Home Unfiltered Articles Players Baseball Prospectus
Basketball Prospectus home
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

Click here for Important Basketball Prospectus Premium Information!

<< Previous Article
Prospectus Preview (03/10)
<< Previous Column
Game Reax (02/23)
Next Column >>
Game Reax (03/18)
Next Article >>
Conference Check (03/10)

March 10, 2008
Game Reax
Probing the Rockets' Streak

by Bradford Doolittle

Printer-
friendly
Contact
Author

Let's say you are an avid Houston Rockets fan who has been slumbering in a coma since just before opening night because...well, that's just such a common scenario.

Happily, you're awake now and you can't wait to see how Yao and his yahoos are doing. You grab a paper and see that your boys are doing quite well, thank you. Houston is 42-20, a game out of the lead in the very tough Southwest Division. They're tied with…New Orleans? What has been going on the last four months?

The Rockets were well regarded in the preseason, so the strong showing isn't too surprising. That holds doubly true if you're a thinking NBA fan who follows the work of the analytical types, who as a consensus rated Houston as a title contender. All is well with the NBA world, you think, until you get to a computer and burrow down into the Rockets' game logs. Houston was solidly mediocre until Jan. 29 then, BANG-O. Eighteen Ws in a row. It's almost enough to send you back under…

An 18-game winning streak is shocking in any sport, a product of excellence, luck and just plain randomness. The NFL has seen exactly one in-season win streak that long, but this year's Patriots needed a couple of playoff wins to get there and still managed to see their campaign end in perceived disappointment. In baseball, there has been only one streak that long in the last 50 years. The Oakland A's did it in 2002 and went on to win 103 games that year, tied for most in the American League. Then the A's didn't make it out of the first round of the playoffs.

In the NBA, win streaks this long are more common, and the correlation between a long streak and genuine excellence is pretty strong. Here's a list that has been widely circulated over the last few days, with a few extra columns thrown in:

NBA's longest winning streaks

YEAR    TEAM     W  W/L   DIFF    N/S REC.    PLAYOFFS
1971-72 Lakers  33 69-13 +12.3  36-13 (.735)  Won championship
1970-71 Bucks   20 66-16 +12.2  46-16 (.742)  Won championship
1999-00 Lakers  19 67-15  +8.5  47-15 (.758)  Won championship
2007-08 Rockets 18 42-20  +5.1  24-20 (.545)  ---
1995-96 Bulls   18 72-10 +12.3  54-10 (.844)  Won championship
1981-82 Celtics 18 63-19  +6.4  45-19 (.703)  Lost conference finals
1969-70 Knicks  18 60-22  +9.1  42-22 (.656)  Won championship
Even without knowing the Rockets' eventual postseason fate, we can still see that Houston is anomalous even among the anomalies, posting just a .545 winning percentage in games outside of the streak and an overall point differential that is pedestrian by the standards of the other teams on this chart. The only other team close is the '81-'82 Celtics, who prior to this season were the only squad with an 18-game win streak that didn't bring home a championship.

What was it that analysts saw in the Rockets before the season that tagged them as contenders? Here's what I wrote about the Rockets at the time:

"The Rockets may be the most complete team in the West this side of San Antonio. NBAPET shortchanges them mostly because it doesn't know what to do with Luis Scola. But the reports on him are outstanding and what I saw of him in the preseason made me a believer. Yao Ming is my preseason pick for MVP."
NBAPET (which is my projection, evaluation and tracking system, if you're just tuning in) forecast a 49-win season for Houston. Since Scola turned out to be really good (2.7 wins added to date), you can dial that forecast up to 51-52 wins. The roster looked top-heavy with Ming and Tracy McGrady, who actually had a higher wins-added projection than Yao, but was chock full of average and above contributors like Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, Chuck Hayes and Dikembe Mutombo. NBAPET didn't know about Scola, didn't know that Luther Head would improve to league average and didn't know about rookie revelation Carl Landry. If it had known all of these things, NBAPET probably would have forecast a Rockets title.

That's just what ESPN analyst John Hollinger predicted on Oct. 6: "Betting on Adelman and T-Mac in the playoffs can be hazardous, but on paper these guys are loaded." Apropos comments because Rockets GM Daryl Morey is an "on paper" kind of a guy. He worked for Stats, Inc., did graduate work at MIT and once worked as a sports strategy consultant.

On the court, however, the season didn't start off too well for the Rockets under new coach Rick Adelman. After losing to the Celtics in their first game of the new year, the Rockets were 15-17 and in 10th place in the Western Conference. McGrady hadn't played since Dec. 23 and would not play again until Jan. 19. Houston's players were struggling with Adelman's offensive philosophy, which had worked so well for him in Portland and Sacramento. Much like Don Nelson, he believed in a sort of fast-paced controlled chaos, lots of motion and ball movement, with few designed plays. He wanted game flow and wanted his players to improvise.

The approach was a sea change from the way Houston played under control freak Jeff Van Gundy and the Rockets didn't take too well to the system. Before McGrady went down, too many possessions had little ball movement and ended with bad jump shots. The Rockets were averaging just 95.3 points on their 88.9 possessions per game, for an offensive efficiency of 107.2. Still, the Rockets were one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, with a defensive efficiency of 104.4. Their power rating in NBAPET, which is built from component statistics, placed them 10th in the league. This was one underachieving bunch.

About this time, a shaken Adelman decided to stop pissing into the wind. If it was designed plays his players wanted, then it was designed plays they were going to get. The full implementation of his motion offense would have to wait and, according to Van Gundy, now an excellent analyst for ABC, to date Adelman has only installed about 10 percent of his preferred attack.

The coach's newfound flexibility coincided with his decision to use Scola in place of Hayes as the starting power forward and to give the Argentinian hero the bulk of the minutes at that spot. While both players were productive, Scola provided an exponentially greater offensive threat with not much of a dropoff on the defensive end, a tradeoff that more than offset a little bit of a dip in rebounding. While Hayes has a slightly better effective field goal percentage (54.1 to 52.6), Scola's usage rate of 19.5 dwarfs Hayes' 8.1. Usage rates that low are the domain of defensive specialists, of which Hayes is one, but on a Rockets squad in need of scoring, Hayes was miscast as a starter.

Of course, the most important development in January was the return of a healthy version of McGrady. T-Mac was plagued by elbow problems early in the season, and when those improved, it was his left knee that plagued him throughout December and culminated in the nearly month-long absence prior to the games of Jan. 19. When he did return, he was healthy and for the first time this season, Houston was clicking on all cylinders.

That night is when it all started to turn around for Houston. The Rockets edged the Spurs 83-81 at home and won three more after that before losing to the red-hot Jazz at the Toyota Center on Jan. 27, the same day the conference championship games were played in the NFL. As we all know, the Rockets haven't lost since.

The key to the Rockets' streak has been the improved offense. Prior to Adelman's acquiescence, Houston's offensive efficiency stood at 107.2. During the streak, that rate has leaped to 115.4. The defense has also gotten better, improving its efficiency from 104.4 to 100.8, but it's the offense that has turned around the Rockets season.

We've already noted Adelman's philosophic tweak so let's look at the effect in numbers:

         FG%  eFG% TP/FGA FTA/G    OR%    A%  TOV   PPG  OFFe
before 44.3% 48.3%  24.3%  22.7  27.4% 58.0% 15.9  95.3 107.2
after  48.5% 53.8%  28.2%  20.4  25.8% 64.6% 13.9 102.7 115.4

The Rockets' effective field goal percentage has jumped more than five percent, a stunning increase. They're taking a higher frequency of three-point shots, going to the free throw line less often and grabbing a higher percentage of their own misses. Also, the rate of assisted field goals has increased by more than six percent. There is just a small correlation between that category and eFG%, but it is still meaningful to note an increase like this when it is accompanied by an 8.2 point increase per 100 possessions. The Rockets have been moving the ball better, getting better shots and hitting those shots at a phenomenal rate.

What else can we say about Houston's streak? Well, we can observe that it's come during a soft spot in the Rockets' schedule. According the way NBAPET calculates strength of schedule, the typical Houston opponent before the streak profiled at 42.1 wins per 82 games. That number is 36.8 for opponents during the last 18 games. Also, 12 of the 18 wins have come at home. Of the six road wins, just two--over Dallas and New Orleans--came against teams with winning records. That's not to denigrate the Rockets' streak, which is remarkable, merely to help explain it. Without checking, it seems likely that all the streaks this long came during soft spots in the streaker's schedule. The collective defensive efficiencies of the Rockets' opponents before the streak was 109.2. That figure has been 110.1 for opponents during the streak. It's a modest increase, not nearly enough to explain Houston's offensive improvement.

The Rockets' winning steak is really two different streaks because on Feb. 26, Houston suffered a stunning blow: The team's best player, center Yao Ming, was declared out for the season because of a stress fracture in his left foot. Besides seeming to doom the Rockets' title chances, the news is troubling foremost because when 7-foot-6 individuals start having these sorts of problems with their feet, it's never good. The names of Bill Walton and Zydrunas Ilgauskas immediately leap to mind.

In 1978, almost 30 years to the day Yao's injury was disclosed, the defending champion Portland Trail Blazers were riding high. Portland had won six straight games and at 50-10, the Blazers were a clear-cut favorite to win a second championship. Walton was having his best season, averaging 18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.5 blocks per game with a PER of 24.8, second in the NBA behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Walton would walk away with the MVP award that season, but he'd do it on crutches. A broken foot had derailed his season. Portland stumbled to an 8-14 finish and was dispatched by eventual champion Seattle in the West semifinals. Walton missed the next season, too. In fact, he never played for the Blazers again and Portland is still waiting on that second championship banner.

So that's the kind of history the Rockets were dealing with when Yao went down. But instead of deflating their collective spirit, the setback only seemed to propel the Rockets upward. Let's take another look at that last chart, this time with an additional row:

         FG%  eFG% TP/FGA FTA/G    OR%    A%  TOV   PPG  OFFe
before 44.3% 48.3%  24.3%  22.7  27.4% 58.0% 15.9  95.3 107.2
after  48.5% 53.8%  28.2%  20.4  25.8% 64.6% 13.9 102.7 115.4
no yao 50.2% 56.1%  31.8%  15.0  24.9% 58.7% 12.4 108.2 119.8

The Rockets have extended their streak by six games since Ming was injured. Their shooting has gotten even better, with an astronomical 56.1 eFG% figure over that span. They are shooting even more three-pointers, and have averaged just 15.0 free throw attempts per game. Assists, offensive rebounds and turnovers have all fallen since Yao went down. In effect, the Rockets have become a team that gets all of it's offense on outside shooting. With an offensive efficiency of 119.8 over their last six games, you can't argue with the Rockets' results, but you can worry about whether it can continue.

We'll get to that in a second, but let's first look further into what has happened to the Rockets since Yao's injury. Ming was averaging 37+ minutes per game. Those minutes have been replaced by giving more court time to Dikembe Mutombo (an increase of 13.9 minutes per game), Chuck Hayes (8.3), Luther Head (3.9), Carl Landry (2.6) and Luis Scola (2.2).

Here are the wins-added/3280 minutes figures for the players in question:

Ming    13.2

Landry  11.9
Scola    6.7
Hayes    5.6
Mutombo  3.5
Head    -0.6

There's not a loser in the bunch. Mutombo is actually an upgrade over Yao on the defensive end, though he can't provide nearly as many minutes. Scola's increase in PT merely brings him up to the level he should have been all along. The real story here is Landry. The 6'8" rookie from Purdue wasn't highly regarded coming into the season. As of Jan. 10, Landry had played in just three games for a total of just over 17 minutes. He started to get some court time around then and made the best of it. In my All-Star break review, I noted that Landry's 40-minute numbers (which currently stand at 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds) were startling. Those figures are often indicative of a player who deserves a larger role and in Landry case, he's made the best of his additional run.

Landry played so well that it allowed Morey to ship Bonzi Wells (along with Mike James) to the Hornets for Bobby Jackson. I'm not convinced that Jackson really has that much left to offer, but the upshot is that the trade opened up a rotation slot for Landry even before Ming went down. All of this is a testament to the wonderful depth at Adelman's disposal.

Let's face it: The Rockets have kept their streak alive because of uncanny outside shooting. With the way they've been shooting the ball lately, it's no wonder Houston hasn't missed Yao. Can those shots keep falling?

eFG% Houston's outside shooters

Player         Streak  Before  Career
Rafer Alston    53.9%   46.7%   47.0%
Luis Scola      58.7%   49.5%    ---
Luther Head     59.8%   50.2%   52.9%
Tracy McGrady   49.8%   47.6%   47.5%
Shane Battier   60.3%   53.9%   52.6%

With the exception of Scola--who we don't know about--all these players are shooting at a percentage that is way over their heads. All of them were shooting at career norms before the streak began. Back towards career norms all of them will go. When the shots stop falling, that's when the Rockets are going to miss Yao. Those shots may stop falling on Wednesday, when Houston visits the athletic Hawks, who are zeroing in on a playoff berth of their own and are in the upper half of the league in terms of opponents eFG%. (That's when the streak will end. You heard it here first.)

Streaks aside, the real question about the Rockets is whether they can advance deep into the playoffs without their best player. Because so much of their recent success has been built upon an unsustainable steak of hot shooting, it's really too early to answer that question. Perhaps Landry can pick up Yao's slack in the post, but once he gets up against the likes of Phoenix, San Antonio or Utah, that seems unlikely.

In the East, even a shorthanded Rockets squad would be a serious postseason threat. In the West, the weak are weeded out in a most unfeeling Darwinian fashion. The kneejerk reactions were probably on target. Like Bill Walton's Trail Blazers of three decades ago, the Rockets' championship hopes were likely dashed when their big man went down because of a little bone in his foot.

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

0 comments have been left for this article.

<< Previous Article
Prospectus Preview (03/10)
<< Previous Column
Game Reax (02/23)
Next Column >>
Game Reax (03/18)
Next Article >>
Conference Check (03/10)

RECENTLY AT BASKETBALL PROSPECTUS
State of Basketball Prospectus: A Brief Anno...
Tuesday Truths: March-at-Last Edition
Easy Bubble Solver: The Triumphant Return
Premium Article Bubbles of their Own Making: Villanova, Temp...
Tuesday Truths: Crunch Time Edition

MORE FROM MARCH 10, 2008
The MAAC Championship: Siena 74, Rider 53
From 341 to 65: Through March 9
Conference Tournament Previews: MEAC, MAC, W...
Conference Check: Final Reality Edition
Prospectus Preview: Monday's Games to Watch

MORE BY BRADFORD DOOLITTLE
2008-03-20 - Game Reax: March Madness Viewer's Guide, Thu...
2008-03-19 - Game Reax: March Madness Prospect Guide
2008-03-18 - Game Reax: March Madness Prospect Guide, Par...
2008-03-10 - Game Reax: Probing the Rockets' Streak
2008-02-23 - Game Reax: Trade Deadline Winners and Losers
2008-02-20 - Game Reax: Eastern Conference Midseason Repo...
2008-02-19 - Game Reax: Western Conference Midseason Repo...
More...

MORE GAME REAX
2008-03-20 - Game Reax: March Madness Viewer's Guide, Thu...
2008-03-19 - Game Reax: March Madness Prospect Guide
2008-03-18 - Game Reax: March Madness Prospect Guide, Par...
2008-03-10 - Game Reax: Probing the Rockets' Streak
2008-02-23 - Game Reax: Trade Deadline Winners and Losers
2008-02-20 - Game Reax: Eastern Conference Midseason Repo...
2008-02-19 - Game Reax: Western Conference Midseason Repo...
More...

Basketball Prospectus Home  |  Terms of Service  |  Privacy Policy  |  Contact Us
Copyright © 1996-2014 Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.