Is Houston Destined for the Lottery?

Posted on October 25, 2009 by

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Note: The following repeats much of what I said about the Houston Rockets in August.  Missing from that post was a table reporting what happened in 2008-09 and a complete discussion of this team’s depth chart.  These items have been constructed and the original post has now been re-written.  With this post, only Atlanta and Detroit remain to be completely reviewed.  Those posts will be up before the season starts (I hope).

The teams considered playoff contenders in the Western Conference include Portland, the LA Lakers, San Antonio, Dallas (these four are the favorites for the title), Denver, New Orleans, Utah, and maybe Phoenix (and maybe Golden State and maybe the LA Clippers).  With the exception of Phoenix (and Golden State and the Clippers), all these teams made the playoffs in 2009.  Only one Western Conference playoff team – the Houston Rockets – are generally omitted from the list of 2009-10 contenders.

The Rockets were dropped from the list when it was learned Yao Ming would miss the next season.  Coupled with the injury to Tracy McGrady, the Rockets now face the prospect of entering the next season without a “star” player.  Here is how Chris Mannix describes the team in Sports Illustrated: Houston is now a pale imitation of the team that took the Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.

Mannix goes on offer the following quite from Daryl Morey: “When the previews come out, we’ll probably be in the back of the magazines, under the cologne ads.”

In John Hollinger’s preview at ESPN.com (insider access required), ten teams are listed ahead of the Rockets. 

The Above Average Rockets

Perhaps, though, Houston doesn’t have that big of a problem.  Here is what the Rockets did in 2008-09.

Table One: The Houston Rockets in 2008-09

Yes the Rockets did receive 15.2 wins from Ming and McGrady.  But the Rockets also received above average performances [average Wins Produced per 48 minutes – WP48 – is 0.100] from Luis Scola, Shane Battier, Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes, and Kyle Lowry.  And in the off-season, the Rockets essentially swapped a slightly below average Ron Artest for a consistently above average Trevor Ariza.   Consequently the Rockets enter 2009-10 with the following depth chart (taken from Yahoo.com and ESPN.com):

Potential First String

PG: Aaron Brooks [-0.5 Wins Produced, -0.012 WP48]

SG: Tracy McGrady [4.0 Wins produced, 0.163 WP48]

SF: Trevor Ariza [8.0 Wins Produced, 0.192 WP48]

PF: Chuck Hayes [2.5 Wins Produced, 0.139 WP48]

C: Luis Scola [9.8 Wins Produced, 0.189 WP48]

Potential Second String

PG: Kyle Lowry [4.8 Wins Produced, 0.138 WP48]

SG: Jermaine Taylor [rookie]

SF: Shane Battier [6.2 Wins Produced, 0.147 WP48]

PF: Carl Landry [5.4 Wins Produced, 0.175 WP48]

C: David Andersen [rookie]

If McGrady takes the court this year, then the Rockets will have seven above average players in their rotation.  And these seven players produced 40.7 wins last year in less than 12,000 minutes. 

As I noted in August – when I originally commented on the Rockets–an NBA team that avoids overtime will play 19,680 minutes in a season.  Consequently, it seems likely some (if not all) of these players will play more minutes in 2009-10.  And if per-minute performance doesn’t change, increasing the minutes of these players (except for Aaron Brooks), will lead the Rockets to more than 40 wins. 

The eighth seed in the West last year won 48 games.  So if the West is the same in 2009-10, the Rockets will have to come closer to 50 wins to make the playoffs.  This may be difficult.  But I am suggesting – contrary to the perceptions of this team – that it’s possible the Rockets can make the playoffs without McGrady or Ming.

A Collection of Non-Scorers

Once again, perceptions say this is not possible.  When we look at the scoring of the above seven veteran players not named McGrady (and Ming), we can see why expectations are so low.

Luis Scola: 12.7 Points per game, 20.1 Points per 48 minutes

Shane Battier: 7.3 Points per game, 10.3 Points per 48 minutes

Trevor Ariza: 8.9 Points per game, 17.5 Points per 48 minutes

Aaron Brooks: 11.2 Points per game, 21.5 Points per 48 minutes

Carl Landry: 9.2 Points per game, 20.9 Points per 48 minutes

Chuck Hayes: 1.3 Points per game, 5.1 Points per 48 minutes

Kyle Lowry: 7.6 Points per game, 16.9 Points per 48 minutes

Scola leads this group with 12.7 points per game.  When we turn to scoring per 48 minutes we see only three players who exceed the league average of 19.8.  Scoring drives perceptions in the NBA, and the lack of scoring numbers from this group suggests the Rockets are doomed.

But wins are about more than scoring.  And when we measure these players contributions to wins (via Wins Produced), we see that Houston has fewer problems than people believe.  Consequently, I think it’s possible that Morey’s considerable reputation is about to become further enhanced. 

If the Rockets do make the playoffs without McGrady and Ming, the following will also occur:

Morey is going to be considered for Executive of the Year

Rick Adelman will be considered for Coach of the Year

Aaron Brooks – who may lead this team in scoring – will be considered one of the best point guards in the game.

All of this is possible because this collection of non-scorers is also a collection of above average performers.  Unfortunately, it seems likely that none of the non-scorers will get much credit if this team exceeds expectations.

Performance History

Let me close by noting that the six above average performers listed above have a history of productive play.  For example, consider the recent history of these players.

Luis Scola:

2007-08: 4.8 Wins Produced, 0.113 WP48

Shane Battier:

2007-08: 6.5 Wins Produced, 0.107 WP48

2006-07: 6.4 Wins Produced, 0.103 WP48

Trevor Ariza:

2007-08: 2.6 Wins Produced, 0.225 WP48

2006-07: 5.8 Wins Produced, 0.217 WP48

Aaron Brooks

2007-08: 0.3 Wins Produced, 0.020 WP48

Carl Landry

2007-08: 4.3 Wins Produced, 0.292 WP48

Chuck Hayes:

2007-08: 6.7 Wins Produced, 0.206 WP48

2006-07: 7.8 Wins Produced, 0.217 WP48

Kyle Lowry

2007-08: 4.3 Wins Produced, 0.101 WP48

With the exception of Aaron Brooks, these players were above average before 2008-09.  This suggests that these players will be above average in 2009-10.  If that happens, the Rockets have a good chance of being an above average team.  And this team – again, contrary to popular perception — might avoid the lottery in 2010.

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com 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.