Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Houston Rockets

That bit I wrote yesterday about the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets having the best offseasons of the summer? Yeah, scratch that one. That was a glaring oversight on my part, because clearly no team in the league had a better offseason than the Houston Rockets, who, after years of tireless searching, finally landed President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey’s version of Ahab’s White Whale: a top 5 player in the league. That player, Dwight Howard, can be nauseating at times with his desire to play the crack-up, the clown, the immature teen who’s actually a late 20’s man, but the talent and production have never been a question. Howard had jokes all through his time in Orlando, and yet, he was always worthy of consideration as an MVP candidate as he came into his own.

In 2010–11, Howard reached the peak of his powers, leading the league in xRAPM (yes, even ahead of LeBron James); this just two years after Howard dragged this rather rag-tag bunch to the NBA Finals, going through James’ Cavs to do it. That season, which saw Howard working as a top 5 player by xRAPM (and most other metrics you might want to look at), was just the beginning of Howard’s dominance in Orlando, as he finished in the top 2 every year from then on, even including his injured and distracted final run in 2011–12 with the Magic. That last season in Florida, disappointing as it was, paled in comparison to the depths of disappointment Howard’s turn as a Los Angeles Laker inspired. Howard came back from his back surgery too quickly. He became frustrated over trying to fit in with Mike D’Antoni’s offense. He fell off, and to the eyes of many, he stopped trying as hard. For my own part, I believe he was limited mostly by injury and the lack of floor spacing the Lakers supporting cast had on offer to open up lanes for him to roll to the basket off of pick and rolls. He also, stubbornly, insisted on getting touches in the post, despite his dominance as a rolling finisher and his relatively pedestrian skills on the block. He was also clearly unhappy, as he bristled beneath Kobe Bryant’s unflinching iron fist and joyless assassin’s mentality. Even with all of those issues facing him, Dwight was in the league’s top 6 players by xRAPM, coming in with a still very impressive +5.54.

And now? Dwight gets to have fun again. He’ll have his new buddy Chandler Parsons with whom to goof and clown. Morey has made sure that the floor with remain spaced for Howard with bargain priced shooters filling out the wings. Oh, and Dwight will also get to play with James Harden: the league’s best shooting guard, even at his tender age of just 23, and one of the very best pick and roll triggermen in the game. This was the formula for Dwight’s dominance in Orlando, only Harden is so much better than anyone Howard was tasked with playing with in Orlando that it’s scary to wonder just how good these Rockets can be.

So what do the numbers say? The first projection I ran used Dwight’s performance last year as the baseline. By that measure, the Rockets appear to be a 55 win team.

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A playoff team, probably worthy of a round of homecourt advantage, even in the stacked Western Conference and a team that could contend for a title, even with a less-than-what-he-once-was Dwight. But what if Superman returns? What if Dwight is really, really back (as I suspect he will be: I think he just needed to get healthy)? Well, then the Rockets start to look a bit like world-beaters.

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62 wins, with a healthy, Orlando-level Dwight. This is the stuff of Rockets fans’ dreams. It’s not inconceivable, and it might not even be all that unlikely. Fans were right to criticize Howard’s relative lack of effort last year, but moving forward, there’s a lot of reason to believe the effort will return (as will, unfortunately, the terrible jokes), the fit is better, and Howard should be a year healthier. Add it all up, and I think that Superman returns for Houston this year. Maybe Dwight will even get his wish to “be epic.”

Image via flickr user Keith Allison

Update: This post from Brett Koremenos over at Grantland makes the point that the Rockets could potentially play Asik alongside Howard for extended minutes. I only projected Asik to play 15 minutes a night as a result of Dwight’s arrival, but if you bump Asik’s projected minutes up to 25 minutes a game, the Rockets become a 59 win team with last year’s version of Dwight and a 65 (!) win team with the Orlando version of Dwight. I doubt they reach quite that high, if only because Dwight and Asik together on offense would put them in less than optimal roles (spacing issues being the primary problem) which would have a negative effect on their respective offensive xRAPMs. On the other hand, the two of them on defense together would be seemingly almost impossible to score on in the paint.

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