Texas Full Court Press

All things NBA for Texas, and only Texas

First Impressions and Interstate Battle: Rockets 113, Mavs 105 11/1/13

According to Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper:  Rules and Tools for Performance Analysis, one of four keys to determining victory on the hard court is free throw attempts and makes (the other three are offensive rebounds, field goal percentage, and turnovers forced).  The idea is not hard to grasp.  Free throws should be free points.  An ingredient of a NBA player’s job which he is compensated millions to do should be to hit a respectable percentage of his free throws, and the more attempts he can aggregate and cash in on, the higher percentage of victory for his team.

In the first Texas matchup of this fledgling season, the Rockets prevailed over their neighbors to the north in a matchup that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates.  The Rockets won the battle of free throw attempts 51-25 partly due to the Mavs’ hack-a-Howard strategy to climb back into the game.  Congruently, the Rockets shot a paltry 66.7% in large part because of Dwight Howard’s 5-12 performance from the charity stripe.

For the Rockets to realize their contender potential (which in my opinion means advancing to the Western Conference Finals), free throw percentage will have to improve.  Thankfully for their sake, the season is still nascent.  The worst FT% of the four conference finalists in the 2012-13 season was Indiana at 74.6% per NBA.com

The Rockets as a team were fourth in free throws attempted for the 12-13 season with 2087.  That number rounds out to be about 25.5 attempts per game; however, Houston also lead the league in possessions per game at 98.64 which inflates the free throws attempted.  In fact, three of the top four teams in free throws attempted from the season prior were also in the top five for possessions per game.  Houston will definitely not shoot a ridiculous 51 attempts per game, but the point must be emphasized, the percentage must go up.

Houston stalwart James Harden possesses a canny proficiency for drawing shooting fouls.  Watch as he drives the lane on the Mavs and purposefully draws contact from Samuel Dalembert.

While some detractors will accuse Harden of flopping in this instance, the move to draw contact is actually quite clever, and aspiring guards at the high school ranks would be wise to emulate such moves.  Harden sets up Dalembert with a simple lunge towards the basket as if he’s going for the layup, but the intent all along is to run into Dalembert once the center compromises his body’s defensive positioning.

Another detail to be wary of pertains to the Rockets’ pace.  As already noted, Houston lead the league in possessions per game last season in large part due to a system predicated on attempts from three-point range or at the basket.  Houston’s roster bolstered a fleet of wings proficient in getting to the basket and drawing help defense.  The player could then either kick out for three or dump off for the easy lay-in.

The Rockets still push the pace, but they’ve also made a concerted effort to establish Howard on the left block early during games.  For his career, Howard has averaged 1.5 assists per game per Basketball-reference.com.  Since the 2002-03 season for players 6’10” and higher with a minimum of 7300 minutes played, Howard is 31st out of 78 players in APG.  That isn’t horrible, but it’s unequivocally average at best, especially when factoring the amount of Howard’s field goal attempts per game.

It will be interesting to see if the Rockets maintain this approach to mollify the happiness of their prized free agent acquisition, or if they begin employing their usual style as seen here with Omer Asik manning the five spot.

A last detail to make note of, Houston lead the Mavs 55-35 at 4:40 of the second quarter, but finished the half up only 61-50.  This was largely due to the Mavs switching to zone defense.  Houston’s style as mentioned already is predicated on drives to the basket, but in order to beat the zone, the Rockets must remember to keep moving without the ball and to not ignore players.

In this first clip, Jeremy Lin ignores a wide open Ronnie Brewer in the corner and drives into the Mavs’ paint clogging defense to no avail.

A few possessions later, watch how Brewer is utilized to stymie the Mavs’ zone.

It’s not hard to see:  Use every player to achieve the best shot in the end, and keep moving and cutting until the best shot opens up.

On the whole, the Rockets are in an enviable position with the talent their roster boasts.  They need improvement in a few ways, but then again, so does every team at this juncture.  However, Houston will be one of the more interesting teams to watch in their season long progression towards maturing into a contender.

First Impressions: Mavs 118, Hawks 109 10/30/13

As far as first games with a revamped roster are concerned, the Dallas Mavericks offense hummed at about as good of a pace as the team could have hoped for.  The Mavs shot 57.1% from the field, 45.8% on threes, out-rebounded the opposition 42-33, and assisted on 31 possessions.

While it is only one game, the Mavs points per one hundred possessions was 117.3 per NBA.com.  The Miami Heat lead the league in 12-13 in offensive rating at 110.3.  It would be incredibly ignorant to take this first game’s rating and extrapolate it for an entire season, but any moderately educated observer could see the Mavs’ offense certainly benefited from the infusion of quality play from the Mavs’ two newest guards.

Dirk Nowitzki looked rejuvenated constantly running the two-man game to perfection with Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis.  Each consistently drew Dirk’s man far enough away from the big German to open enough space for Dirk to get shots off unencumbered.  The spacing on offense also looked drastically improved with Calderon’s career 39.8% from distance forcing Hawks defenders to stay home on him, allowing successful cuts from Ellis, Carter, and Marion on several occassions.

A play the Mavs employed at least twice on offense involved Calderon entering the ball into Samuel Dalembert at the left elbow.  Ellis, standing in the left corner comes off a Calderon screen to take the handoff from Dalembert, and successfully made it to the rim where he was fouled.

The Mavs ran the exact same play a few minutes later in the quarter, but this time Ellis was forced to pull up for a long mid-range jumper due to the defender, Jeff Teague, not fully being taken out of the play on screens by Calderon and Dalembert.

If the Mavs can consistently exploit this play with Calderon and Dalembert successfully buying Ellis enough space to get to the basket, the Mavs will have a bevy of options.  Ellis can either take it all the way himself where he shot 61.7% last season, about 4% below league average per Hoopdata.com.  However, it’s been only since 2011 that he finished 69% of his attempts from that range.  Also, since the 09-10 season, Ellis has averaged at least 5 assists per game.  Should the help arrive in time to stymie any attempt for finishing at the basket, Ellis will have a panoply of shooters at his disposal to dish to whether it be Dirk, Calderon, or Vince Carter.

Another benefit of the new guards at hand is the ability to get into the flow of the offense instantaneously.  Gone are Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, and Rodrigue Beaubois, all guilty of shedding too much shot clock to set the offense up in 12-13.  Watch how quickly Calderon finds the right man to initiate the attack.

While the Hawks failed to get fully set in transition on this particular occasion, Calderon routinely made the pass that needed to stimulate the offensive attack all night.  It provided a better flow overall, and the results certainly support this.

A last newcomer to make note of is DeJuan Blair.  The 12-13 season was the first time in Blair’s career that he failed to go over 1000 minutes played for the season, and anyone who watched the Spurs playoff run could easily see Blair’s disappearance from the Spurs rotation.

Against the Hawks, Blair played the Elton Brand role to perfection, grabbing offensive boards at several opportune moments.  He also formed a nifty pick-and-roll partner with Ellis on multiple occasions in the second half and displayed the patience in his footwork and positioning to consistently provide a release valve for the ball handler.

If Blair can perform at this level on most nights, it will be interesting to see Carlisle’s rotation choices once Brandan Wright returns from injury.

Overall, it’s incredibly early to make any pronouncements on the potential of the Mavs, but for first games, it was certainly an auspicious performance.

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