Houston Rockets Face Same Problems in 2010-11

| by David Berri

Last year the Houston Rockets went 42-40, finishing in the unenviable position of being the final team to pick in the lottery section of the draft (and playing well enough to be the best team not to make the playoffs). Their absence from the playoffs was primarily due to the loss of Yao Ming to injury, which prevented him from playing a single minute during the season.

The Ming story, though, was not the only interesting story-line in Houston.  The Rockets also made a splash by completing a three-team trade with Sacramento and New York, dumping the expiring contract of oft-injured shooting guard Tracy McGrady. In what follows, I will offer what I hope to be a conservative estimate of how the Rockets should perform next season, based mostly on their performance last season and their recent injury history. This review will examine each position on the team, listing not only the players I think the team will employ, but also the number of wins each position can be expected to produce.

The Center Position

Our examination begins in the pivot.  In the previous 4 seasons (2005-08), Yao Ming has averaged 9.5 Wins Produced per season. He was able to accomplish such results despite averaging only 59.3 games a season due to injury. After sustaining such significant damage over such an extended period of time, it is probably unrealistic to project the Rockets to receive the benefit of Yao’s services for a full 82 games (fortunately for Houston, Yao has bounced back well from his previous injuries — although he has been re-injured each year).

For the projections for next year’s Rockets, we will have to start with Yao’s injury-year average as a guess. If Yao only plays 59 games, the Rockets will have to play 23 games with a starting center other than Yao. To redress this need, the Rockets signed aging center Brad Miller to an expensive three-year contract. Although Miller has been above average throughout his career, last year his WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] plummeted to -.015. With that level of productivity across a projected 1,600 minutes (59 games * 15 mpg with Yao, 23 games * 30 mpg without Yao), Miller should cost the Rockets about half of a win. Additionally, the undersized Chuck Hayes – who spent some time at center last year — will probably play around 414 minutes (15 mpg without Yao), during which time he should add about one win (his WP48 last year was 0.099). Taking all centers into consideration (assuming Yao’s WP48 is what it was before he got hurt), Houston should accumulate 8.5 wins produced from the pivot this year.

The Power Forward Position

Last year the Rockets employed both Luis Scola and Carl Landry at this position, both of whom have been quite productive. Late in the season, Landry began to struggle, and the Rockets leveraged him in their three-way trade with New York and Sacramento (primarily engineered to get something in return for Tracy McGrady’s expiring contract). In the trade, the Rockets acquired Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries. Hill was a rookie who surprisingly produced 1.4 wins in only 372 minutes for the Rockets last year.  Jeffries, though, has been below average throughout his NBA career and this continued in Houston.

With these players on board, the Rockets will have four players at the 4 spot.  Scola will start.  Since he has averaged 7.2 wins across his first three seasons – in nearly 2,400 minutes — we can expect him to be productive again (and since he should only play PF, his production should be even higher).  Off the bench we see Hayes, Hill, and Jeffries. If these three players split the minutes after Scola the team will see 11.0 wins from this position.  Of course, if Hayes and Hill play more than Jeffries the team will do even better.

The Small Forward Position

The Rockets acquired Trevor Ariza last year, and his WP48 then plummeted from the .250-.300 range to .081, prompting a firestorm of debate on this blog about usage statistics. Shane Battier began the year in the starting lineup, but moved into the sixth man role with the arrival of Kevin Martin. With the Rockets just recently giving away Ariza in a multi-team trade, Battier should return to the starting small forward spot. Battier has been somewhat above average throughout his career, and so projecting his production from last year across 2700 minutes yields 5.6 wins produced (if he produces as he did last year). With the arrival of Courtney Lee in the Ariza trade, it would seem that the Rockets are fully stocked at shooting guard, and thus sophomore wing Chase Budinger should spend most of his minutes at small forward. Budinger, a rare above-average rookie last season (.111 WP48), would produce 3.1 wins during 1,000 minutes of playing time if he produces next year like he did last year. All told, Houston should expect about 8.7 wins produced from their small forwards this coming season.

The Shooting Guard Position

The big news at shooting guard was the departure of Tracy McGrady, a former superstar who has been repeatedly injured during the last four seasons. In the three-team trade that sent McGrady to New York, the Rockets acquired Kevin Martin, another frequently injured — although potentially quite productive–  shooting guard. During the seasons since his rookie year, Kevin Martin has averaged 6.9 wins produced in 62 games (2,105 minutes).

If Martin meets those averages next season, Courtney Lee should play somewhere around 1,700 minutes. Lee, who posted a .075 WP48 last season, would probably produce 2.7 wins during that time. Jermaine Taylor, an unproductive rookie last season [0.018 WP48], is unlikely to play a significant amount while Martin is healthy (although he may play a bit if Martin gets injured). Since his WP48 was significantly below average but still above zero, his net effect on the Rockets’ estimated wins produced for shooting guard should be minimal. He won’t contribute much, but he won’t cost the Rockets any wins.

If Martin is at something like his average level of fitness and productivity, Houston should receive the benefit of 9.6 wins from their shooting guards. Of all the estimates, however, this one is the shakiest. Martin may well miss significant time on account of injury, or his productivity may be significantly hampered by past injuries.

The Point Guard Position

The Most Improved Player in the NBA in 2009-10 (at least according to the league award) was Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks. During his 2,919 minutes, Brooks produced 2.3 wins (.049 WP48). Fortunately for Houston, Brooks’ backup, Kyle Lowry, shined. Splitting minutes between the two backcourt spots as a combo guard, Lowry produced 6.5 wins in 1,651 minutes (.188 WP48). Although the Rockets could improve their performance dramatically simply by swapping the number of minutes allocated to these two players, they seem unlikely to do so, since Brooks is regarded as a rising star. As it stands, the Rockets should get about 8.8 wins from the two point guards (with Lowry only getting minutes at the point).

Putting it All Together

Okay, let’s put the entire picture together.  The following picture summarizes what I just said about each position:

And as this picture indicates, it seems that a reasonable estimate for the Houston Rockets in 2010-11 would be a 43 wins produced, or a record of 43-39. Such a record would not have qualified Houston for the playoffs last season. It is worth noting, however, that the Rockets could expect nearly five more wins from Yao and Martin if both played a full slate (as unlikely as that seems). If Yao and Martin happen to both be healthy and productive at season’s end, though, Houston would pose a difficult first-round matchup for a stronger team.

Shawn Ryan and Dave Berri have given better reviews of the Houston-NewYork-Sacramento trade than I can here. In the end, Houston traded Carl Landry, Joey Dorsey, and Tracy McGrady (along with his expiring contract) in return for Kevin Martin, Jordan Hill, Jared Jeffries, and two possible lottery picks from the New York Knicks. If the Knicks continue to perform poorly, Houston may have made a fairly good deal on the whole. For the present, they will miss Landry and will have to hope that Kevin Martin stays healthy (essentially the same situation they have been in the last several years with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady). Houston missed the playoffs last year, with Yao missing the entire season. This season, if Yao is able to play about as many games as he usually does, the Rockets may sneak into the bottom of the Western Conference playoffs. If Yao Ming and Kevin Martin are healthy, they might go even higher.

Although the McGrady trade didn’t hurt the Rockets (and may have helped quite a bit), the more recent trade, however, is profoundly less defensible. From Houston’s perspective, the Rockets traded Trevor Ariza for Courtney Lee. Although other teams were involved, this was the total outcome of the swap for Houston. While the deal will save them cap space, it seems inadvisable to give away a player who has consistently produced WP48s well in excess of .200 in return for a below-average performer.

Despite their personnel changes, the Rockets are right where they were at the beginning of last season — and in fact at the beginning of the last several seasons – hoping that their oft-injured star players will be healthy and productive. If Yao and Martin produce at full capacity, the Rockets have the supporting cast to the push them closer to the top of the Western Conference. Unfortunately, this is basically the same prognosis one might have offered in any of the last four seasons, with the team merely replacing Kevin Martin with Tracy McGrady. After so many changes near the end of last season and during the offseason, it looks like more of the same in Houston this season.

- Greg Steele

Greg Steele is a graduate student at Abilene Christian University. He has been married for two years and likes to read. He used to play basketball, and got into the blog while looking for ways to better describe what happens during NBA games.