We may not have envisioned Kevin McHale becoming the first coach to hit the streets, yet signs of the Rockets’ decision to make a regime change Wednesday morning had been clear; signs that Fantasy owners were clearly aware of.
One could easily spot the James Harden, Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza owners by the company they keep with the rest of the cellar-dwelling slugs. Entering Wednesday, the Rockets were 11th in the Western Conference. While a 4-7 record would make them a conference finals threat out East, this kind of sluggish and uninspiring start is the type that pushes general manager Darryl Morey one step closer to a mid-May date with Heather Cox along with 13 of his closest, underachieving friends.
A journey into some advanced numbers will go a long way toward explaining why those who invested in Harden, Howard and Ariza might be feeling like Randolph and Mortimer Duke the moment they realized Louis Winthrop and Billy Ray Valentine plundered their family fortune. On the surface, the numbers suggest only a mild problem, yet a deeper dive indicates there’s trouble that will linger.
(Kids, Trading Places was… oh, hell, it’s worth watching and still remains funny as hell more than 30 years after its release. If you think Steph Curry is sizzling, peek out Jamie Lee Curtis in this movie).
On average, Harden was no worse than the third player off the board behind Anthony Davis and Curry. Considering his calling card is his shooting, the fact his True Shooting Percentage (TS%) of 54.5 percent is 175th among 418 players barely describes how disappointing his numbers have been thus far. Harden led the NBA with 16.4 win shares last season, yet entered Wednesday’s game versus the visiting Trail Blazers with just 0.9 WS. That tends to happen when you’re shooting a robust 37.2 percent from the field while also shooting treys at a 26.2 percent clip. While still averaging 27.3 points per game, his production is a result of high-volume attempts (20.3 per game) resulting in hollow numbers. That he averages 11.2 free throw attempts per night is the thread separating him from a complete offensive meltdown.
That meltdown may have been averted on Wednesday, as Harden went off on the Blazers, lighting them up for 44 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and — look who’s playing defense! — five steals and a block in Houston’s overtime win. Now that was a Harden stat line.
This may be a good time to probe into a potential deal for Harden. Granted, his career numbers across the board strongly indicate that Harden is probably a torrid three-week stretch away from returning to norm, yet there’s always the chance a disgruntled Harden owner would be willing to pull the trigger in some caliber of package deal. If you’re a Harden owner, the suggestion here is to stand pat and allow him work his way out of the tabloids. Then again, Wednesday night’s performance may have closed the door on any prospects of getting Harden lower than value.
The concern with Howard is a slow yet certain trend that shows his once-elite defense is giving way. A player who led the NBA in defensive win shares (DWS) four straight seasons has fallen to his current 0.2 DWS, and the numbers suggest it won’t get much better for D12. Howard had a 4.8 DWS in his forgetful season with the Lakers, but fell to 4.1 in his first campaign with the Rockets before compiling a 2.1 DWS mark last year. That he’s averaging 1.9 blocks per game hides the fact his declining defensive skills are just one reason why the Rockets are 28th in defensive rating. While he’ll remain a must-start at center, the emergence of Clint Capela (whose advanced defensive numbers either equal or exceeds Howard’s) will be a key to watch, as interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff puts more emphasis on keeping opponents from attacking the basket at will. Although Howard ranks second to the Pistons’ Andre Drummond in rebounding percentage, his 0.6 Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM) isn’t encouraging when compared to other big men.
There’s too much mediocrity on the roster right now, particularly at point guard, where the duo of Patrick Beverley (4.5 Player Efficiency Rating) and Ty Lawson (8.5 PER) are producing at the level of “I should really begin to make sure my passport is updated because I hear the (fill in second-rate overseas league) calling my name.” Lawson had a ADP of 62, as many felt the change from Denver’s rebuilding project to playing with a team that reached the Western Conference Finals would translate into a productive Fantasy player with just enough sleeper potential. Instead, Lawson is 11th on the roster with a shooting percentage of 33.3 percent, while his TS% of 43 ranks him 339th in the Association.
Ariza’s TS% of 47 also places him among the bricktacular shooters, which is why is PER is at a 10.2. Never known for his accurate touch, Ariza has bordered on useless. While his 2.1 steals per game ranks seventh in the league, his -1.7 Box Plus/Minus (BPM) has made him a liability on both ends of the court.
Morey has probably forgotten more about advanced basketball statistics than I will ever imagine knowing, so let’s be clear in that this isn’t a hit piece on how he’s built this franchise. Having worked with him a time or two during his run as GM, Morey has my complete respect and deserves a ton of credit for pushing basketball (real and Fantasy) into the next level when it comes to analyzing a player beyond the typical numbers we had become accustomed to.
The Rockets have too much talent to wallow with the likes of the Nuggets, Kings and Lakers, so one would envision this team getting its act together and playing to the level of a squad some feel can reach the NBA Finals. On the other hand, it’s these advanced numbers that should give Fantasy owners enough insight to either chill or begin clearing their roster of Houston’s Finest.
Clearing the Bench
*I’m pretty sure if there was a Syrian refugee who could knock down an outside shot, pass like Ricky Rubio or had the size and skills to merit a visit from John Calipari, they and their family would have no problem being welcomed in America. Let’s not even pretend that’s not the case.
*My early bet on the top pick in next year’s draft: Croatian forward Dragan Bender. The kid is 7’2″ with a 9’3″ wingspan, has a basketball sense that belies his years and has the athleticism to play either forward spot or center. Like most international players, Bender could use some time in the gym and a few chicken fried steak buffets to add some meat on his bones, but with the early success of Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, GMs won’t be too shy if they’re sitting on the first overall selection and need a potential franchise-altering performer.
*Might be time to look at Spencer Dinwiddie in deeper leagues. The Pistons second-year point guard lit up the Lakers for 17 points, four assists and two rebounds on Sunday night and is now the first guard off the bench in the D.
*The Nuggets center situation will soon begin to look like the running back logjam the Giants currently employ. While J.J. Hickson has done a serviceable job as the starter, Denver will get opening night starter Joffery Lauvergne along with the raw, yet talented, Jusuf Nurkic by early next month. Nurkic showed flashes of his potential late season. Meanwhile, Lauvergne is averaging 10.7 points and 6.3 rebounds but hasn’t played since a back injury sidelined him on November 3. Rookie Nikola Jokic has averaged 5.4 points and 3.9 rebounds while putting in nearly 14 minutes per game, which will leave coach Mike Malone befuddled when it comes to minutes.