When the Houston Rockets make a move, I pay extra attention. With Daryl Morey as general manager and top analysts Sam Hinkie, Ed Kupfer and Eli Witus all on the payroll, the Rockets make use of statistical analysis in a manner unlike any other NBA team. That has played a role in unconventional moves like taking lightly-regarded Carl Landry with the top pick of the second round of last year's draft. In terms of boldness, that decision pales in comparison to the one Houston agreed to last week. The Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that the Rockets agreed to send backup guard Bobby Jackson, rookie Donté Greene, next year's first-round pick and cash to Sacramento in exchange for talented but volatile forward Ron Artest in a deal that cannot be completed until Aug. 14 because of the inclusion of the recently-signed Greene.
While dealing for Artest is surprising, it's not a move that reflects Houston's use of statistical analysis, at least superficially. The numbers merely confirm Artest's reputation as one of the league's most valuable players when properly focused and motivated. I was a little surprised, in looking up Artest's adjusted plus-minus numbers, how consistently he has rated near the NBA's leaders. In 2005-06, numbers compiled by David Lewin put Artest sixth in the league in terms of his on-court impact adjusted for the quality of his teammates and opponents. Last year, BasketballValue.com rated Artest as 4.84 points better than average per 100 possessions, his worst single-season rating dating back to 2004-05 but still among the NBA's top 40 players.
Despite that performance, the Kings have been looking to move Artest since last year's trade deadline. Artest wasn't a huge problem for Sacramento last year, but he was a nuisance, whether in his occasional ill-begotten attempts to control the team's offense or his recent public flip-flopping on whether he wanted to stay with the Kings after deciding not to opt out of the final year of his contract.
How will Artest fit in Houston? That figures to be one of next season's most fascinating and entertaining storylines. A smaller role--whether he starts as an undersized power forward or comes off the bench, and deferring to Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming as the go-to options when all three players are on the floor--could prove challenging for Artest.
The biggest factor in Houston's favor in terms of making this all work is head coach Rick Adelman, who coached Artest for the second half of the 2005-06 season in Sacramento after a midseason deal with Indiana brought Artest to the Kings. That was one of Artest's happiest and most successful stretches of basketball, and the Kings closed the season 26-14 after posting an 18-24 record prior to the trade.
If Adelman and Artest click as they did with the Kings, it's easy to envision a scenario where in which Artest could be very valuable to the Rockets. Houston has been looking for an offensive leader for its second unit, a role the Rockets hoped another former King, Bonzi Wells, would fill last year. The emergence of rookies Landry and Luis Scola helped give Houston more punch last season, but when either McGrady or Yao is out of the lineup--something the Rockets simply have to accept is going to happen for extended stretches every year--having Artest as a second player capable of creating his own offense could make a big difference.
A focused Artest also gives Adelman options at the end of close games. He can go with last year's starting lineup of Rafer Alston, McGrady, Shane Battier, Scola and Yao, a traditional look. He can put Artest at power forward and match up with smaller, more versatile fours while having two stoppers on the floor. Or he could even slide McGrady to the point for stretches and have both Artest and Battier able to defend on the wings in a lineup where every player is 6'7" or bigger.
Greene was at least a year or two away from contributing for the Rockets, so the only short-term loss in this deal is Jackson. The expectation was that sophomore Aaron Brooks would wrest the role of backup to Alston away from Jackson this season, but having the veteran was a nice fallback option for Adelman. Houston could probably get by with a combination of McGrady, Luther Head and newcomer Brent Barry if need be, but none of those players is a true point guard.
If everything works, the Rockets have the potential to rank amongst the NBA's all-time top defenses next season. Already, Houston has been near the top of the league in Defensive Rating year in and year out, including finishing second behind the Boston Celtics last season. Adding another top-tier defender to the mix will make the Rockets' defense that much stingier. Though I've never believed Artest to be quite as good as his hype at the defensive end, at his best he is as disruptive as anyone in the league at that end of the floor.
At the other end, Artest has the ability to get Houston out of the long scoring droughts that plagued the team during its first-round postseason loss to Utah. It's not a stretch to imagine that with Artest and a healthy Alston, the Rockets would have won that series--even without the injured Yao. This deal moves Houston up slightly in the still-crowded Western Conference pecking order. I'd still call the Lakers and New Orleans the top two teams in the West, but there's scarcely any drop-off to the second tier that includes the Rockets, Utah and San Antonio.
The real beauty of this trade for Houston is that the Rockets are not depending on Artest for their success; he's something of a bonus. If Artest plays or behaves poorly in a game, he'll find himself on the bench. In the long term, Artest has only this final year remaining on his contract. If he doesn't fit in, Houston can simply move on. A veteran point guard and two late first-round draft picks is a small price to pay to take that kind of gamble.
The deal works for the Kings too. The time had come to move on and part ways with Artest, making a trade inevitable. The biggest thing the Kings get out of this deal is the opportunity for their young perimeter players--Kevin Martin, John Salmons and Francisco Garcia--to step into larger roles. Now, Martin is unquestionably the man in Sacramento, a role he's earned with his efficient scoring. Salmons steps into a full-time starting role with Garcia backing up both swing positions.
Given that center Brad Miller is the only veteran player left in Sacramento, it made sense for the Kings to continue to build with youth rather than flip Artest in a challenge trade for a player like Lamar Odom. Could they have done better than Greene and what figures to be a first-round pick in the 20s? Maybe. At the deadline, the talk was Artest for Denver's Linas Kleiza, a superior prospect. Still, the return was good enough not to wait for a better offer to come around.
Greene impressed observers at the NBA Summer League, averaging 22.6 points per game to rank second amongst all scorers. His Pelton Translation numbers were much less impressive. I don't necessarily take that as a huge strike against Greene, because he is awfully young and players with his skill set--long defenders who can stretch the defense by making threes--have historically been very valuable. What the Kings shouldn't expect is immediate contributions. That's acceptable because, in the wake of this deal, Sacramento's goals are long-term in nature.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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