Good God the Houston Rockets Might Miss the Playoffs

 

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No. 7 Seeds are weirdly coddled in playoff discussions. They’re often excluded from the “race for eighth” conversation despite usually holding records similar to those bubble teams. In fact, No. 7 seeds have won only one playoff series in the last 15 years, less than No. 8 seeds, and yet we still treat them significantly better. It’s as if their reputations are secured by winning one more game than another playoff team. But right now, there’s a pretty conspicuous No. 7 seed that’s not playing playoff-caliber basketball.

The Houston Rockets are sitting in seventh right now and, despite the disappointment of not actively competing for home-court advantage, haven’t really drawn any attention as a potential lottery team. Yet the following four facts are empirically true:

  • Houston has as many losses (25) as No. 9 seeded Utah
  • Houston’s point differential (-1.5) is 10th in the West, and translates to an expected record of 22-28. Only Memphis has a greater disparity between expected and actual record in their favor.
  • No team has made the Western Conference playoffs with a negative point differential since 2006-07
  • No team has made the Western Conference playoffs with Houston’s point differential this millennium.

And so are the following two things:

  • Dwight Howard has played in 80% of Houston’s games this season after missing more than half of last year. Patrick Beverley has never played in more than 56 games in a season.
  • James Harden has played the most minutes in the NBA. Only three players are within 100.

So basically, the Rockets have played well above their means and will likely regress to the means, and when that happens there’s a reasonable chance they’ll face significant injury and energy problems among some of their best players. So I’m just going to say what the numbers say: the Houston Rockets, defending Western Conference finalist, could actually miss the playoffs altogether.

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This represents something of a disaster for a team that fancied itself an immediate title contender and built their roster as such. The flexibility they’d always maintained in hopes of landing that ever-elusive third star was thrown aside in favor of maintaining the core of a team that no longer seems viable. Corey Brewer is locked in for $15 million over the next two years as a three-and-D wing who can’t hit three’s and has lost several steps on D. They gave up a protected first round pick for an alcoholic who didn’t fit their roster anyway in Ty Lawson. If Dwight Howard picks up his player option or re-signs at a similar price the Rockets are looking at only around $10 million of cap space.

Normally that space is significant, but everyone is going to have cap space this summer and free agents worth spending it on are in short supply. They’d almost certainly have to lose Dwight Howard to create the space necessary to chase a star-caliber player, but Howard is huge part of what makes them appealing. Forget about Kevin Durant, why would someone like Al Horford want to play on a James Harden-led Houston team that topped out as first-round fodder before Howard came on board and may miss the playoffs this year even with him? Too many contenders can offer more money and more talent.

In that scenario the Rockets find themselves ironically trapped in the very late-lottery/low-seed purgatory Harden and Howard were supposed to break them out of. Missing the playoffs likely sets them on an irreversible course in that direction. Suddenly the rest of their season is less about winning a championship and more about saving face. How could the Rockets convince anyone of note to play for them if they can’t even make the playoffs with two stars in or near their prime?

Even making it is far from certain. Though they’ve played the league’s 10th hardest schedule so far, they’ve also played the second most home games in the league. They’re in the middle of a three-game losing streak right now and are staring down not only two matchups with playoff hopeful Portland in the next week, but a trip to Oakland to lose to the Warriors sandwiched between. They don’t have a permanent coach and the entire roster is uncertain. If you’re looking for a second-half collapse candidate, Houston seems like a decent bet.

Fake NBA Trade of the Day 2/2/16: Mike Conley Comes Home

Mike Conley Pacers

Every day, Pick and Popovich will post one fake trade and explain why it makes sense for every team involved to make it. There are no parameters beyond fitting within the salary cap. Sometimes the trades will involve stars, others role players. They are not grounded in actual rumors, they just make sense on paper.

Memphis_Grizzlies.svg                                                                Indiana_Pacers.svg

Memphis Grizzlies Receive:                                             Indiana Pacers Receive:

George Hill                                                                            Mike Conley

Jordan Hill                                                                            Vince Carter

Indiana Pacers 2016 First Round Pick

 

Why Memphis Would Make This Trade: This deal offers Memphis a best of both worlds scenario. If they think they’re going to lose Mike Conley over the summer, they get a chance to cash in and acquire a first round pick instead of losing him for nothing, but in adding Hill they also manage to stay competitive this season and next if they decide not to break up the team. They get to add an asset for their inevitable rebuild without having to start the rebuild right away, likely protecting jobs in the front office and selling necessary tickets for a small market team.

 

Why Indiana Would Make This Trade: For all that George Hill offers as a three-and-D point guard, he’s not close to Mike Conley as an all-around player. In Conley the Pacers would find not only a star of similar age to Paul George but one who grew up in the city and would likely embrace being a part of the organization. Adding him now as opposed to over the summer gives them the bird rights advantage in that they could give him a fifth year and higher year-to-year salary raises, as well as giving the team the chance to gel this season before really contending next year.

 

Khris Middleton is the Buck We Should Be Obsessed With, Not Giannis

 

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Once per game or so, Giannis Antetokuonmpo does something like this:

And the internet, as it’s wont to do, fawns over him as if he’d just won Game 7 of the NBA Finals by scoring three touchdowns and hitting a walk-off grand slam. Meanwhile Khris Middleton casually throws up an efficient 18-4-4 every night with excellent defense and meh, his arms don’t stretch to the moon, he’s nothing special. It’s those damn highlight plays that create the common misconception that Giannis is Milwaukee’s franchise player. He isn’t. Middleton is.

At least Middleton can hit a freaking shot. In fact, he makes quite a few. He’s 13th in the NBA among qualified players in three-point percentage, making 41.6%. He’s even deadlier from the corners, making 50% from the left and 52% from the right, per shotanalytics. These numbers are impressive in a vacuum, but even more so when you remember that he’s the only starting Buck who can hit a three.

Jabari Parker (the team’s intended stretch-4) and Greg Monroe have attempted only six three-pointers combined and have made precisely none of them. Michael Carter-Williams was traded out of Philly largely because he can’t make three’s and he’s somehow second among starters at 30.8% (attempting less than one per game). Giannis is sitting at 22%. If you’re wondering, that means a Giannis three-pointer yields less expected points per shot than an average Bismack Biyombo free throw. Yikes.

Ideally, he’d make up for that lack of spacing by getting to the rim and drawing a bunch of fouls. He does make 61% of his shots near the basket, but it’s not as though he’s getting to the line at a rate that justifies those missing three’s like, say, DeMar DeRozan. As a point of reference, DeRozan takes 8.1 free throws per game. Giannis takes 4.5. Even with a far more versatile offensive game, Middleton still manages to almost keep up at 3.9 attempts per game. It’s awfully hard to play efficient offense without getting to the line or making three’s, and Giannis doesn’t do all that much of either.

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He’s also a far less willing passer than he should be considering those limitations as a shooter. He turns the ball over nearly as often (2.6 times per game) as he assists (2.8). He and Middleton use roughly the same amount of possessions, yet Middleton has evolved into an above average passer who averages a full assist more per game (4.0) and turns the ball over almost one less time per game (1.9). When you combine what they do on their own with how they help their teammates, Middleton starts to look like a far better offensive player.

The story isn’t much better defensively, a part of the game in which Giannis’ talent is largely theoretical. He certainly has the potential for greatness on that end of the court with his elite speed and length, and casual observers often use those traits to justify praising his defense, but the Bucks are actually better defensively without him on the floor. They’ve given up 107.1 points per 100 possessions this season with him in the game and only 104.7 when he’s out. That trend isn’t new either, it was true last year as well.

But when Middleton sits, Milwaukee’s defensive rating rises from 105.8 to 108.2. Over a full season, that means Middleton is roughly worth the difference between 24th ranked Nets defense at 106 points per 100 and the 30th ranked Lakers at 108.2 when he plays.

The obvious response in Giannis’ favor is that he’s only 21 and he still has plenty of room to improve. But why doesn’t Middleton get the same credit? He only has one extra year of service time to his name, has seen his scoring improve every year and has actually only played 32 more total games in the NBA. They’re both going to get better, not just the younger foreign dude. But one is already a complete NBA player and borderline All Star. The other is judged entirely on what he might one day be. That’s unfair to Middleton, the best player Milwaukee has by a comfortable margin.

Fake NBA Trade of the Day 2/1/16: Blake to Boston

Blake Celtics

Every day, Pick and Popovich will post one fake trade and explain why it makes sense for every team involved to make it. There are no parameters beyond fitting within the salary cap. Sometimes the trades will involve stars, others role players. They are not grounded in actual rumors, they just make sense on paper.

knicks-logo-psd12031                                   CelticsLogo_History-1                  9657_los_angeles_clippers-alternate-2016.0

New York Knicks receive:                             Boston Celtics receive:           Los Angeles Clippers receive:

2016 Brooklyn Nets First Round Pick        Blake Griffin                                Carmelo Anthony

Lance Stephenson                                           Paul Pierce                                   Jae Crowder

Kelly Olynyk                                                     Pablo Prigioni                              Amir Johnson

James Young

C.J. Wilcox 

 

Why New York would make this trade: Unless the Knicks have reason to believe they can lure Kevin Durant this summer, and the odds are starkly against them in that regard, it probably makes sense to trade Carmelo Anthony now while his value is still high. At 31-years-old, he’s going to be past his prime by the time Kristaps Porzingis is ready to win a championship. The Knicks have to make a choice between winning now and winning later. Considering how far they still have to go, how dominant the Warriors, Spurs and even Cavaliers are, and how absurd Porzingis’ potential could be, adding a likely top-3 pick along with a nice group of young prospects seems like a great haul.

 

Why Boston would make this trade: This is what they’ve been waiting for! They were a year late to the James Harden party and since then, no superstar caliber player has reached the trade market. Boston would give up anything on their roster to get that kind of piece (along with a heartfelt Paul Pierce reunion), and in making this trade they still retain two of their three valuable Brooklyn picks, their All-Star point guard and more depth than any team in the East. And the cherry on top? The Celtics would still enter this summer’s free agency derby with enough salary cap room to sign a max player. Could Griffin, Brad Stevens and the great Celtic history lure Durant? It’s at least possible.

 

Why Los Angeles would make this trade: The Clippers are a step behind Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. That much is certain, and if anyone plans on dethroning the Warriors it will likely have to come with a smaller lineup that can keep up with them defensively. Anthony is far more versatile on that end and provides much more spacing than Griffin on offense. Combine that with Jae Crowder’s two-way excellence and the extra defense Amir Johnson provides off of the bench and the Clippers suddenly have a roster far-better equipped to match Golden State’s speed and shooting.