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SECAUCUS, NJ, March 2, 2007 -- With about 25 games to go, we're all taking a close look at the standings and trying to project which teams will move up and which will move down. We're wondering if the Heat can hold on to a playoff spot without Dwyane Wade and if the Nets will continue to rise once Richard Jefferson returns.

Out West, one team that has already defied the laws of gravity is the Houston Rockets.

Last season, the Rockets got only 108 total games from Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, and only 31 with them playing together. What was projected to be a championship-contending season turned into the third worst record in the Western Conference.

This season, they brought in Shane Battier and through 26 games (although T-Mac had missed six), they stood at 16-10 (.615), the fifth best record in the West ... contenders once again ... with Yao continuing his ascension towards being the best center in the league. Then, in Game 27, the big fella goes down with a broken bone under his right knee and the word was that he'd be out at least six weeks. Sorry Rockets fans, the return to contention would have to wait another year.

Fast forward more than two months. Yao is still out, and the Rockets are still in the fifth spot in the West. In fact, their winning percentage since Yao went out is .613 (19-12) ... not exactly a big dip from the pre-injury .615. Sure, they've lost four of their last six, but not losing any ground in the standings since Yao went down is still impressive.

So, how have they done it? Let's take a look at some numbers before and after Yao's injury. For the purpose of this exercise, I'm putting the game in which he actually got hurt in the "After" category, since Yao played just six minutes in that game.

W L PCT OFF RAT DEF RAT PT DIFF REB DIFF
Before 16 10 .615 106.1 100.1 +4.96 +4.27
After 19 12 .613 108.2 101.1 +4.77 -0.13

OFF RAT = Offensive Rating: The amount of points the team scores per 100 possessions.
DEF RAT = Defensive Rating: The amount of points the team allows per 100 possessions.

So, they're a much worse rebounding team (+4.27 - their differential with Yao - would put them at third in the league) and their defense has taken a bit of a hit, but their offense has improved. How do you lose your leading scorer (at 25.9 PPG) and become a better offensive team?

Well, Dikembe Mutombo has certainly stepped up in Yao's place, but his scoring average only jumped from 1.7 to 4.9 points per game. No, the biggest difference has been McGrady.

T-Mac was scoring just 19.2 points per game before Yao went down. Since then, his at a 28.3 PPG clip. To further illustrate how has stepped it up, let's look at his numbers like we looked at Kobe, LeBron and D-Wade a few weeks ago, adding his points and his assists multiplied by 2.16 to figure out what percentage of the offense he accounts for.

Tracy McGrady
PPG APG*2.16 TM PPG PCT.
Before 19.2 13.61 95.2 34.5
After 28.3 12.72 96.1 42.7

So, while T-Mac's assists have gone down a bit (6.3 to 5.9), he's still clearly a bigger part of the offense with Yao out. Looking at it on a game-by-game basis, since Yao's injury, the Rockets are 10-2 when T-Mac accounts for more than (his post-Yao average of) 42.7 percent of the offense and they're 9-7 when he accounts for less. They're 0-3 when both stars are out.

But will that formula work when Yao returns (which could be soon)?

Nope. With Yao, the Rockets were 2-2 when McGrady accounted for more than 42.7 percent of the offense and 12-4 when he accounted for less. They were 2-4 with Yao and not T-Mac.

On the Boards

We shouldn't completely ignore those last six games, since losing to the likes of Boston and Atlanta should be troubling for a team in the Rockets' position.

W L PCT OFF RAT DEF RAT PT DIFF REB DIFF
Last Six 2 4 .333 104.0 105.3 -2.67 -5.17

The offense is down slightly, but the defense and rebounding have taken much more of a hit. Looking at the rebounding a little closer, I see that the area that they've taken the biggest hit on the defensive end of the floor.

For the season, the Rockets defensive rebounding rate* is 0.76, but it has been just 0.71 in the last six games. Their offensive rebounding rate has also taken a hit, but not as much.

*Defensive rebounding rate = Defensive rebounds / (Defensive rebounds + Opp. offensive rebounds)

Would Yao help? Certainly. But the there's not much difference in the offensive and defensive rates when you compare the numbers with and without Yao (so I take back that previous statement about them being a much worse rebounding team). The big difference in the rebounding differential number that we found above came from the opponents' total defensive rebounds. When Yao was playing, Rockets' opponents grabbed 29.3 boards a game. Since he has been out, they're getting 32.7 per.

And that basically generates from the Rockets missing more shots. Let's look at a few more numbers...

PACE FGM FGA PCT.
Before 89.7 34.6 77.4 .447
After 88.6 35.5 80.7 .440

Pace is the number of possessions the Rockets use per game. This has changed very little after Yao's injury and the Rockets are one of the slowest teams in the league either way.

The Rockets are actually taking more shots (their turnovers are down from 16.4 to 13.0 with Yao out -- a number that should definitely not be overlooked), but they're a much worse shooting team. Obviously, Yao is top 20 when it comes to field goal percentage, and before he got hurt, he was taking 18.5 shots per game.

Now, what I thought I would discover is that his teammates also shot better with him around. But, I was wrong. With Yao in the lineup, the rest of the Rockets shot just .424 from the field. Compare that to their .440 with him out, and we see that they have stepped it up in his absence.

Conclusion?

First, you have to applaud the Rockets for keeping their place in the standings without one of the best players in the league for most of the season so far. We can attribute this to them cutting down on turnovers and being a more efficient offensive team.

Second, you have to be a bit worried about the last six games, particularly with the boards. Still, while Yao is out, the offense should definitely be T-Mac heavy.

Third, the Rockets should take solace in that Yao's return will solve some of their problems, but his turnovers could make the offense less efficient again. He's fifth in the league with 3.81 turnovers per game and basically, the Rockets lost that 3.81, and the rest of the team only absorbed 0.41 additional turnovers per game.

Questions or comments? Get at me.