma City Harden was quickly emerging as one of their better defenders before the trade, enough to defend Lebron James at times in the 2012 Finals.

So what’s going on here? Why is James Harden now the abomination of the league on defense? My guess is it’s energy. In his 3rd OKC season he averaged 31.4 minutes per game, while he’s been at 38 minutes or higher both his Houston seasons. Harden does not strike me as a specimen conditioning wise and it’s no secret he enjoys nightlife, which could play into having less than perfect energy level. What’s more is Harden’s ratio of driving to the rim vs athleticism is as lopsided as any player’s I’ve seen. Harden drives to the rim and free throw line as much as anyone in the league, despite being a good, but not dynamic athlete. His ballhandling and first step help him do this. Most other players who drive as regularly as him, are freaks of nature like Dwyane Wade and Lebron James athletically. This style of play in addition to the minutes played, may cause him to burn energy faster. Compare him to Paul George, who is the anti James Harden in regards to his athleticism and driving. George is one of the best athletes in the game, but is average at driving to the basket because of ballhandling problems. This may leave more of his athletic energy for the defensive end of the floor, where he plays at a defensive player of the year level.

How does one fix this? The first clear cut fix to reduce his minutes. If anything Harden’s less than perfect physical condition and driving heavy style of game, which also makes him a risk to get banged up, make him a candidate to specifically play less than the standard 35-36 minutes, let alone more. With the Spurs leading the way for reducing minutes this year, there’s nothing wrong with Harden playing an effective 32 or 33 per game. Secondly, Houston may want to free up some energy by taking Harden off the ball. Although he’s not used to this, as a great 3 point shooter one would think in time, he could learn to spot up and space the floor. At the least, it’d make him a diversion while players like Lin and Beverly drive to the basket. One could also try playing Harden at small forward more often with two ballhandlers in the backcourt.

It bears mentioning that with the cost of Harden’s defense there may be a reward coming with it. Harden’s offensive production is absolutely enormous, an ultra efficient 25 points a game while being his team’s best playmaker, gave him the 3rd best offensive season on paper this year behind Lebron and Durant. If one reduced his minutes and increased his defensive responsibility, his offensive volume and efficiency could be reduced.

If Harden is not capable of putting up both the offensive statistics he did the last 2 years while playing more defense, it may be simply a matter of talent. We know Harden is a fantastic talent, but we don’t know if he’s a talent on the tier of some of the legends of this era like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul. There may be one tier below that he presides in. Or he could make a big leap from year 5 to year 7-9 and become one of our great stars. How young the 2009 draft trio of Harden, Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry is, has been understated. Some players have hit their peak by their 5th season, but others have not. As a recent example Durant’s 5th season was his 2011-2012 Finals year, but by his regular season in his MVP 7th year, was clearly a different animal. Kevin Garnett in his 5th season in 1999-2000 was a phenomenal player, but by his 9th season in 2003-2004 season, he was spectacular at an even different level. If James Harden and the Rockets commit themselves to maximizing his career, by a season like his 8th or 9th, he could still be the MVP of the league, since his offensive statistics are already better than many MVP seasons.


Written by jr.

May 23, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Are the Houston Rockets a Lebron James darkhorse?

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Last week Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne posted a Lebron to the Clippers possibility article. While it would take significant trades for the Clippers to get the capspace, the logic of the idea seemed to be Lebron isn’t leaving without a fantastic situation to join, thus the Clippers are more likely than a Lakers or Cavaliers even if in less easy cap position to do it.

Let me throw out another name: The Houston Rockets. First off, the Rockets finding the capspace to sign Lebron straight out is not hard to envision. It’d take simply moving Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik off next year’s books to create near-maximum capspace. If for some reason finding a taker for those talented players is not simple, the Rockets have other assets to sweeten the deal such as Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverly, draft picks, etc. And of course even if it came down to it, if it took packaging even Chandler Parsons in a deal to create capspace for Lebron to join James Harden and Dwight Howard, well the choice there is simple. When added to the likelihood somebody would want Lin or Asik anyways, the Rockets should have little obstacles putting themselves in Lebron-signing position if he wanted it.

The question thus is whether Lebron would sign there. The incentive is clear. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are heading into their 11th seasons next year, Wade’s body is a physical mess. Even if the team makes it to the Finals for the 4th straight year, how many years do these guys have left where they can contend? Not to mention Lebron is aging himself and increasingly carrying the team wouldn’t help.

But Houston is an amazingly cushy situation for the last third of Lebron’s career. Along with finally playing with a star center and defensive anchor in Dwight Howard, James Harden who isn’t turning 25 until this summer, could be in his prime until the day Lebron retires. Lebron could age gracefully like Tim Duncan slowly conceding to Tony Parker as the offensive star of the team, or Kareem to Magic Johnson. He would become more playmaker and defender than league leading scorer, blending in with his star teammates. And if the Rockets managed to sign Lebron while keeping Chandler Parsons, Parsons could be a nice fit stretching the floor for his star teammates, either starting beside Lebron at SF-PF or as a 6th man of the year candidate.

The big carrot naturally is the number 6: That is, Michael Jordan’s 6 titles. If staying in Miami the rest of his career, it’s hard to imagine him getting there with the age and physical/mental fatigue of the core. In Houston or following the Clippers idea, it’s game on. The Rockets could easily get the 3 or 4 titles needed to catch Jordan, even if the last 1 or 2 is with a well aged Lebron. If Lebron wants to go down with an all time title reign, jumping to a team like Rockets or Clippers are a better bet than the Heat, but especially the Rockets with how smoothly Lebron, Harden and Dwight would fit on both ends compared to Paul, Lebron and Griffin, a more offense-first trio. That’s why if they move Lin and Asik’s contracts which they would be wise to do just for the shot at Lebron, the Rockets become the most compelling Lebron destination.

Written by jr.

February 13, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Unpopular opinion alert: Patrick Patterson has the blue chip upside, not Thomas Robinson!

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Thomas Robinson of the Kansas Jayhawks

Thomas Robinson of the Kansas Jayhawks (Photo credit: SD Dirk)

Two notes: One, A Substitute for War passed 100,000 lifetime page views! Although that feat gets less impressive when the amount of articles and days it took to get there it taken into account, it’s nice to be able to write something and know at least some people read it. Thank you to Matt Johnson for starting the blog and writing most of the early articles to help drive some traffic here, as well as any regular readers I might have. Secondly, the url is back to asubstituteforwar.wordpress.com though a quick check tells me typing in the old url should redirect it here, so it shouldn’t be a problem. 

The most “fun” deal of the NBA trade deadline was Sacramento shockingly giving up on Thomas Robinson, half a season from picking him 5th overall. Now by writing this article I’m not fully endorsing the deal for Sacramento. Surely there was more trade value available for Robinson and it feels like their motive was to dump his contract as they prepare their sale to the Seattle group. If they get a blue chip player out of Patterson, my guess is it’s unintentionally.

The general reaction to this deal, was that Sacramento gave up a potential blue chip player or all-star in Thomas Robinson, for a player who know is average in Patrick Patterson. I argue the opposite may end up true.

While with the Rockets, Patterson was very high on my “He has everything he needs to be good, why isn’t he good? This player confuses me.” list. Breaking it down: Patterson has an above average feel for the game. He’s been heralded for his high IQ and awareness on both ends going back to his Kentucky days. His skill level for a power forward is also impressive. He’s had one of the best midrange shooting %s in the entire league, let alone for big men, for most of his career – shooting 46%, 43% and 47% from 16-23 feet his 3 seasons in the league, to go along with very impressive 3-9 ft and 10-15 ft career splits. This year the Rockets had him extending his range and taking 3s on a regular basis. He also has a solid looking post game and impressive hands around the basket. Finally, physically Patterson is a solid 6’9 and explosive enough to play above the rim. In my talent grading system this makes him a comfortable blue chipper. Say a 5 in physical impact talent, an 8 in skill impact talent and an 8 in feel for the game talent, is a score of 21 which is a legitimate blue chip player and not far off from all-star status. Those splits are a reminscent of a player like David Lee, who has an impressive feel, a perimeter jumpshot and great touch and respectable athleticism (I would say Lee is more athletic than Patterson, but Patterson’s perimeter skill game is better). Lee isn’t dominant in any of physically, skill or in feel, but being pretty good across the board, makes him a blue chipper. Where has Patterson gone wrong? His physical talents haven’t translated to the game, for the most part. His incredibly low FTA rate for his career (1.5 per 36 minutes for his career) indicates a player who isn’t attacking the basket. His first 2 years he averaged 1.7 and 1.6 shots at the rim, though this year he made the move up to 2.5 a game, solid for 25.9mpg. But with the Rockets blitzing pace, those may be freebie transition points he had to get. With that said, the Rockets specialized pick and roll heavy system, may be responsible for Patterson being used as a floor spacing shooter and not taking advantage of his athleticism attacking the basket. Furthermore his just under 3600 MP total in the league is relatively low. I tend to believe 6000-7000 is when players truly become what they are and that minutes are far more important than age for development stages. As a comparison, Patterson has played less minutes in his career than Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson, who are one and a half seasons into their careers. If taking the perspective that Patterson has the reps of a player midway through his 2nd season, it becomes a lot more believable that with more experience and in a new system, he taps into his impressive talent level as an athletic power forward with a high skill and feel for the game combination.

Thomas Robinson on the other hand is a player I’ve picked on for some time, beginning with ranking him out of my top 20 before the NBA Draft. Robinson is an NBA player, but in my opinion is a flawed talent. His biggest issue is his feel for the game is below average for a PF. He often plays like he’s in a permanent rush and the game moves fast for him and is choppy and robotic instead of smooth and natural. Robinson doesn’t make the game look easy, he makes it look like an effort. Other than that Robinson is a solid enough prospect. He’s got great explosiveness and strength for a power forward, which with solid ballhandling should translate to impressive physical impact on the game. In regards to his skill game, he doesn’t have great touch around the basket or post ability, but his midrange jumpshot is coming along very nicely. Robinson has a good combination of physical impact and skill impact talents, but the problem is that if a player is below average in physical impact, skill impact or feel for the game, to be a star he has to be an elite talent in the other two, not just a good one. Stephen Curry doesn’t physically impact the game a whole lot, but he has an amazing combination of skill and feel for his position. Andre Iguodala has a serious perimeter skill problem for a 2, but is dynamic physically and in feel. Robinson’s physical impact and skill impact as a combination is a notch below what it needs to be to still make it to blue chipper status despite questionable feel. If I gave Robinson an 8 in physical impact, 5 in skill impact and 2 in feel for the game, his score would be 15. This is enough for a long and solid career as a contributer. Unless he takes a big leap forward in skill or becomes dominant physically, my guess is he’s headed for a career resembling Kris Humphries and Jordan Hill, athletic, rebounding power forwards with a perimeter jumpshot, who have a hard time finding a starting role due to a lack of feel or versatility in their skill games. Of course, the Knicks dumped Jordan Hill midway through his rough rookie season to the Houston Rockets. It wouldn’t surprise me if this trade is similarly inconsequential to the Rockets as grabbing Hill was.

Now, I’m not saying it’s a guarantee Patterson is > Robinson. Patterson’s inability to mix it up physically could be a character flaw, not every player reaches their talent level. Robinson could also develop into such a dynamic combination of physical impact and skill plays to make up for his clearly unimpressive feel for the game. But I would bet on Patterson without hesitating.

Written by jr.

February 27, 2013 at 9:37 pm

MVP/Power Rankings Monday: The 10 Best Points I Can Make About the James Harden Trade

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BOOM! James Harden to the Rockets. Trades like this simply don’t happen often. Harden is 23, has All-NBA talent and was very controllable by the Thunder. Therefore, it’s really fun to talk about.

Here are roughly the 10 most insightful points I could make:

10. The Veto strikes again – Fun game, what happens if David Stern doesn’t block the Chris Paul to the Lakers deal? Paul obviously is on the Lakers, the Clippers either still in NBA hell or peeking their head above with an 7th/8th seed. Does the Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum trade still happen, or do one of the Magic, Nuggets or Sixers go “Eff that, I’m not letting the Lakers have a dynasty”. If so, Howard is on another team as well. Either way, both Paul and Howard’s career paths and probably at least 1 title are affected. Then there’s Anthony Davis likely being on a different team than New Orleans. Davis could end up having an iconic career for the Hornets, changing that team and the one that would’ve gotten him if not for the veto. Finally, James Harden ends up on a team that isn’t the Rockets if not for this and if he breaks out to be a franchise star, the veto changes an era for Houston. And the Thunder assuming they trade Harden, get very different pieces for him – these pieces possibly changing the title picture in upcoming years. The Veto had a massive butterfly effect on the league.

9. The brilliance of the Omer Asik signing – The second most important piece on the Rockets now isn’t Jeremy Lin, it’s Omer Asik. Asik looks to be one of the best defensive centers in the league immediately for the Rockets. Getting a true defensive anchor at C is very hard, some teams go decades without one. The brilliant part of this signing is it happened while Houston had gone all in on trading for Dwight Howard. They had the foresight to have a plan B if they didn’t get Dwight and the balls to sign Asik as a backup C again if they had secured Howard. I suspect many teams would’ve been too blinded by the thought of Howard playing center for them, to consider signing Asik at the same time.

8. The Rockets still have huge cap flexibility and assets – As has been noted in a few places, the Rockets’ are looking at max free agent capspace next year. If Chris Paul leaving the Clippers becomes a real possibility, the Rockets will be involved trying to get him. Josh Smith and Al Jefferson are other plausible targets. Capspace is also valuable in a trade – Perhaps Memphis wants to get out of Rudy Gay’s contract next summer. With capspace and young players to trade, the Rockets are an ideal trade partner.

Speaking of young players, aside from Lin, the Rockets do have other enticing pieces like Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas, Marcus Morris, Cole Aldrich and Scott Machado. Aside from giving Harden talent to work with, the Rockets just proved building up a store of trade assets is always a good strategy if another star becomes available. Read the rest of this entry »

NBA Franchise Power Rankings: #24 – Houston Rockets

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Lowry with the ball

Image via Wikipedia

Previous rankings:

#30 - Charlotte Bobcats (+ introduction)

#29 - Phoenix Suns

#28 - Denver Nuggets

#27 - Detroit Pistons

#26 - Milwaukee Bucks

#25 - Philadelphia 76ers

#24 – Houston Rockets

Total Trade Value Ranking: #24 (Feb. 2011 ranking: #23)

Best assets – SG Kevin Martin (borderline all-star), PF Luis Scola (legitimate starter), PG Kyle Lowry (borderline starter), PF Patrick Patterson (young, projects as borderline to legitimate starter), SF/PF Marcus Morris (rookie, projects as borderline to legitimate starter), 2012 NY 1st (top 5 protected), PF/C Donatas Motiejunas (rookie, projects as borderline to legitimate starter), SG/SF Chase Budinger (borderline starter), PF/C Jordan Hill (borderline starter),  SG Courtney Lee (borderline starter), PG Goran Dragic (young, projects as bench player to borderline starter), PG Jonny Flynn (young, projects as bench player to borderline starter), SF Terrence Williams (young, projects from non NBA player to bench player), C Hasheem Thabeet (young, projects from non NBA player to bench player)

Assets owed: 2012 Hou 1st to New Jersey (top 14 protected through 2016)

Financial Grade: A-

Managerial Grade: A-

Overall synopsis: The Houston Rockets are like the “high brow” version of the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. All 3 teams appear mired in mediocrity, yet it’s the Rockets who specialize in intelligent management, advanced statistics, financial prudency, and stress of character players. Daryl Morey has run the Rockets like a small market MLB team, selling older players and soon to be free agents for young prospects and secondary assets. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by jr.

September 13, 2011 at 3:45 pm