Ready To Start

Examining the Rockets' new starting lineup through its first 10 games
by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - No NBA transaction comes without a certain element of risk. The key when making roster moves, of course, is to do everything possible beforehand in an attempt to tilt the inherent risk-reward balance in one’s favor. When the Rockets made a pair of trade deadline deals last month, the potential big picture gains were readily apparent when evaluating what they received in return: the No. 5 overall pick in last year’s draft in Thomas Robinson; a valuable, early second-round pick from Phoenix; and increased financial flexibility going forward.

In the short term, however, the reality was the Rockets were going to have to reconfigure their starting lineup and rotation in the middle of making their playoff push. Gone were key contributors Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris and Toney Douglas. Now other players were going to have to step in and step up their games in order to fill the voids left behind – a responsibility that has primarily fallen upon Houston’s kiddie corps. Rookies Robinson, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley are being asked to contribute more than ever before. So, too, is second-year forward Greg Smith.

How have they done to date? In the ten games Houston has played since the new players arrived, the Rockets have gone 6-4 against a relatively weak strength of schedule (combined winning percentage of Houston’s 10 opponents: .435) – so not bad, with the best news being that it’s certainly been enough to keep the club smack dab in the middle of postseason contention. Credit the players, both old and new, for the job they’ve done during that span, and especially laud the coaches who have had the unenviable job of adjusting on the fly amid the heat of the playoff chase. There’s nothing easy about the challenge with which they’ve been tasked, especially given the fact it relies so heavily upon youth and inexperience.

To be sure, there have been ups and downs. The Rockets have had big wins against Dallas and Golden State, and dispiriting losses against those clubs as well. The low point was obviously the dropped game in Phoenix but Houston’s ability to take care of business at home against Utah Wednesday night went a long way toward easing the sting of that defeat since the win over the Jazz carried with it so many playoff implications. The Rockets are still quite clearly in search of their groove and a semblance of real, sustainable rhythm but they’ve been able to keep up with the beat long enough to stay firmly on their feet and that’s been crucial during this transitional stage, especially with the daunting schedule that’s due to come their way beginning this Sunday when San Antonio comes to town.

Of particular interest, both when looking forward and back, has been the play of Houston’s new starting lineup. As one would expect from a rookie receiving his first full dose of consistent, meaningful minutes this season, Motiejunas’ individual statistical production has most often mimicked the roller coaster nature of his club. Certainly his per-game numbers – 9.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 43 percent field goal percentage, 27 percent three-point percentage – during his 10 starts don’t exactly leap off the page.

The results of the unit as a whole, however, continue to reveal nothing but reasons for optimism. In 166 minutes of playing time (making it the Rockets’ fourth most used lineup of the season), Houston’s new starting five has produced a ridiculous offensive rating of 117.7 (by comparison, Miami’s NBA-leading offensive rating for the season is 110.4) and a surprisingly stingy defensive rating of 97.9 (that figure would rank No. 3 overall league wide). That quintet already boasts the Rockets’ top +/- total (+73 for the season; +71 since D-Mo moved into the starting lineup). Here’s a game-by-game breakdown of how they reached the latter number:

Feb. 27 vs. Milwaukee (+10)

Mar. 1 at Orlando (+5)

Mar. 3 vs. Dallas (+27)

Mar. 6 at Dallas (-10)

Mar. 8 at Golden State (+2)

Mar. 9 at Phoenix (-1)

Mar. 13 vs. Phoenix (+19)

Mar. 15 vs. Minnesota (+6)

Mar. 17 vs. Golden State (+12)

Mar. 20 vs. Utah (+1)

As always, the usual caveats when mining this data apply. Sample size, situation and strength of schedule must be taken into consideration. Every additional game from this point forward promises to provide a clearer and more accurate view of what this grouping can and cannot do. What they’ve done to date, however, is win just about every time on the floor – and that’s with Motiejunas still searching for his shooting stroke, something that will surely be found in time as his comfort level increases. And as D-Mo’s shot chart for the season shows, his three-point shooting from the left side of the floor – the area from which he takes the majority of his threes – has been plenty good enough to ensure opposing defenses should respect his ability to connect from long-range.

From the left corner and the wing, Motiejunas has knocked down 35 percent of his threes. From all other spots beyond the arc he’s connected just 19 percent of the time. Again, the sample sizes are still too small to make grand sweeping proclamations and, for what it’s worth, D-Mo says he’s comfortable shooting from either side. What’s most important, however, is that he is a threat from distance. And even when his shot isn’t falling, he’s still been able to help his team considerably by being in the right spots offensively, passing the ball well and utilizing his all-out effort and length to make up for the defensive deficiencies that nearly all rookies possess – contributions that have not gone unnoticed by his teammates.

“People might not think it’s great in terms of just D-Mo struggling to shoot the ball but we’re getting great shots and I’ve seen him hit those shots all season long so I’m really not worried about it,” says Jeremy Lin. “A lot of times what happens is, when you don’t play at all and then you get pushed into heavy minutes, you’re just not in that game rhythm yet.

“I remember last year when I started playing in New York – I missed my first 12 three-pointers or something like that. Sometimes that’s just how it is. But as time goes on, he’ll settle down, the game will slow down for him and he’ll start being the player we know he is.

“We’re all talking to him right now just because, as any young player, you need that, you need people in your ear. He’s never been through this. He’s been through it on a different level but not this level. I’m always on him. I’m telling him shoot, shoot, shoot because he’s a great shooter. If you don’t shoot the ball, it’s gonna hurt us. Even if you miss, it’s a good shot. The defense has to respect you, we’ll get offensive rebounds and that’s just the way our offense is predicated.”

As anyone who has spent five seconds around Motiejunas knows, confidence is rarely an issue for the 22-year-old Lithuanian. But knowing he has the full support of his teammates still goes a long way.

“It helps a lot. I’m happy that my teammates support me in that way,” Motiejunas says. “Basketball is a team sport and the open man is supposed to shoot. That’s the philosophy I have and that’s how I try to play.

“I have to bring a lot of energy and I have to do a lot of small things. When I started to play, everyone said this is my rookie season, no one will hold a place for you – you have to earn it, and you have to earn it by doing those small things.”

With his spacing, smarts and non-stop motor, Motiejunas is already doing many of the little things that enable his team to win during the majority of his stints on the floor. In time, the club will also be able to increasingly derive value from his adroit skill-set in the low-post as well. Yes, there was risk involved in the Rockets’ deadline deals. But based on the early returns, Motiejunas and the team’s turbocharged starting lineup have helped tip the risk-reward balance in Houston’s favor, pairing a bright short-term outlook with the Rockets’ potentially radiant long-term prospects.