Better late than never I hope, here is the question and answer session I conducted with Tom Martin of the SBNation Houston Rockets blog The Dream Shake. As is almost always the case, I found his answers most enlightening -- no one knows these NBA teams better, or can convey the information to the average fan better, than the bloggers who follow them regularly. Many thanks to Tom for the great answers, and I owe you one since we ran out of time for me to answer any questions from him.Steve Perrin: Rick Adelman is now the head coach in Minnesota and Kevin McHale is in Houston -- it's like you guys made a trade (but you should have gotten some draft picks or cash considerations or something). I've always been a big fan of Adelman, but didn't have a positive impression of McHale from his coaching days in Minnesota. Nonetheless, McHale has kept the Rockets competitive this season. What's your take on the new coach so far?
Tom Martin: You know, I wasn't sure how it would work out immediately. I liked the hire from the start because while it's easy to bash McHale for his shortcomings as a GM, his coaching record -- though incredibly limited in tenure -- was actually fairly impressive. In a way, McHale overcame himself to win a few more games with the T-Wolves than people might have expected. The issue with McHale related more to his desire to coach rather than his ability to coach. I think he really likes coaching this team and it's paid off thus far. The Rockets have improved defensively and have rebounded the ball MUCH better than they have in years past. The offense is predictably choppier, but I'm impressed with how quickly McHale has adjusted to his roster. Fans had mostly pegged the Rockets' recent winning seasons on Adelman's ability to win more with less, but now we're seeing that this team may have a little more talent than we had thought.
SP: Houston is one of the teams that is having some success with a new approach -- a deep rotation and no superstars. (Denver, Indiana and Philadelphia are other teams in this mold.) McHale is not afraid to sit leading scorer Kevin Martin for an entire fourth quarter if Courtney Lee is playing well -- but of course it would be unthinkable for the Clippers to play a fourth quarter without Chris Paul or Blake Griffin. My question is, do you think this approach can work at the highest level, i.e. winning a championship? The conventional wisdom for decades has been that you have to build around superstars to compete for a ring (and of course Houston tried that with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady). You've seen both sides -- what are some advantages, if any, of the less star-centric approach?
TM: I think Moneyball summed it up nicely. The starless approach can easily sustain a team throughout a tough regular season and having seen the Rockets try to overcome bad nights from Yao or McGrady, the added depth is a blessing. There's also a sense of team unity that comes into play, because all year long, this team will hear about how it's not supposed to be winning. But, on the other hand, when it comes down to the most important games of the year against the league's premier opponents, it's my belief that you need some sort of "extra lift" that most stars bring. Call it whatever you want -- an ability to play outside the offense, an ability to "step up" in big situations, etc. Games between two very good teams all too often come down to the final minutes, and it's always nice to have a few "for sure" options that you know can run the offense impeccably. With a starless team, those late-game situations can too easily turn into an improvisational nightmare. So while I know teams like Philly, Houston, Denver and Portland must be feeling pretty good right now, it won't matter unless they take that success to the next level, and to me that's a difficult task. Detroit proved us wrong in the mid-2000s, but they did it by excelling in the most team-centric facet of the game: defense. This will lend Philly an extra hand come playoff time. As for the others? They'll have to hope their shots continue to fall amidst an increase in difficulty.
SP: What is the deal with all the 2009 lottery picks? Thabeet, Flynn, Hill, Williams -- all acquired via trade, none drafted by the Rockets. Is there some sort of master plan here that isn't immediately obvious to the outside observer? Is Daryl Morey planning to somehow acquire Blake Griffin as well, to make his 2009 draft set complete?
TM: The '09 Gamble never, ever worked out. Budinger's proven to be the best of the group and that's not something to be proud of. Hill hasn't panned out as many had hoped and Williams, Flynn and Thabeet have been glued to the pine. At the same time, Morey didn't pay much to acquire these players -- most of them were throw-ins in other trades. The only significant loss could be this year's draft pick, which Houston stands to lose to New Jersey (as part of the Williams deal) as long as the Rockets make the playoffs. I suppose Morey's rationale was pretty simple: He hoped one or more of these once-savored players could improve enough to warrant consideration from other teams in a trade, and it really never happened. They'll all be gone next year, with perhaps the exception of Budinger. And if Morey could acquire Griffin without sacrificing his soul (i.e. Kyle Lowry), we would need to seriously consider how he matches up with other presidential candidates.
SP: Kyle Lowry has been stellar this season -- I assume you wouldn't disagree if I called him Houston's best player. He's seen a major productivity increase in his sixth season, something that rarely happens in the NBA. What is different about Lowry this season?
TM: The funny thing is that Lowry's best ball came during the second half of last season, when the Rockets made their run back to .500. He's since seen his shooting percentages fall, but they aren't exactly dismal. I think once Adelman left and it was clear Kevin Martin no longer stood as the centerpiece of the offense, Lowry knew he had to fill the vacancy. He's played phenomenally given how much of the offense goes through him. I think a key development to his improvement is that Lowry is now confident in his outside shot, and that confidence allows him to use the entire court, as opposed to sticking to his old "drive, drive, drive!" mentality. He knows the team is on his back, and I think that motivates him more than it pressures him. He's savoring his opportunity to prove himself given his past doubters.
SP: Luis Scola on the other hand seems to be going the other direction. A super efficient scorer when he first arrived in Houston, his true shooting percentage is down around 51% this year, which is not something you want from your power forward. Has he just lost a step at age 31? He was great for Argentina in the FIBA Americas tournament over the summer -- is he just worn down from too much basketball?
TM: It took five years, but defenders finally began to realize that Luis Scola will simply not go left. He will not. He will go right, and he will only go right. He doesn't look too worn down, actually, but I think he's lost a little creativity. He's also in a new offense that relies more on his one-on-one ability and less on using his versatile skill set in a given area. The result? Fewer open jumpers, fewer back cuts for layups, fewer transition baskets (his real strength) and instead, more post-ups, which was never his bread or butter to begin with. Scola's below-the-rim game will keep him in the NBA for at least another four to five years, but I think for now, he's struggling to adjust to an offense that limits his off-ball movement. Oh, and he's still a terrible defender.