The Back Story (2012-13 Results, Clippers won season series 2-1):
The Big Picture:
The Clippers have a brutal stretch of games over the next three weeks (including two meetings with these Rockets). Seven of their next ten games are against playoff teams from last season, with two more games coming against the currently undefeated Minnesota Timberwolves. After a terrible loss against the Lakers to open the season, the Clippers bounced back with back-to-back wins against the Warriors and Kings, but there are still plenty of issues. They've allowed at least 100 points in every game and in fact have allowed more points than any other team in the league; they also have a pretty big problem as regards their back up big men. There is good news too of course -- Chris Paul has been amazing, and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have been pretty darn good in their own right, which makes it all the more painful when they have to leave the game for rest or foul trouble.
Prognosticating the fortunes of NBA teams is never easy. Smart people start with how the team did before, then look at the changes that occurred, and try to forecast whether those changes made the team better or worse. I've been clear that I feel like the Thunder got worse to the point where they should certainly not be the favorite in the West this season. The Spurs are a tough call -- more or less the same team that was seconds away from the title, but reliant on three aging players. The Rockets on the other hand are a team that clearly got better -- how much better is the only question. It's important to remember also that the Rockets not only added Dwight Howard in the off-season -- they also had re-worked their roster quite a bit at the trade deadline last year, so the November 2013 Rockets are different than the March 2013 Rockets, which were different than the November 2012 Rockets. But all those teams had James Harden, who will have the ball in his hands a LOT. Just three games into the season, the Rockets are one of only four teams that remain undefeated and their superstars are carrying them. Harden is among the league leaders in points at 26 per game and Dwight Howard is leading the league in rebounding with 17 per.
- Comparison of key metrics. These were two of the top six offenses in the league last season, and there's every chance that they will both be even better this season. The Rockets figure to have improved their defense with the addition of Dwight Howard, while the Clippers are hoping for defensive improvement from Doc Rivers' schemes. The jury's still out on that.
- A tale of two stars. Chris Paul and Dwight Howard came to Los Angeles to two separate teams in similar circumstances. They were superstars on small market teams coming to the end of their contracts who were traded to the second biggest market in the country. The conventional wisdom would have said that Howard staying with the Lakers was a given, while it was unlikely that Paul would re-sign with the traditionally hapless Clippers. Instead the opposite happened -- Howard left the Lakers in the lurch leaving them with a much diminished roster, while Paul agreed to lead a Clippers team that is expected to be a Western Conference power for the next five years. Howard went to the Rockets -- where he and James Harden will compete with Paul and Griffin at the top of the conference for the foreseeable future.
- Beverley and Lin. The Rockets acquired Jeremy Lin before they swung the trade for Harden last season, and Harden's acquisition considerably overshadowed Lin. In January the Rockets signed Patrick Beverley, a hyper-athletic point guard who had been playing in Europe. By the post-season, Beverley was in the starting lineup alongside Harden and Lin. Then in training camp, Beverley beat out Lin for the Rockets' starting point guard spot. Beverley suffered a minor injury in the first game that will keep out of tonight's game, forcing Lin back into the lineup. Clippers fans would recognize Beverley as a version of former Clipper Eric Bledsoe -- an athletic marvel wreaking havoc all over the court. The Rockets aren't super deep after dumping salary to make enough room to sign Howard, so they'll miss Beverley while he's gone, although they are plenty deep at point guard where Aaron Brooks steps into the backup role.
- Go Big or Go Small or Go Home. The Rockets starting lineup is a huge, twin towers thing, with Howard and Asik, two true centers. Then, when either goes to the bench, Houston goes small with either Omri Casspi or Chandler Parsons (both small forwards) playing the four. Although they have a couple of guys you could consider traditional fours on their roster, so far those guys have been in the rotation. It makes the Rockets a difficult team to match up with at all times. When they're big, you have to keep Howard and Asik off the offensive glass or they'll kill you. When they're small, you have to stay home on shooters. And of course you have to attack their shortcomings on the other end as well, since mis-matches go both ways. When the Rockets do go small, it will give Doc Rivers an opportunity to match them with a small lineup of his own, playing either Jared Dudley or Matt Barnes at the four.
- Jordan vs. Howard. If DeAndre Jordan wants to be a Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA, he can look to Dwight Howard for a role model. There aren't many players in the league possessing the combination of size, strength, length and athleticism that Howard has, but Jordan comes pretty close -- which is why Rivers is so high on his potential as a disruptive force on defense. The battle between the two will be one of the keys to this game.
- Length on Griffin. I don't know which of the starting Houston big men will get the assignment of defending Griffin, but they're both long, and Griffin has at times struggled against length in his career. The difference this season is that Rivers has him stepping a little further away from the basket and facing up more this season, which is a good approach against Howard or Asik. Griffin will want to use his quickness facing the basket against them, and also look to create for others by drawing the attention of one or both of the Houston centers. It wouldn't hurt if he could hit a couple of 18 footers.
- From underrated to overrated in one simple step. James Harden is a terrific player, there's little question about that. But I really question how he could have gone from 26th to 4th in ESPN's NBARank in a single season -- a season in which he was a far less efficient scorer than he had been in Oklahoma City. Harden is obviously great, but is he truly the fourth best player in the NBA? I will say this -- it's pretty clear that LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul (in that order) are the three best players in the NBA, it's not at all clear who is really fourth. I guess Harden could make a claim to it. If he really is that good, then paired with Howard, the Rockets should be really, really good this season.
- Best bargain in the league? You can make a pretty good case that Chandler Parsons is the best bargain in the NBA right now. It's tough to compare him to a star lottery pick like Kyrie Irving or Damian Lillard, putting up big numbers on a rookie contract. But Parsons was a second round pick last year (he was taken one pick after the Clippers selected Trey Thompkins, fyi) and all he's done is start 136 of 151 games for the Rockets. He's skilled and athletic, makes .385 of his threes last season and is a terrific perimeter defender. And here's the kicker. The Rockets signed him for four years at a bargain price, less than a million per season. That's less than a million a year for your starting small forward FOR FOUR YEARS. So yeah, best bargain in the league.
- A overrated bargain? But here's the thing: if Harden is a little overrated by NBARank, Parsons is considerably overrated. Consider these two per 36 minute stat lines from last season:
PTS REB AST STL BLK FT% FG% 3P% PER Player A 14.4 6.4 2.2 1.4 1.1 .744 .462 .342 15.5 Player B 15.4 5.3 3.5 1.0 0.4 .729 .486 .385 15.3
Similar players, right? If I told you that both players are small forwards and both are considered good defenders, you'd probably have trouble deciding which one was the better player based on their stats. One is a slightly better shooter and passer -- the other is a little better in all the hustle stats like rebounds and steals and blocks. Player A above is the Clippers' Matt Barnes, who received an NBARank of 136 from ESPN. Player B is Parsons, who was given a rank of 58. Some players suffer a backlash from being overpaid, causing people to undervalue their actual contribution since it is below what they are being paid. I think the opposite has happened with Parsons. He's a very nice player and an incredible bargain -- but is he the 58th best player in the NBA? Not yet he's not.
- Stopping Harden. The Clippers have a very respectable wing rotation with J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley and Barnes and Jamal Crawford coming off the bench. But neither starter, Redick nor Dudley, is a great individual defender, making the task of slowing Harden tonight a daunting one. I assume the Clippers will play it straight up, with shooting guard Redick assigned to Harden to start the game -- but Dudley and Barnes will take their turns on him as well. This will actually be a very good test of how far the Clippers have come in Rivers defensive system. Stopping Harden will mean helping and sealing off the strong side -- which will mean rotating to get bodies on Howard and Asik. They won't be perfect, but it could be a long night if they aren't at least pretty good.
- One man's trash. At this time last year, Francisco Garcia was a bad contract on a bad team. A seeming throw-in to the trade where Patrick Patterson went to Sacramento, Garcia re-signed with the Rockets this summer, taking a pay cut from $ $6.1M to the NBA minimum. Through three games this season, he is Houston's most important reserve and fourth leading scorer. He's made half of his 20 three pointers this season.
- Three point shooting. The Knicks and the Rockets were first and second in total three pointers made in the NBA last season, making more threes than any other teams in NBA history in the process. While the advanced stat movement hopes to come up with significantly more insights over time, one of the more obvious ones so far is that teams should take more three pointers. A fairly straightforward points-per-shot calculation shows that the three most efficiently places from which to score are the free throw line, at the rim, and behind the arc -- especially in the corners. The Rockets have embraced this information strongly, and will put up plenty of threes. Harden, Garcia, Parson and Lin will take the most, but Casspi and Brooks will not be shy either.
- Connections. Unless I'm missing something, no one on the Clippers roster was ever a Rocket, and no one on the Rockets roster was ever a Clipper, which doesn't happen very often in an NBA game (though the Rockets being the youngest team in the NBA means they haven't been around a ton). DeAndre Jordan was born and raised in Houston. Parsons and Griffin played AAU ball together as teenagers. Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson was the coach at Oklahoma before Blake Griffin arrived in Norman and had a hand in recruiting him. Rockets trainer Keith Jones used to be the Clippers trainer. Both the Rockets and the Clippers moved to their current cities from San Diego, making San Diego the only city to have lost two different NBA teams.
- Get the Houston perspective at The Dream Shake.
- Shakespearean reference:
Love's Labour Lost, Act V, Scene 1 -- Don Adriano de Armado
Sir, the king is a noble gentleman, and my familiar,
I do assure ye, very good friend: for what is
inward between us, let it pass. I do beseech thee,
remember thy courtesy; I beseech thee, apparel thy
head: and among other important and most serious
designs, and of great import indeed, too, but let
that pass: for I must tell thee, it will please his
grace, by the world, sometime to lean upon my poor
shoulder, and with his royal finger, thus, dally
with my excrement, with my mustachio; but, sweet
heart, let that pass. By the world, I recount no
fable: some certain special honours it pleaseth his
greatness to impart to Armado, a soldier, a man of
travel, that hath seen the world; but let that pass.
The very all of all is,-but, sweet heart, I do
implore secrecy,-that the king would have me
present the princess, sweet chuck, with some
delightful ostentation, or show, or pageant, or
antique, or firework. Now, understanding that the
curate and your sweet self are good at such
eruptions and sudden breaking out of mirth, as it
were, I have acquainted you withal, to the end to
crave your assistance.
The last game, against the Kings, I had a dozens of Shakespearean references from which to choose. But rockets didn't exist in Shakespeare day -- there was no such word. There were however fireworks, and that the closest thing to a synonym I can find that will work.
I must admit however to being far from an expert on Love's Labour Lost: never seen it, never read. It's a comedy, and that's pretty much what I know. Back in 2000 Kenneth Branaugh made it into a movie featuring, among others, Alicia Silverstone and Clipper fan Matthew Lillard. So there's that.