BY: MICHAEL GUTIERREZ
At the All-Star break, the Rockets have managed to maintain a winning record (20-14) and playoff position (currently fifth in the West) for the majority of the season in a loaded Western Conference.
Last season, under current Minnesota head coach Rick Adelman, the Rockets got off to a rough 3-7 start before finally reaching the .500 mark 30 games in. After reaching a record of 15-15, however, they immediately fell back to a losing percentage, not seeing the milestone again until March 3 (32-32). Going into last year’s All-Star break, they sat with a record of 26-31.
However, this season, under new coach Kevin McHale and following another chaotic 3-7 start, the team blasted back into playoff contention with a seven-game winning streak in January. Not only did the Rockets reach a .500 record only 14 games in (7-7), but they’ve yet to relinquish their winning percentage since surpassing the middle mark back on January 19 against the New Orleans Hornets.
Why have the two seasons been so different, especially in a condensed year with a new coach like this one? Let’s take a look.
• KYLE LOWRY’S PROGRESSION AS STARTING POINT GUARD: Lowry initially broke out of his backup role when former Most Improved Player award winner Aaron Brooks went down with a nasty ankle sprain against the San Antonio Spurs last season. In fact, Lowry was so impressive, the team later traded Brooks to the Phoenix Suns for point guard Goran Dragic and a first round draft pick to make way for Lowry’s emergence as a fulltime starter. He did not disappoint by any means, increasing his averages to a career-best 13.5 points, 6.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds. He also developed long-range ability with a career best 3-point shooting percentage of 37.6, an increase from his 27.2 mark a season before.
To start the current season, Lowry exploded out of the gate, averaging 17.8 points, 9.3 assists and 6.9 rebounds in the season’s first 12 games. While his averages have dipped slightly since, he maintains an increase from last season by 2.1 more points, .9 more assists, and 1.2 more rebounds per game. His player efficiency rating (PER) has jumped from 16.5 to a gaudy 20.3, and he boasts a 1.4 in defensive win shares (a number based on how many wins that player is worth based on defensive efficiency), tied for first on the team with Samuel Dalembert (In comparison, Brooks had a 0.3 in defensive win shares last season). For example, Dwight Howard is the season leader in defensive win shares with a 3.3.
• THE SAMUEL DALEMBERT SIGNING: Looking back to Jordan Hill being the starting center before the start of the season, it would have been incredibly hard to watch all year long. The Rockets might not even be above .500 at the moment. Since signing Dalembert not long before the season started on Christmas, however, the team leader in blocked shots is no longer at the small forward position (Shane Battier, with 71 in 59 games), as Hill was actually the best returning big man in blocked shots with 52 in 72 games, and his block percentage was a measly 3.2, though the highest on the team.
This season’s slow start was not only due to a horrific schedule full of playoff participants from last season, but also from lack of defensive help inside as Dalembert had to work his way back into things. Hill still seems to get lost defensively, as he always has, Luis Scola is 6-foot-9 and lacks athleticism, and Patrick Patterson got off to a slow start due to a knee surgery he had in the offseason. As Dalembert got into better game shape, though, you immediately saw the benefits of having a true shot-blocking center that the Rockets have lacked since the days of Dikembe Mutombo. His communication with perimeter defenders has enabled them to be more aggressive, as their mistakes can be fixed by Dalembert’s ability to protect the paint.
He currently is ranked eighth in the league in blocked shots per game (1.91), and seventh in the league in total blocked shots with 65. He also leads the team with a block percentage of 6.1, almost double what Hill put up last year. He’s also contributing this in only 23.2 minutes per game, and it can be argued he should be in the talks for team MVP.
• NEW HEAD COACH: Former Celtics icon Kevin McHale was hired last summer to replace Rick Adelman, who parted ways with the Rockets after developing the team’s best winning percentage as a head coach the last four years. With his staff that included former Rio Grande Valley Vipers head coach Chris Finch – assumedly coach in waiting – and Kelvin Sampson, McHale was forced to gain familiarity with his players and establish his systems early in actual games, opposed to preseason contests since there were only two this year.
For example, the tough situation was summarized when he was asked about current Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin, whom the Rockets cut in camp this year.
“He’s a wonderful kid, but in our situation we had three point guards under contract and an eight-day training camp and we were trying to figure out who the hell we were going to play on the 26th of December,” McHale said.
After tinkering with the lineup to start the season, McHale’s best move to date was promoting rookie second round draft choice Chandler Parsons to the starting small forward position. A bold move that has definitely paid off, as Parsons has the team’s third highest DWS (defensive win shares) at 1.1, only behind Lowry and Dalembert (both at 1.4). Parsons’ defense has been admirable considering he’s filling in for defensive stalwart Shane Battier, who’s now playing aside LeBron James and Dwanye Wade in Miami.
Another strength McHale has shown is his willingness to go with the hot hand. For example, on Feb. 8 against the Portland Trailblazers, the Rockets’ bench played so well, veteran starting scoring guard Kevin Martin only logged 15 minutes the whole game. Reserves Chase Budinger (with 29 minutes) and Courtney Lee (31) led the way in scoring to hold off the Blazers 103-96.
McHale had this to say after the game: “They deserved to be out there because they played well. It’s just one of those things where if they’re rollin’, we’re going to let them go.”
Considering he took over a Rockets team with little room to establish his ways, and in a tough Western conference to boot, McHale’s 20-14 record cannot be ignored. Especially when there’s not one signature name on the roster.
• INJURIES: For once, injuries, specifically a lack thereof, have worked in the Rockets’ favor this season. Last season, Houston first lost Yao Ming to a stress fracture in his foot after only five games, which eventually led to his retirement. Aaron Brooks, Chuck Hayes, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Kevin Martin all suffered ankle sprains. Other players injured pre-All-Star break included Brad Miller (sore knee) and Kyle Lowry (back spasms).
This season, however, the Rockets have managed to stay healthy where it counts. Martin has sat out with plantar fasciitis (missing two games) and Hill is currently out with a sprained right knee, but neither has really impacted the team negatively. Giving Hill a few DNPs and Courtney Lee a few starts isn’t going to hurt this team too much.
Where the Rockets have benefitted most is meeting teams at opportune times, or when they’ve faced injuries of their own. For instance, in their only win in four tries against the Timberwolves, Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson and Martell Webster were on the sidelines due to an assortment of ailments. In their next meeting, Beasley went on to torch the Rockets with 34 points. Another crucial name is Zach Randolph. Not only can nobody on the Rockets guard the guy, but in Houston’s only win against the Grizzlies, Randolph didn’t play a minute due to a partial MCL tear. Even worse, he’s been out since Jan 1, meaning the Grizzlies have beaten the Rockets without him, holding a 2-2 edge in the teams’ matchups this season. It’s fully plausible that if Memphis had had him for most of this season, it would be sitting at a much higher seed right now.
Other games won with key players lost to other team include the Nuggets without Nene and Arron Afflalo, the Spurs without Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan (rest), and the Philadelphia 76ers without Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes. With those respective opponents missing key ingredients, the Rockets could easily be sitting 15-19 right now.
Either way, and no matter what has or hasn’t gone right for the Rockets this year, Houston has progressed nicely enough to give fans an optimist’s view going forward after finishing ninth in the West the last two seasons. More encouraging is that the Rockets went 17-8 after the break last season.
If that’s any indication on how they’ll perform once play resumes, it’s possible they can find themselves along for a deep playoff run.