The Houston Rockets Fail to Launch

Posted on November 23, 2007 by


The expectation entering this season (in some circles) was that the Houston Rockets were going to contend with the Spurs, Suns, and Mavericks in the Western Conference.  Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were going to be healthy and available the entire season.  Luis Scola was acquired from the Spurs to give the team depth at power forward.  Steve Francis had returned to Houston, the place where he had posted the best number of his career.  And Rick Adelman – a coach whose teams have won 61% of their regular season games (and 51% of playoff games) – was given the head coaching job. After twelve games, though, the team has only scored nine more points than their opponents.  So thus far, with a record of 6-6, this team is not yet a contender.

To understand this result, let’s start with what we might have expected from this team given what its players did last year. As Table One reveals, had each Houston player maintained the per-minute productivity we observed in 2006-07 (with the exception of rookie Scola and Aaron Brooks), but played the position and minutes we see thus far in 2007-08, the Rockets could expect to be on pace to win about 51 games. 

Table One: Projecting the Rockets in 2007-08

When we look at the numbers we see that maybe people shouldn’t have expected this team to contend with the Best in the West (which I said argued before the season started HERE and HERE).

Of course, this team is currently not on pace to even win 50 games.  Again, when you only out score your opponent by 0.75 points per game; you are probably going to have trouble getting far past the 0.500 mark. 

Naturally we wish to know why this team is falling short.When we look at current productivity in 2007-08 – reported in Table Two — we see that Ming, McGrady, and Chuck Hayes are playing extremely well. 

Table Two: The Rockets After 12 Games in 2007-08

These three players are on pace to produce 35.4 wins.  If we look at the top trios from last year, we see that the projected output from Ming, McGrady, and Hayes in 07-08 would have ranked 6th in the Association in 06-07.

Unfortunately, the remainder of this team is only on pace to produce 7.2 victories. Such production from the non-top three would have ranked 23rd last season.  It’s important to remember – as Table Three notes — that the Wins Production from the non-top three of the Rockets last season led the league.

Table Three: Ranking the Non-Top Three in 2006-07

So what happened to Houston’s supporting cast?

We tend to think teams succeed and fail as a team.  When we look at the stats, though, we can identify the players responsible for the outcomes observed.  For the Rockets supporting cast, there are three players – Shane Battier, Mike James, and Dikembe Mutombo — who are specifically not meeting expectations. James is having a problem shooting (which causes us to wonder why he is playing instead of Steve Francis) and Mutombo is playing less than eight minutes per game (missing completely six contests). 

Battier, though, is both hitting his shots and playing significant minutes.  Still, Battier’s performance has dropped off this season.  Battier, who I wrote about a few weeks ago, has typically been one of those player who produces wins without scoring points.  This year, though, he is not scoring and he is not producing wins.

Had Battier maintained the productivity we saw last year he would be on pace to produce close to five wins. Instead, he is only pace to produce 1.2 wins.  Part of the problem is that Battier is often playing out of position at power forward.  Again, this is something expected before the season started. The Rockets have an abundance of players who demand minutes at the guard spot.  This forces McGrady to take most of the minutes at small forward. And that means Battier either has to sit on the bench or move into the power forward slot. 

Unfortunately for the Rockets, Battier is not a power forward.  The average power forward will grab 11.4 rebounds per 48 minutes.  Battier, though, has never grabbed as many as eight boards per 48 minutes (he averaged 7.9 in 2004-05) and this year he is only capturing 6.1.  This mark is below average for a small forward and dismal for a player trying to play the four spot.

Even beyond this, Battier is simply not posting the same numbers we saw in the past.  As Table Four reveals, although his shooting efficiency is above average, he has dropped off with respect to points, rebounds, steals, assists, and personal fouls. 

Table Four: Battier after 12 game in 2007-08

In sum, Battier is off to a very bad start.

As the season progresses, Battier might return to form.  And Francis might take the court and produce.  Even if this happens, though, someone else is going to have to step up if this team is going to compete with the Best in the West.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.