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NBA Basketball Column: Free Throws

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February 25, 2013
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Houston, we have a Conundrum

Andrew Damelin
Writer, Fantrax
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is a trail blazer, and not of the Portland variety. With a computer science and statistcal background from Northwestern and MIT, he has introduced advanced stats and analytics to make personnel decisions. He doesn't just evaluate players on the basics, like points per game. He values players based on talent, analytics, and weighs those aspects against their contracts. GMs may have a keen eye for assessing how "good" a player is on the court, but often fail to assign the proper dollar value to him, which leads to inefficient contracts that hamstring a team's financial flexibility.

Morey also understands that no matter how many well-valued contracts you accumulate, you still need a superstar to compete. To that end Morey assembled draft picks, expiring contracts and other valuable trade pieces in the hopes of landing a star. Unfortunately for him, the NBA vetoed a trade that would have netted Houston Pau Gasol prior to last sesaon. Undeterred, Morey restructured his roster by using the amnesty clause on Luis Scola (cutting him from the team, while eliminating Scola's salary from its salary cap) to try to land Dwight Howard. Howard opted for LA, and once again Morey was left with a mediocre roster. 

The landscape was looking bleak. Despite his best efforts, the rosters Morey had assembled had left the Rockets in the worst possible situation - mediocrity. From the 2008-2009 to 2011-2012 seasons, Houston's finished 5th, 9th, 9th and 9th respectively. While the undervalued pieces he'd picked up led to better-than-expected results, Morey knew his Rockets weren't close a contender, and because they finished just outside the playoffs, they wouldn't have high enough draft picks to rebuild from there. 

This past offseason though, after Howard signed with the Lakers, Morey said "screw it". He went after a highly talented, but unproven commodity in James Harden and signed him to a max contract in the hopes he'd become that superstar. No one knew if Harden had the ability and temperament to be a franchise player. 

Fast forward to today. Sporting a 31-27 record, the Rockets sit in 8th place in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. After 58 games of observation, most would conclude Harden has proven he was worth that max deal. He averages 26.4 PPG, off 45% from the field, 36% from three and shoots 85% from the free throw line. He also puts in 4.8 RPG and 5.6 APG. He's incredible at getting into the paint and scoring from close-in, and he shoots an impressive 10 free throws per game. He can play point guard if required, and find the open man for good shots. 

But in spite of the incredible numbers, the Rockets sit in virtually the same place as the last three years. The answer for why lies outside the basic box score; it lies in the defense. As a team, the Rockets give up the second most points per game in the League, and Harden is a huge reason for it. Unlike last year, when Harden could be relied upon to guard the opposing team's best shooting guard or small forward, the effort is simply not there. Harden gambles for too many steals, often loses track of his man and does not play with nearly the same focus or energy. 

From an advanced stats perspective, Harden has barely improved from last year in several key categories. For example, his win shares per 48 - an estimate of how many wins a player has contributed to his team per 48 minutes - is down from last year. (For a listing and explanation of all the advanced stats, visit basketballreference.com.)

Granted it's hard to keep up the defensive effort when his minutes per game have jumped from 31.4 last year to 38.5 this year and he's expected to carry the offensive load, but the drop off in his defensive contribution must be noted. Also perhaps coach Kevin Mchale's offense-first philosophy has encouraged Harden to take it easier on the defensive end.

Regardless of the chief reason for the lacklustre D - the Rockets seemed to have improved their roster with Harden (along with Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, and an emerging Chandler Parsons), yet the results are the same. Morey must continue tweaking his roster to allow the Rockets to leap past the likes of the Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets - teams immediately ahead of them in the standings. At the same time, he ought to urge Mchale to preach the importance of defensive intensity, since they are not going to become legitimate threats without the ability to stop the opposition. 

Houston is in a better spot than the last three years, since they now have a potential superstar to go with a reasonable supporting cast. The question remains, though, do they have enough to make a real push, or have they cornered themselves into another run of middling results.
Andrew Damelin was a finalist in The Score's Drafted competition and is a sportscaster and sports writer. Email: andrewdamelin@gmail.com. Twitter: @Transition_D

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