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November 2, 2007
Western Conference Preview
Takeoff in Houston

by Kevin Pelton


During his first summer in charge of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey wasted no time making the team over. Morey spent last season as the Rockets' assistant GM before replacing the retiring Carroll Dawson. He inherited a Houston team coming off of a disappointing Game 7 home loss to the Utah Jazz in the opening round of the playoffs, one that has the misfortune of playing in the same division (and same state) as the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs and the league's best regular-season team, the Dallas Mavericks.

Moving quickly, Morey fired Head Coach Jeff Van Gundy and replaced him with Rick Adelman. Bringing in Adelman allowed Houston to retain Bonzi Wells, who never fit with Van Gundy but was highly productive for Adelman the previous season in Sacramento. Morey bolstered the backcourt with a pair of former Rockets. Mike James, the team's backup point in 2004-05, came from Minnesota in exchange for a past-his-prime Juwan Howard before Houston brought back the former Franchise, Steve Francis, as a free agent.

The capper to the Rockets' summer came when they pried the rights to Argentine forward Luis Scola away from the rival Spurs, taking on the contract of center Jackie Butler (since waived) and surrendering only Vassillis Spanoulis--already headed back to Europe after one unhappy season on the bench in Houston--a second-round pick and cash.

The moves have drawn plenty of attention, including ESPN.com basketball Insider's John Hollinger picking the Rockets to win it all. Just how far can the Rockets go this season? That might depend on the answers to three key questions:

What effect will the coaching change end up having?

There isn't much precedent for Houston's coaching change. That's partially because, well, teams that win 52 games don't usually change coaches. More notable, however, is the huge stylistic change from the defensive-minded Van Gundy to Adelman, known for his offense. I asked a couple of people to try to come up with analogous changes besides the seemingly obvious one (Flip Saunders replacing Larry Brown in Detroit); the best they came up with was Don Nelson taking over for Pat Riley in New York in 1995 before being replaced by Van Gundy midseason.

More interesting was a different response: "My first thought," responded one person, "is to look back at Adelman and see if he really is an offensive coach."

Fortunately, Jazz pregame and postgame host David Locke has done some research that sheds light on that question. Here are the rankings in Offensive and Defensive Rating for Adelman's three teams (Portland, Golden State and Sacramento) along with the team's overall performance before, during and after his tenure.


Year         Coach          Off Def Wins 
1987-88      Mike Schuler    4   9   53 
1989-90      Rick Adelman    8   3   59 
Avg. 1990-93 Rick Adelman    7   2   55 
1993-94      Rick Adelman    8  12   47 
1994-95      P.J. Carlesimo  6   7   44 


Year         Coach          Off Def Wins
1994-95     Nelson/Lanier   18   25  26 
1995-96     Rick Adelman    13   20  36 
1996-97     Rick Adelman    11   28  30 
1997-98     P.J. Carlesimo  29   20  19 


Year         Coach          Off Def Wins
1997-98      Eddie Jordan    26  23  27 
1998-99      Rick Adelman    13  19  44*
Avg. 1999-05 Rick Adelman     6  11  56 
2005-06      Rick Adelman    12  13  44 
2006-07      Eric Musselman  15  22  33 
*lockout season projected to 82 games

Adelman's strong Portland teams won more with defense than with offense. His Sacramento teams featured terrific offenses, but were very good defensively as well. The Kings actually took more of a hit on defense than offense last year following Adelman's departure, which runs counter to conventional wisdom. Van Gundy's teams have been so consistently outstanding defensively, even when they have lacked elite individual talent on defense, that a drop-off at that end of the court is inevitable. Don't expect the Rockets to fall too far, however, especially since there are great defenders on the roster (most notably the perennially underrated Shane Battier, whom I picked First Team All-Defense a year ago).

Houston will be perfectly willing to make that trade if it means more balance than last year, when the Rockets were third in the NBA in Defensive Rating but just 14th in per-possession offense. The cornerstone talents--McGrady's isolation ability and the perpetual mismatches Yao creates in the post--don't exactly fit the Princeton-inspired offense Adelman used in Sacramento, but expect him to be more creative about taking advantage of their skills than his predecessor was.

How good is Scola?

Does "real good" cover it?

Considered for years as the best NBA prospect in Europe, Scola served further notice of his talent over the summer in the FIBA Americas Championship. All Scola did for an Argentinean squad playing without NBA vets Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni was average 19.5 points and 7.5 rebounds on 55.7% shooting, leading Argentina to a runner-up finish and winning MVP honors in the process. A preseason visit by the Rockets to KeyArena offered me a first-person look at Scola, and I came away as impressed as ever. Scola put up 10 points and nine boards in 23 minutes, and showed an innate feel for the game. I loved the way he ran a pick-and-roll with McGrady, slipping to the basket, taking the feed and finding Yao all alone for a dunk when the help defense came.

Sonics Head Coach P.J. Carlesimo, familiar with Scola from when the Spurs owned his rights, raved about the rookie-in-name-only after the game.

"You do see him, because he fills up the stat sheet," Carlesimo said, "but he makes so many plays you don't even see--he makes a little pass, he comes up with a loose ball, he tips a ball out--he's a basketball player. He does stuff that helps the other guys on the team. It's a great knack. He's going to help them unbelievably. It's scary how much better I think they can be--not that they were bad to begin with."

Scola is far and away the most complete power forward the Rockets have had next to Yao. Van Gundy felt comfortable with Howard, but his game had atrophied and his inability to finish in the paint meant opposing teams did not always pay for double-teaming Yao with a second post player. Scola can score inside and out and will protect Yao, to some extent, from that defense. The Rockets were +11.5 points per 100 possessions with Hayes on the floor last season, just +2.3 with Howard. Scola should produce a figure much closer to Hayes' mark this season, and that will be an enormous boost for Houston.

How will things shake out in the backcourt?

The contenders:

Player    Win%  WARP   TS%  Pass  Pos%

Alston    .486   4.3  .496  2.79  19.6
Francis   .513   2.5  .570  1.61  19.9
Head      .474   2.6  .584  0.55  18.7
James     .441   1.0  .529  2.36  20.8
Wells     .343  -0.9  .446  0.07  23.7

(WARP is Wins Above Replacement Player as measured by my personal rating system; Win% is the per-minute incarnation. Basically, it is looking at the player added to four league-average teammates, a la Marginal Lineup Value from Baseball Prospectus. TS% is True Shooting Percentage, Pass is my passing rating (assists per minute squared multiplied by assist/turnover ratio multiplied by 50). Possession percentage is what it says, the percentage of team possessions used by the player while on the court.)

Obviously, this doesn't include McGrady, who will account for about 36 minutes a night, most at shooting guard, though he might also play some small forward. Beyond him, you have a lot of average players. Based on these numbers, James and Wells appear to be the odd men out; both dropped way off from 2005-06, when James had 9.2 WARP and Wells 4.9.

Rafer Alston was a perfectly adequate point guard last year, if an inefficient shooter. What hurt the Rockets was having to play Alston 37 minutes a night with few other alternatives. Luther Head played backup minutes, but he is much better suited for the other guard position.

James is just two seasons removed from the career year in Toronto that earned him a big free-agent deal from Minnesota, but he could not repeat that performance for the Timberwolves. There was no shortage of signs that James had lost a step or two at age 31 (now 32). At the same time, James is a better outside shooter and defender than Alston, and those are the two most important qualities for a point guard in Houston. Alston shocked almost everyone by re-earning the starting job during camp, but he and James should end up splitting minutes more or less down the middle.

Amidst the turmoil of his lone full season in New York, Francis quietly had a pretty nice year. We think of him as a high-volume, low-efficiency gunner, but Francis settled into a smaller role last season and was actually very efficient despite shooting just 40.8% from the field. Francis hit 37.8% of his threes (a feat he'll be hard-pressed to duplicate) and got to the free-throw line more frequently per field-goal attempt than ever before in his career. Still, Adelman seems to have factored him out of his regular-season rotation, and Francis may not handle that well.

Wells is the biggest wild card after playing just 590 minutes a season ago. He was a great fit in Sacramento because Adelman's offense asked his guards to play close to the basket. That played to Wells' strengths, posting up smaller defenders and crashing the boards (he averaged a remarkable 7.7 rebounds a game for the Kings), and minimized his main weakness, outside shooting. Figure Wells to be much more productive this season, though it's tough to see where he's going to get many minutes with Head likely to back up McGrady at shooting guard.

Overall, the backcourt has gotten a needed infusion of depth that will prove especially helpful if McGrady misses time due to his troublesome back. Francis and a motivated Wells give Houston two players who can create shots in McGrady's absence. It's still worth cautioning that the improvement is more in terms of quantity than quality.

So where does that all leave the Rockets? The biggest move is replacing Howard with Scola, which should be worth multiple wins based on Howard's terrible plus-minus numbers and Scola's potential. That's scary when you consider Houston not only won 52 games last season but had the point differential (+4.9 points per game) of a 54-win team. The other changes aren't likely to have a major impact on the Rockets' regular-season record.

Of course, it's hard to predict Houston's record without knowing the health of McGrady, who missed 11 games last year, and Yao, who missed 34. McGrady's big night Thursday, a 47-point game against the Sonics, alleviates short-term concerns, but it's a long season.

The big question, however, is not about how many wins the Rockets have in April. It's whether, for the first time since the Olajuwon era, the team plays deep into the postseason. That's where it's worth remembering that last year's loss to Utah wasn't just about the Rockets role players struggling. Houston was hurt by Yao's inability to step out and defend either Carlos Boozer or Mehmet Okur on the perimeter.

As long as they have Yao at center, the Rockets' success will depend heavily on the matchup with opposing big men. Phoenix, with Amaré Stoudemire, and Utah are especially tough. Scola will help, because he will make opposing teams pay for going small at power forward to counter the Rockets in a way Howard and Hayes could not. The better Houston is overall, the less matchups will matter. Still, this fact makes it difficult to predict the Rockets' future. It's just as easy to concoct a scenario where they can outslug an opponent like Dallas or San Antonio en route to the championship Hollinger predicts as it is to imagine them losing to a team like Utah in the first round.

Western Conference Projected Finish (save for Seattle)

1. San Antonio
2. Phoenix
3. Dallas
4. Utah
5. Houston (with home-court advantage)
6. Golden State
7. L.A. Lakers
8. Denver
9. New Orleans
10. Memphis
11. Sacramento
12. L.A. Clippers
13. Portland
14. Minnesota

Playoff Predictions:

Western Conference: Phoenix over Houston
Eastern Conference: Chicago over Detroit
Finals: Phoenix over Chicago

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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