SALT LAKE CITY, UT - In our ongoing effort to dispel some of the urban legends surrounding the Houston Rockets, it’s time once again for another mythbusting expose on Rockets.com. Last week we tackled the misconception that Yao Ming is underutilized in the Rockets’ offense, and, not surprisingly, the response was loud enough that we’ve decided to revisit the topic later in this column. But before we get to that, let’s focus on a few other widely held, though erroneous, beliefs beginning with:
Myth: The Rockets can’t win close games
The timing couldn’t be better to tackle this subject given the result of Sunday’s thrilling, down-to-the-wire win over San Antonio. Much has been made of the Rockets’ fourth quarter foibles this season and there’s no denying the fact Houston would love to erase the bitter memories of faltering to teams like Chicago, Washington and Indiana down the stretch.
That said, Sunday’s win over the Spurs improved Houston’s record to 18-14 this season in games decided by 7 points or fewer, and it should also be noted that the Rockets are 8-4 in such games since the beginning of February (with all 12 of those contests coming against teams in playoff contention).
Think 7 points is being too generous when defining what is and what is not a “close” game? Then shift the number to 6 points and watch as the Rockets’ record transitions to a still-respectable 13-13. Move it down even further to 5 and Houston gets back over .500 with a mark of 13-11. In other words, no matter how you slice it, the Rockets hold up very well in nail-biters; especially given the fact they’ll be the first ones to admit there’s still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to late-game execution.
Houston’s record also falls right in line with long-term historical data which shows that close games are not much different than allowing your fate to be decided by the flip of a coin – that is to say that they’re essentially 50-50 propositions. But for fans who fear that the Rockets can’t get the job done when it’s gut-check time, these numbers should help bring about some peace of mind.
Myth: The Rockets can extend the contracts of Luis Scola and Von Wafer right now
No numbers necessary here. The NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement makes any sort of extension impossible. The rules state that a player’s contract must be longer than three years for a team to be able to extend him. Thus, Scola will be a restricted free agent which his contract expires while Wafer will be unrestricted. The Rockets can then attempt to re-sign both when their deals are done.
Myth: Yao Ming is a defensive liability
First, an admission: Like many of his fellow bigs, Yao does struggle at times when defending the pick-and-roll. Hey, there’s a reason why it remains the most effective play in basketball after all these years. Also, there are certain matchups which present their problems for Yao – Utah’s unique combo of Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer come to mind – just as virtually every other player in the league has particular opponents who are more problematic than others. But by and large, Yao is a very underrated defender. Here are a couple numbers to consider:
Yao currently ranks 6th in the league with 1.91 blocks per game
Yao ranks third among centers – and 7th among all bigs - in Team Defensive Efficiency when on the floor
Yao also happens to be an elite protector of the rim but this time, instead of throwing even more numbers (and, yes, they do exist) at you to hammer home the point, here’s an anecdote which is rather telling: Recently, one of the Rockets coaches caught up with one of his former players. The coach was offering some pointers, telling the player to expand his game by taking the ball to the rim more often, as opposed to merely settling for outside jumpers. The player took the advice to heart, but noted that it was easier said than done against the Rockets because when he drove the lane against Houston all he sees is “that big 7-6 dude in the middle” protecting the rim.
The public may never see Yao as an intimidator, but a growing number of players around the league recognize that easy baskets are hard to come by when the Great Wall is protecting the hoop.
Speaking of Yao, now’s it time to re-visit last week’s column and some of the response it received. Many of you probably read Jerome Solomon’s rebuttal for the Houston Chronicle in which he playfully poked fun at my alleged manipulation (or misinterpretation, if you will) of statistics. Naturally, I stand by the argument originally presented and passionately believe in the numbers used to make my case. That said, since Solomon engaged in a little manipulation of his own, I think it’s only fair that I return the favor by pointing out the flaws in his own research.
First of all, Jerome took me to task for “bragging” about Yao ranking 26th in the league in scoring opportunities. Obviously, I did no such thing. The far greater point was that bigs should be compared to bigs when it comes to scoring opportunities, since guards and wings will almost always have more given the fact they begin each and every play with the ball in their hands. So if any “bragging” actually took place (which it didn’t, of course) it was simply over the fact that when you put Yao on an even playing field he places 6th among all bigs in terms of scoring opportunities on a per minute basis and first overall among centers. And if you don’t trust my stats, feel free to confirm them by viewing Yao’s usage rate as calculated by ESPN.com’s numbers guru John Hollinger or the respected folks at basketball-reference.com.
Next up, Solomon takes issue with the fact that I didn’t account for offensive rebounds when exploring how some of Yao's scoring opportunities are created. Yet that’s a non-issue in this argument, given that Yao’s offensive rebounds per game are exactly the same as Tim Duncan and Chris Bosh (two of the bigs listed ahead of him in scoring opportunities and usage) and significantly lower than that of Dwight Howard (a player Yao actually bests in scoring opportunities and usage).
The meat of Jerome’s argument, however, comes in the form of his comparison of Yao’s percentage of team field goal attempts to that of the MVP seasons turned in by bigs of the last 27 years. On the surface, Solomon makes a compelling case. But it’s also where the most number manipulation takes place.
For ease of reference, here are the players listed as well as their percentage of team shots taken:
Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves (2003-04) ... 24.5 percent.
Tim Duncan, Spurs (2002-03) ... 22.1 percent.
Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers (1999-00) ... 24.3 percent.
David Robinson, Spurs (1994-95) ... 22.2 percent.
Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets (1993-94) ... 25.1 percent.
Moses Malone, Rockets (1981-82) ... 24.7 percent.
Yao Ming, Rockets (2008-09) … 15.8 percent.
But what Solomon doesn’t show you is just as important. Take a look at the minutes played per game by each player:
Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves (2003-04) ... 39.4 mpg.
Tim Duncan, Spurs (2002-03) ... 39.3 mpg.
Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers (1999-00) ... 40 mpg.
David Robinson, Spurs (1994-95) ... 38 mpg.
Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets (1993-94) ... 41 mpg.
Moses Malone, Rockets (1981-82) ... 42 mpg.
Yao Ming, Rockets (2008-09) … 33.3 mpg.
Quite a significant difference, right? Think Yao would take a higher percentage of his team’s shots if he were on the court an additional 6-9 minutes per game? Of course he would. However, the Rockets have wisely made it a priority to limit Yao’s minutes this season in an effort to keep him as fresh and healthy as possible, and I don’t think anyone believes that’s a bad idea. But for the purposes of this exercise, it certainly makes a dramatic difference (while also inadvertently demonstrating the importance of analyzing numbers on a per minute basis). Once the numbers are recalculated, Yao still lags behind The Superlative Six in overall scoring opportunities, but not by anywhere near the margin Solomon’s stats would originally suggest.
A couple final points: Of the MVP seasons listed, only Garnett and Duncan had to deal with the eradication of the league’s illegal defense rules which took place eight years ago, and those two players could be considered post-hybrids, given the fact they spend more time out on the wings with the ball (Garnett especially) than does Yao. It will require more number crunching on my part, but I feel as if it’s a safe assumption to posit that the advent of zone defense in the NBA has made it at least somewhat more difficult for traditional bigs such as Yao to put up shots in bulk.
Lastly, I think it’s worth pointing out that as wonderful a player as Yao is, he is not quite in the class of the players on Solomon’s list – at least in the areas of agility, explosiveness and hands; all of which factor into the equation when a team is attempting to feed the post and, just as importantly, when the opposition is doing everything in its power to prevent that from happening. If you’re going to compare Yao to the best of the best, then these things simply must be taken into consideration.
All that having been said, allow me to end with a point on which I suspect everyone – myself, the Rockets, fans and Solomon – can agree: The team would be well-served to get the ball in Yao’s hands even more; which is why the club works every day to plot, scheme and figure out new and better ways to do so - I said as much (twice) in my original column. As the Rockets most efficient and reliable offensive player, it’s beneficial for everyone involved to see Yao operate as the focal point of Houston’s offense. That much is true. The idea that Yao is grossly underutilized, however, is not.
The numbers reveal that reality. You just have to follow the right ones, that’s all.