Rockets showing worth of stat geeks
I hate fantasy sports right now. The utter implosion of my football teams over the last few weeks, culminating with the atrociousness that was Monday Night Football last night... I need a one-day hiatus from all things fantasy. So instead of talking about a roto trend in this space, I am instead going to write about real-life basketball. As I always say, understanding the sport will ultimately make you a better fantasy player anyway.
So today, let's use this space to recognize how the Houston Rockets are single-handedly proving how useful advanced stats can be at identifying and measuring quality basketball even when the normal box scores and traditional views don't see it. The Rockets are at about a 50-win pace, and if the season ended today, would make the playoffs in the highly competitive Western Conference, despite not having a single healthy player the casual NBA fan could even pick out of a lineup, let alone vote as an All-Star. How? I'm glad you asked.
PER. Offensive and Defensive Rating. Wins Produced. The family of +/- stats. Per-minute stats. There is no shortage of ways to evaluate the NBA now besides just looking at the outdated box scores, but the general public has been slow to embrace them in part because they don't always yield intuitive results.
"What use is a stat," the skeptic asks, "that tells me that Carl Landry (PER 24.1) is better than Kevin Durant (PER 23.7) or Dwight Howard (PER 23.5)?" The answer is, when used correctly, no single stat can say that one player is better at basketball than another - there are too many variables. But if you really know what the stat is supposed to be measuring, you can use it to find players that are very good at different aspects of the game that the box score doesn't cover. And that is exactly what this year's Rockets have done.
If you look in-depth into every player in the Rockets' rotation, they all have a history of shining in advanced stats even though they weren't well known. I pointed out how Landry is among the league leaders in PER this season, but he already had a high PER of 21.4 and a ridiculous net Offense/Defense Rating (+28) as a rookie while playing 17 minutes per game. His splits look even better now as a third year player playing only 26 minutes per game, and while he may never be the star that Kevin Durant is, don't be surprised if Landry one day puts up David West-type numbers on a team that lets him start.
Chuck Hayes has the lowest defensive rating on the team this year as a defensive/rebounding specialist, but he also had the lowest DRTG for the Rockets last year - and the year before. Similarly, while people focused more on Ariza's offense and 3-point shooting during last year's playoffs, he in-fact led those Lakers in DRTG as well.
Aaron Brooks had good per-36 minute stats as a rookie while playing only 12 minutes per game, and he posted almost the exact same per-36 minute stats as a second-year player in 25 minutes. So it's not shocking that in year three, when he's actually playing almost 36 minutes per game, he is producing the same stats as his per-minute numbers would have suggested. Similarly, Luis Scola isn't a stud in any one stat, but even as a rookie he was posting an above-average PER (16.1) and a great net Offensive/Defensive rating (+10). People looked at last season's playoff performance as a coming out party for Scola and Brooks, but in reality they had been a good prospects all along that just weren't getting the floor time.
Second point guard Kyle Lowry leads the current Rockets in on-court/off-court +/- at +10.7, a fact that isn't that surprising when you take a sneak peak at his last full year in Memphis and see that back then he also had a much better on-court/off-court +/- (+3.7) than his main competition for playing time Mike Conley (-5.8).
Shane Battier is good in a way that even the advanced stats we have access to have difficulty measuring, until you look at on-court/off-court +/-. Last season he was +4.1, the year before +3.5, the year before +4.2, and in his final season in Memphis he led the Grizz at +8.5 - even above Pau Gasol. The New York Times ran a great article last season about how Battier is a super-advanced stat star that in-fact uses stats and tendencies to make himself a better player.
All of these players aren't good in the exact same way and don't measure well in the exact same stats. That's the point, though. The Rockets matched excellent defenders with some very efficient producers and then mixed in some good volume producers that maybe aren't as efficient. In other words, they didn't fall into the "hey, this stat sucks for ranking a bench player above a star" trap, but instead looked at each player in depth and at exactly what the stats showed them when deciding to build the team.
In baseball the Oakland A's validated the principles of Moneyball on a low budget team, then the Red Sox showed how powerful it could be to marry those principles to a high-budget team. The Rockets are now fulfilling the same role in basketball that the A's did, earning the press clippings by showing what even a team without star power can do when built upon a strong foundation. Quietly, the Celtics already showed what could happen if you put an advanced stat superstar on a team with other strong/underrated stat-king sidekicks, but because of the hype of the "Big 3" the public didn't seem to catch on to the formula. Maybe now that the Rockets are shedding some light on this, it won't be long before more people recognize these advanced stats aren't just a novelty or an exercise in geekery - they really can change the way you evaluate the game and lead to better basketball understanding.
Situations to Watch and Quick Hits
Yi Jianlian (50% owned): As I mentioned above, Yi has returned with a bang and is still available in half of the Yahoo! leagues.
Jarrett Jack (41% owned): Jack is starting in place of the injured Jose Calderon, and over the last week he has averaged 15.3 points, 6.3 assists and 3.3 boards with only three turnovers total over those three games. He makes a decent short-term add until Calderon returns.
Jared Dudley (19% owned): Dudley has established himself as a consistent member of the high-scoring Suns rotation. He is playing about 30 minutes per game off the bench and contributing reasonable scoring, rebound and 3-pointers on solid shooting percentages.
Devin Brown (5% owned): Brown is on a streak of five straight games in double figures and eight straight games with at least one trey. He's coming off his best game of the season with a six-trey/22-point effort against the Bulls, and is averaging 10.9 points with 2.0 treys for the month of December. He makes a decent flex/shooter role player add in deep leagues.
Donte Greene (3% owned): Greene's role as a defensive stopper for the Kings earned him extra minutes this week, as in the past three games he has been called on to defend LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. Greene did a good job on defense to stay on the court, but he also had his best statistical week in a while with averages of 14.3 points, 1.3 treys, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks. He's still a reach at this point outside of very deep leagues, but he's worth at least keeping an eye on.
Article first appeared 12/29/09