The Rising Rockets?

Which was the greatest team in the history of the Houston Rockets? In 1994 and 1995 the Rockets won the NBA Championship.  In 1981 and 1986 the Rockets made it to the NBA Finals only to lose to the Boston Celtics.  It would seem that the greatest has to come from these four editions.

Although that might be clear to some, if efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency) is our criteria, then the answer is none of the above. 

The Best in Houston

Data exists to measure a team’s efficiency differential back to the 1973-74 season.  After last season we now have 34 data points for each NBA franchise (assuming the franchise existed in 1973-74).  And in Table One we can see these data points for the Houston Rockets. 

Table One: The History of the Houston Rockets

Here is where the teams that made it to the NBA Finals rank in Table One.

1995 (10th, 2.2 differential)

1994 (3rd, 4.4 differential)

1986 (9th, 2.4 differential)

1981 (22nd, 0.3 differential)

When looking at this list we need to remember that the playoffs are an imperfect method to assess team quality.  Last year we saw 82 games where the Dallas Mavericks demonstrated superiority over the Golden State Warriors. Then we saw six games in the playoffs where this was not the case.  Which sample should we believe? I would argue that 82 trumps 6 and therefore, we should rely on the regular season to determine “who is the best?”  And taking this argument one step further, a team’s efficiency differential – as opposed to total wins — does a better of job of assessing the quality of a team.

Given this approach, the “best” team in Houston history is a team that couldn’t even get out of the first round.  Yes, the Rockets of 2006-07 – a team defeated by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 2007 playoffs – was the greatest Houston team in terms of efficiency differential. 

In examining the history of the Phoenix Suns it was noted that eleven times a Phoenix team has posted a differential that was five or greater.  Last year was the first time in franchise history a Houston team accomplished this feat.  And with a differential of 5.2, the threshold was only barely passed.  Consequently the best Rockets team in franchise history lagged well behind San Antonio, Dallas, and Phoenix last year.  So entering the playoffs it was not expected that Houston was going to advance very far.

How the Rockets Became the Best

Still, the Rockets were a good team last year.  And this is somewhat surprising, because the 2005-06 edition was one of the worst in team history.  How did the Rockets rise so far so fast? The answer begins with Table Two.

Table Two: The Houston Rockets in 2006-07 and 2005-06

When we look at the Summation of Wins Produced we see the Rockets improved by 17.3 from 2005-06 to 2006-07.  This leap can be tied to four factors:

1. The acquisition of Shane Battier.  Last summer the Grizzlies received Stromile Swift and Rudy Gay for Battier.  As detailed in a discussion of the Grizzlies last month, this trade had a predictable negative impact on Memphis.  And the acquisition of Battier had a corresponding positive impact on the Rockets.  

2. Tracy McGrady recovered from injury.  McGrady only played 47 games in 2005-06.  Last season he appeared in 71 games and his Wins Production increased from 5.7 to 9.9.

3. The re-birth of Dikembe Mutombo.  When Yao Ming went down with another injury (he has only played 105 games the past two seasons) it was expected the Rockets would suffer.  As detailed last season, the re-emergence of Mutombo was a big reason why Houston survived the loss of Ming.  Mutombo has been one of the most productive players in the league since his career began in 1991.  But at his age it was not expected that he could still contribute much.  Last year, though, Mutombo showed he still had something left.

4. Chuck Hayes takes the court. The last factor was the increased playing time given to Chuck Hayes.  As a rookie he played in 40 games.  Last year he played in 78 contests.  Although his per-minute performance declined, his Wins Production increased by 3.4

Again, the team improved by 17.3 Wins Produced.  These four events combined to create an additional 18.0 Wins Produced, hence accounting for all the progress Houston made.

When we look at the numbers I think we can see why the Rockets improved. But what people want from me is a glimpse into the future.  So here’s a forecast.  Well, sort of a forecast.  Okay, sort of 700 rambling words where I forecast every possibility and really never say much of anything. Enjoy.

Can Houston Improve on the Best?

The Rockets made a number of moves this past summer to catch the Spurs, Suns, and Mavericks.  These moves included

- Trading Juwan Howard for Mike James

- Signing Steve Francis

- Drafting Aaron Brooks

- Acquiring Luis Scola

Scola likely takes the place of Howard.  As noted in the past, Howard has never been a productive NBA player.  So it would not take much from Scola to improve upon Howard. Unfortunately, Scola comes from Europe and I do not have a model that tells me how European production translates into the NBA.  Scola has looked good in three pre-season games, and surprisingly, pre-season performance does tell us something (expect a post on this in the future).

All the other moves impact the backcourt.  It’s important to note what the Rockets received from their guards last year.  Luther Head and Rafer Alston were the primary players at guard last year, and the two combined to post a 0.111 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].  Average is 0.100, so these two players were about average.

Now the Rockets have – in addition to Head and Alston – Francis, James, and Brooks.  Plus there is some expectation that Bonzi Wells might play more than a few minutes this year.  Do these additions make the team better?

We can skip Brooks.  I can’t see a rookie playing many minutes with this much veteran talent at guard. 

So let’s start with James.  He could be an improvement, if the Rockets get what James did in 2005-06.  That season he posted a 0.143. But last year James only had a 0.034 mark, which clearly doesn’t help.  For his career he has posted a 0.098 mark, which is average. Again, average is what they Rockets had.

Okay, what about Francis?  Francis spent the first five years of his career in Houston.  In those five seasons he produced 54.9 wins and posted a 0.178 WP48. Since leaving Houston, though, his WP48 has fallen to 0.122.  Yes, that is above average but not much different from what the Rockets might get from Head, Alston, or James.

And then there is Wells, who has a career WP48 of 0.131. Last year, though, Wells only offered a 0.018 mark in limited minutes.  Can Wells produce in limited minutes this year?  Or does he need significant minutes to produce? 

The link between minutes and production might be important.  Minutes played and per-minute performance have a positive relationship.  When a player sees his minutes decline he will offer less (part of this might be the coaches’ evaluation, but I don’t think that’s the whole story).

Given the link between minutes and performance, will the Rockets get less from these players simply because there are not enough minutes to go around?

One should note one more complicating factor.  Tracy McGrady – who led the Rockets in Wins Produced last year – appears to have played some minutes at shooting guard last season.  Now with all these guards, will McGrady have to play all of his minutes at small forward? And if that happens, where does Battier play?  Battier is a productive small forward, but he is not going to offer enough rebounding to play power forward.

Okay, that’s a whole mess of questions.  And I can’t provide all the answers.  I can say that I think the Rockets can be somewhat improved.  In other words, I think the 2007-08 team can be the best in team history.

But I am not convinced the Rockets have closed the gap with the leaders in the Western Conference.  I could create a scenario where the gap has closed (Francis and the other guards play like they did in the distant past, Ming and McGrady manage to improve, Scola is immediately an above average player, etc…).  But at this point, none of those things are sure to happen.  And if we focus just on what these players have done most recently (with a reasonable guess for Scola), we can say the Rockets will be a franchise best, but probably not an Association best.

And no, I don’t have any syrup to go with this waffle.

- DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given HERE

Wins Produced and Win Score are 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

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