Trending team: Houston Rockets winning with offense
Last week, ESPN Insider's John Hollinger took a look at how resurgent play from Kyle Lowry and the resulting benefit to Kevin Martin has helped the Rockets get back in the playoff race after a poor start to the season. What is worth noting is that Houston was hardly dismal on the offensive end even early in the season, when a leaky defense was costing Houston wins. As a result, the step forward Houston has taken on offense has made the team one of the most potent attacks in the league.
Through the end of November, the Rockets were averaging 0.6 points per 100 possessions fewer than their opponents typically allowed, making them a slightly below-average offense. In December, Houston has scored 6.0 points better than their opponents' average per 100 possessions. Only the San Antonio Spurs have an Offensive Rating so much higher than league average over the course of the season.
Even averaging their slower start with their stronger recent play, the Rockets rank eighth in the NBA with an Offensive Rating of 111.5 points per 100 possessions. The last time Houston was one of the league's 10 best offenses was 2000-01, when Steve Francis led a young core that placed the Rockets sixth in the NBA in offensive rating. Under Jeff Van Gundy, who arrived in Clutch City two years later, and current coach Rick Adelman, Houston has won almost entirely with defense. The Rockets' best offensive team of the past decade was the 2006-07 squad, which was slightly better than average. The Houston team that won 55 games and a playoff series in 2007-08 ranked 17th in the league in Offensive Rating. So if the Rockets are to return to the postseason after a one-year absence, they'll do so with an entirely different formula for winning basketball.
Trending player: LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland Trail Blazers
The four-game stretch preceding the Blazers' Christmas loss to the Golden State Warriors was Aldridge's best of the season. He recorded double-doubles in all four games, averaging 29.3 points and 12.8 rebounds per game. A number of factors came together to aid Aldridge's performance, including his ability to avoid foul trouble and stay on the floor for 40-plus minutes a night with the Blazers shorthanded in the frontcourt, as well as the team's improved offensive creativity. The biggest reason for Aldridge's improvement, however, was his finishing at the rim.
Aldridge is perennially one of the league leaders in slam dunks--through Dec. 22, he ranked fourth in the NBA according to The Oregonian--allowing him to finish a high percentage of his attempts at the bucket. Per Hoopdata.com, Aldridge's shooting percentage at the rim last season (70.7 percent) ranked 10th in the league among players with at least 100 attempts at the rim. Aldridge shot at least 67.0 percent on close shots each of the previous three seasons.
For whatever reason, Aldridge was not finishing at the same rate early this season. Prior to his recent hot streak, Aldridge had been shooting just 57.5 percent at the basket area. That changed in a big way during his four-game surge. In those games, Aldridge missed just three shots at the rim in 29 attempts. Sixteen of them, The Oregonian reported, were dunks.
While Aldridge increased how many shots he took from close to the hoop (up from 5.4 per game to 7.3 during his hot streak), the biggest difference was in his finishing those attempts. That was reinforced by the loss to Golden State. Aldridge attempted 10 shots at the rim, a total surpassed this season only by the 11 at-rim attempts he had in Portland's previous game, but made just five of them. Whether Aldridge can continue playing at the high level he reached last week may be as simple as watching his accuracy at the rim.
Trending team: Cleveland Cavaliers slumping
The month of December has been significantly less fun in Cleveland. Sunday's 98-97 home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves left the Cavaliers in danger of completing the month with just one win. Beginning with their lopsided loss to the Miami Heat in LeBron James' return to Cleveland, the Cavaliers have gone 1-12 so far in the month, with two games left versus Orlando and at Charlotte before the calendar turns to 2011.
Through the end of November, a strong record in close games helped mask how much the Cavaliers were struggling. They won seven of their first 10 games decided by fewer than 10 points. Since then, Cleveland has lost four out of five games by single-digit margins, including Sunday's heartbreaker, in which Antawn Jamison missed the go-ahead attempt just before the buzzer. The Cavaliers' lone win came when they surprised the New York Knicks in overtime on Dec. 18. Improbably, Cleveland is one of just three teams to beat the Knicks this month, along with East powers Miami and Boston.
The Cavaliers still have yet to win a game this season by at least 10 points--the only team in the league remaining in that category. Meanwhile, lopsided losses are piling up. Cleveland has lost four games in December by 20 points or more, explaining why the Cavaliers now have far and away the league's worst point differential. They have been outscored by an average of 8.9 points per game. During December, that deficit has increased to 14.5 points per game. By contrast, at this time last season, the 2-28 New Jersey Nets had been outscored by just 11.2 points per game. With eight wins already, Cleveland is in no danger of threatening NBA records for futility, but over the past month, the Cavaliers have been far and away the league's worst team.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.