Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Some Belated Ron Artest to Houston thoughts

Before I begin, I thought this was worth pointing out: Draftexpress is doing a player by player scouting report of every player in the league who has at least 2 years of experience. They are posting the reports team by team, but are keeping them in a searchable database so you can just go to the site and search for a player and see the scouting report. Here, for instance, is the report on one of my faves, Josh Smith of the Hawks:

Overview: An elite run-jump athlete who is still polishing his other skills. One of the League’s most explosive leapers, and his length and height make him one of the game’s most impressive highlight-reel dunkers. Possesses ideal size for a small forward, and has improved his strength during his time in the NBA. Very fast for a player his height. Extremely versatile triple-double threat who makes an impact all over the court. Declared for the draft out of acclaimed basketball prep school Oak Hill Academy. Has had some issues in the locker room accepting coaching and maintaining positive body language on the court. Is still relatively young and inexperienced which may have created some of the problems he had in the past; his maturation as both a person and a player in the future will be an important step in the development of the Atlanta franchise. His maturity will no doubt have an impact on how he is perceived in restricted free agency this offseason.

Offense: Improved on the offensive end during each of his first three seasons as a pro. Came into the League with a smooth albeit raw left-handed stroke, and has developed it into a somewhat consistent weapon, although he still has a tendency to fall in love too much with his outside shot, and display very questionable shot-selection. Has improved considerably from his first year in the League, but is still inefficient in Atlanta’s half-court offense. Is much better in one-on-one and transition situations. Gets roughly thirty-percent of his offense in spot-situations, where he tends to either shoot right away or take the ball to the basket driving in either direction. Utilizes his athleticism extremely well. Frequently elevates over taller defenders when attacking the rim. Aggressiveness gets him to the line at a very solid clip. Has a very nice hook shot he likes to go to around the paint. Could definitely stand to improve his free throw routine. Plays on the ball for the Hawks at times. Is an above average passer for his size. Tends to turn the ball over when he puts it on the floor against experienced defenders. Ball-handling skills and shot-creating tools definitely need work. Attacks the offensive glass. Still needs to mature in other areas such as reading defenses and moving off the ball.

Defense: Arguably the best young defender in the NBA. Shows the uncanny ability to translate his athleticism into big plays. Few players show as much dedication running down plays and preventing transition baskets as Smith. Has made a number of highlight reel blocks in his career in which he ran down a ball-handler to send what seemed like an easy layup attempt into the stands. Shows the ability to not only dart into passing lanes for deflections, but also to rotate from the weak-side to block shots in half-court settings. Impressive dedication to rebounding. Shows an acumen for crashing the boards that isn’t common amongst wing players. Doesn’t do the best job boxing out, but compensates with unreal length and jumping ability. Able to recover even when he over pursues his man when closing out due to his huge strides and explosive quickness. Commits quite a few fouls, but it comes as no surprise for a player as aggressive as he is.

So yeah, go check that out when you have a moment. Oh, and as for the reason I was asking about offensive rebounding, I am getting some ideas for an upcoming two-part post on how team strategy regarding offensive rebounding affects the rest of the game. I often think of offensive rebounds as a nice bonus when they happen, but that's about it. And, yeah, super frustrating when the opposing team gets them. Also, offensive rebounds make me think of Utah, for whatever it's worth.

Whatever. On to the point -- Ron Artest.

The first point that needs to be made clear is that part of the benefit of this trade for Houston is the outsized potential reward given the small risk they're taking. From Kevin Pelton:

The real beauty of this trade for Houston is that the Rockets are not depending on Artest for their success; he's something of a bonus. If Artest plays or behaves poorly in a game, he'll find himself on the bench. In the long term, Artest has only this final year remaining on his contract. If he doesn't fit in, Houston can simply move on. A veteran point guard and two late first-round draft picks is a small price to pay to take that kind of gamble.

It's worth noting that Artest's adjusted plus-minus rating has been pretty consistenly high throughout his career, so it's at least reasonable to assume he'll benefit the Rockets.

Big Three?
It seems to be the fashion right now to talk about teams needing a "big three" to contend, and talking about Houston in terms of their "big three" names and whether they are now contenders because of the addition of Artest. They might be contenders with the addition of Artest, but analyzing the team in terms of the q-ratings of the three biggest stars seems like the wrong tactic in discussing championship aspirations (it's useful for other stuff, for sure, just not for win-loss stuff). I suppose that particular style of analysis is a response to the recent successes of Boston and San Antonio, and perhaps the Pareto Principle. Two things, though:

One (minor) -- that way of talking is an insult to Rajon Rondo, who played wonderfully last year and showed tremendous improvement in just his second year in the league.

Two (more major) -- Shane Battier is really really good. This is often hard to admit for a variety of reasons. For one, he has a distractingly odd-shaped head, making it hard to believe he's doing anything positive:

Secondly, he seems to get a lot of positive attention from cranky old columnists who spend a lot of column-inches complaining that today's young players "don't know the fundamentals" and who often confuse "slow, white, and unathletic" with "high basketball IQ." That sort of attention is usually a sign to ignore the player altogether, but in this case -- well, Shane Battier is really is quite good. Finally, Battier got a rush of attention all of a sudden last year because of one good game guarding Kobe Bryant that happened to be nationally televised on a Sunday. I actually feel like Battier should send a percentage of the next contract he signs to Bryant as a fee for Bryant's missing a handful of tough, contested jumpshots. But the thing is, Battier was really good long before that particular game, and has continued to play well since, even in non-televised games.

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens

Do you remember that team? They were OK at the beginning of the year, but the real story was that the star middle linebacker was guilty of murder. Then they won like 7 in a row to end the season and the only murder talk was how their defense was murdering opponents -- that defense was completely dominant. It wasn't just that they stopped other teams from scoring, but the defense itself often did the scoring for the Ravens -- for instance, in the playoffs that year against the Titans, the Ravens won by scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one of them was on a blocked kick return, and the other was on an interception return. Then in the AFC Championship game, the Ravens had Tony Siragusa almost kill Rich Gannon by sitting on him, and won the game easily before crushing the Giants in the Super Bowl. The Ravens that year could afford to have a so-so offense, because their defense was so good.

The reason I bring up the Ravens is that one of the common themes of articles written about the recent Artest trade is: "Whoa, Houston's defense was really good last year. Now they're adding Artest, who's the greatest defender around. Therefore next year, Houston's defense will be historic!" So, can the Rockets become the 2000 Ravens?

Houston's defense last year was the 2nd best in the league, they held teams to 101.6 points per 100 possessions (league average last year was 107.5) -- and they were only 2nd because Boston's defense was once-in-a-generation good.

Houston was able to succeed defensively because they were able to force low shooting percentages and grab defensive rebounds. So let's see where Artest fits in to each of these areas.

Shot defense was probably a more significant component to Houston's success than rebounding was, but I'll start with rebounding because, I think, it's more clear-cut in some ways.

Last year, Houston was the 7th best defensive rebounding team in the league, retrieving 74.8% of opponent's misses -- well above the league average of 73.3%. The best defensive rebounders on the team, among those who played meaningful minutes, were Dikembe Mutumbo, Yao Ming, Chuck Hayes, Bonzi Wells, Luis Scola, and Carl Landry. Wells and Mutumbo probably won't be with the team for the upcoming season (Wells was traded mid-season to the Hornets and is now a free agent, and Mutumbo has been talking about retirement). Yao Ming will continue to be the starting center with Artest in town, so his contribution to the team's rebounding strength will still be there (Artest would theoretically take some of Wells' minutes backing up Battier at the 3). Also, Scola played some of his minutes at backup center last year, I'd assume he'll be doing even more of that with Mutumbo gone. The worry, though, is at the 4. Last year, Hayes, Scola, and Landry were a three-headed monster of undersized but effective power forwards (Hayes was the best defender of the three but had no real offensive ability, Scola had a series of effective post moves on offense, as well as the ability to make the occasional nice pass, along with solid defense and rebounding, and Landry was an athletic finisher and great rebounder). All the talk with Artest coming over is that he'll be playing the 4 with Battier at the 3. But Artest has never been as prolific a defensive rebounder as Hayes/Scola/Landry were last year (you can also throw Mike Harris's name into that mix -- in very limited minutes last year he showed the potential to be a great rebounder. His contract for the upcoming season isn't guaranteed, so he may not even be on the roster on opening day, but he had a pretty impressive summer league so it's possible he'll continue his career as a Rocket). If he's replacing those guys, how will the Rockets stay among the top of the league in defensive rebounding percentage? I'm guessing that, if the lineup is Alston-McGrady-Battier-Artest-Yao, that Houston suffers a little bit in terms of defensive rebounding but (hopefully) Artest helps in other areas to make up for that.

Houston was second in the league (behind only Boston) in defensive effective field goal percentage (eFG%), holding opponents to 46.5% eFG%. League average was 49.7%, so the Rockets' ability to rotate and close out had the effect of holding opponents to 5 points less per game than they would have scored given an average shot-challenging performance from Houston.

Specifically, Houston did a great job of defending the two most efficient areas of the floor -- inside of 8 feet and beyond the three point line (the former is efficient because it's easiest to make shots from that close, and the latter is efficient because of the extra point for every shot you make).

(The above is a shot chart showing eFG% for the league from various locations on the court. The three-point line, the area directly around the basket, and the elbows (ie the top corners of the key) are red because shot attempts from those areas tend to result in more points on average. The scale goes from red down to blue, which are low eFG% spots. The image is from countthebasket)

They were first in the league FG% allowed inside of 8 feet, holding teams to just 54.1% from there. Further, their defense forced scorers away from the basket, to the point that Houston's opponents only took 31% of their shot attempts from inside 8 feet, good for 5th in the league. Taken together, Houston led the league in fewest points per game allowed from inside 8 feet, at 27.4 (as you can see from the link, there is a large dropoff in defending the basket after the top tier of Houston, Boston, and San Antonio. The stellar defensive reputation of those three clubs last year should be a decent indicator of the importance of this particular stat). Mainly, Houston was able to defend the basket area because both of their centers, Dikembe Mutumbo and Yao Ming, were able to block shots -- Yao was number six in the league among centers in terms of blocked shots per game, and if had played enough minutes to qualify, Mutumbo would have been top 5 in the league in percentage of opponent's shots blocked (5.7%). Shane Battier, best known for shutting down perimeter scorers, also contributed in this department with his help defense, coming in third in the league among small forwards in blocked shots per game.

The Rockets were also able to effectively defend the three-point line last year. They were 2nd in the league in chasing opponents off the line, allowing only 17% of their opponent's shots from beyond the arc. That led to their coming in 4th in the league in fewest points allowed from three-point land, with 15.8 per game.

[Sidenote: There is some evidence that defensive strategy doesn't have that much effect on the percentage of opponent's shots coming from behind the arc, but I don't know that it's definitive. And, considering that the best defensive teams are regularly those teams who defend the paint and the three-point line, and that those two areas are among the most offensively efficient in the game, I'm going to go ahead and continue with this argument]

The Rockets were able to defend the three-point line in part because of the length of their swingmen -- Shane Battier and Tracy McGrady are both 6'8" -- which allowed them to rotate and close out effectively. In fact, the 2 and the 3 were the positions best-defended by the Rockets last year.

Altogether, the Rockets were able to force their opponents to take 50% of their field goal attempts as mid- to long-range 2-pointers of which they converted just 38.9%.

So how does Ron Artest affect the situation as far shooting? Well, a couple of things. Even though Ron Artest is younger than Shane Battier, Artest doesn't have the quickness that he had a few years ago, so he might leave the perimeter swingmen to Battier while concentrating on guarding the post as well as bigger players who drift out to the mid-range and beyond. In the post, I'm not positive that he's a better shot-defender than Scola/Landry/Hayes, but his versatility and ability to cover players away from the basket should help a lot (he also is strong enough to push even legitimate 4/5 players out farther from the basket, which should help). Also, Artest has the ability to shut down an offensive player one-on-one, even at times on the perimeter; this ability coupled with the excellent help defense of Yao Ming and Shane Battier should help the Rockets remain among the top one or two teams in the league in terms of eFG% allowed.

What else: Turnovers
So far, it looks like Artest might help in the shot-defense department, and might hurt a little in terms of defensive rebounds. One last facet I'd like to look at is turnovers. Last year, Houston ranked 20th in the league in forced turnovers, turning only 12.8% of their opponents' possessions into turnovers (league average was 13.2%). In fact, the difference in forced turnovers was the only glaring difference between Boston's defense and Houston's, with Boston leading the league at 15.2% forced turnovers. Ron Artest, by the way, averages over 2 steals per game on his career, and has been in the top 3 in the league in steals per game in each of the last 5 years in which he played (I'm not including the 04-05 season, in which he only appeared in 7 games due to suspension, as a season in which he played). Furthermore, Ron Artest's steals often come from poking the ball away from players as they try to face up, rather than from playing passing lanes or some other gambling strategy, meaning that his ability to force the occasional turnover doesn't come with a corresponding negative effect on other facets of the defense. Throughout the course of his career, Ron Artest has gotten a steal on 3.2% of opponent's possessions, which is a higher rate than anyone on the Rockets had last year.

Although there's some question as to defensive rebounding with Artest playing the 4, it still looks like Houston's defense should at least continue to be as dominant as it has been, if not improve, due to Artest's addition. The real benefit of Artest, though, will probably be felt at the other end.


Besides Artest, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are the only two players on the roster for the Rockets next year who have above average usage rates. When one of them goes down with injury, which they do every year, the burden of generating offense tends to weigh down the efficiency of the offensive role players who are suddenly forced into shot-creation roles.

Ron Artest, unlike many other swing-types known for their defense (Bruce Bowen, Raja Bell, James Posey, Ime Udoka), is a high-usage offensive player. He has never been elite-level efficient -- last year his Offensive Rating was 106 points per 100 possessions, which is pretty average -- so on a lot of the better teams in the league Artest would seem to be an offensive liability, someone who needs to have the ball in his hands on offense but who doesn't help the offense enough to warrant running it through him. For Houston, however, a player able to eat up a number of possessions while generating an average number of points would be a huge boon. Currently a lot of Houston's scoring results from Yao Ming passing or shooting out of the high post or Tracy McGrady isolating at the wing or the top of the key. Allowing Artest to create occasionally from the post or the wing would give both of those guys a rest once in a while, as well as keep the offense from grinding to a complete halt when either of them is out due to injury.

Being able to improve their offense without hurting their defense (and maybe helping it) should really push the Rockets up a few playoff spots if things work out. I don't know that it's enough for them to be able to get by the Lakers or Hornets next year, but it'll definitely be fun to watch.

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