Monday, November 2, 2015

Heat vs. Rockets

I was really looking forward to this game because these are two of the most interesting teams in the NBA right now. The Heat and the Rockets both have a ton of talent up and down their roster but they are integrating a lot of big pieces and trying to figure out their identity and who works well with whom. The good news for Miami is they have one of the best coaches in the business in Spo and he's not wasting any time moving guys around and aggressively looking for the best combinations. Kevin McHale's a little slower on the draw, which is one reason why Houston is off to such a slow start.
  • The big difference between the first half and the second half was that Miami stopped turning the ball over and letting Houston getting easy run-outs in the open court. Spo altered a few of his rotations and got some better combinations of players on the floor, which forced the Rockets to try and score in the half-court and made them look like they were running in mud. From there, Miami started going offense to defense and getting points the other way and things got out of hand pretty fast. 
  • The real key for the Heat was the play of Hassan Whiteside. He's freaking insane in the pick-and-roll game - he's big and long, he has great hands, he can play way above the rim and he's got a great feel for catching, taking 1-2 steps to move around guys and then dunking. He's a lot like Andre Drummond in that there's really no reason to post him up when you can get such great efficiency from having him roll to the rim. He did have a nice move when he faced-up Montrezl Harrell in the 3Q and that's really what he should be doing when he is isolating. He's long and lean and he doesn't have a great base of lower body strength so trying to score with his back to the basket isn't playing to the strengths of his game.
  • When he's locked in on defense, Miami really goes to another level. He had 2 blocks and 3 steals but there were still a lot of times when he was late to a rotation and not doing a great job of getting his hands up. Whiteside is kind of like what Javale McGee was supposed to be. If he can just continue to grow in terms of the mental side of the game, he's going to get a max contract in the off-season. If you don't believe me, look at how good he would look with the Lakers or the Mavs. Guys like him don't come around him all that often. 
  • The really interesting thing about the way Miami was playing on Sunday was that Whiteside played a lot better as a 4-out center with a wing next to him than with Chris Bosh. You are seeing the 4-out revolution in real time - even the most skilled 4's like Bosh and McRoberts have a hard time being as effective from 25+ feet than 3's who are playing as 4's. Bosh was way better as a 5 than a 4 and that's something you'll see Spo going to a lot this season. My guess is he'll have either Bosh or Whiteside as the 5 all game long and that adjustment should push Miami to another level.
  • The Rockets went with Trevor Ariza at the 4 with Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas out and Bosh had trouble taking advantage of him in the post. He didn't really get going in the game until he was playing in more space as the 5 and taking advantage of his speed advantage over slower 5's than trying to leverage his size advantage over smaller 3's. What kind of world are we living in where even Chris Bosh is struggling at the 4? The game is changing so fast these days it's insane.
  • What this type of line-up switch really means is that it squeezes Josh McRoberts playing time. I love McBob's game but he doesn't have the defense to play as the only big man in a spread floor and Miami is probably more dangerous putting smaller guys like Luol Deng at the 4 next to Bosh and Whiteside. When they do go with 2 traditional big men, I'd assume Bosh would get most of the minutes at the 4 in conventional line-ups.
  • The other domino effect is that it moves Amare Stoudemire out of the rotation completely, which isn't really a surprise if you were paying attention to him in Dallas and New York. He just can't move anymore and his defense is so bad it's laughable. The way to look at it is like this - he's only really effective as a small-ball 5 and minutes at small-ball 5 are some of the most precious in the league. That's a great position to succeed on offense so you have to be a really good player to justify getting any time in that slot. This is why I have faith in Spo - I knew it wouldn't take him very long to ice Amare out the rotation. He's a sharp guy and he's trying to win. He doesn't have any time for nonsense.
  • Same thing with Udonis Haslem. I know Spo has a soft spot for him but the NBA is a ruthless business and the margin for winning and losing is not very large. Just ask the Rockets right now. You had better maximize your line-ups and not leave any points on the board on either side of the ball if you want to keep up.
  • Deng kind of has to play at the 4 because he really doesn't have the lift in his legs or the explosiveness athletically to be a high-level 3 anymore. With so many ball-dominant guys in Miami, they need speed + shooting at his spot in the rotation and he provides a lot more of that as a 4 than as a 3. 
  • The other side of that coin at SF is Justice Winslow is playing so well that he's going to need as many minutes as possible. The only real concern about him transitioning right away was his ability to knock down 3's so if he can maintain that 3-point shooting percentage he has to be out there all the time. He's 19 with an NBA body - he can play defense on the perimeter right away and he's got a great feel for the game. He can already run the pick-and-roll game at a high level and create shots for other people off the dribble. The guy I comped him to coming out of Duke was Andre Iguodala - he's just a jack of all trades guy who can do everything at a pretty high level. It's just going to be a matter of how well his shooting percentages and offensive efficiency hold up over the course of an NBA season.
  • Wade doesn't have a ton of speed anymore and it was pretty jarring to see the Rockets put Marcus Thornton on him to start the game. The strength of his game these days is playing out of the post, running the pick-and-roll and trying to bust out the floater. It's crazy to say but I'd be more worried about him as a playmaker than a scorer and if he's playing with shooters around him I'd try to put a longer guy on him and hope to contain him 1-on-1. What's going to be key for him is being able to knock down stand-still jumpers, either as a turnaround in the post or from spotting off the ball from 3. I've been saying this for awhile - if he can make that Jason Kidd transition and start consistently knocking down 3's, he'll be able to play until he's 40, if his body can hold up.
  • Miami is still trying to figure out the combination of Wade and Dragic. There were a lot of times against Houston when Wade was holding the ball in the post and Dragic was standing around the perimeter not doing much. I think it's going to have to be a lot like Whiteside and Bosh so that one of their two star guards is in the game all the time, ensuring that they both get plenty of time with the ball in their hands. 
  • If they are doing rotations like that, the key is going to be finding three-point shooting from the supporting cast on the perimeter. For guys like Mario Chalmers, Tyler Johnson and Gerald Green, it's all about knocking down 3's because Miami needs that spacing from everyone else to open up the paint for their stars. That's why I'm high on Green this season - he can get really hot from 3 and I feel like he could have a big season just feasting on the attention that all the more high-profile players in Miami.
I was surprised to see the Heat so low on many of the pre-season projections because they have so many talented players. Like, man for man, is Houston THAT much more talented than Miami? The question is whether the Heat will be able to maximize all that individual talent and I have faith in Spo to be able to do that. The main thing to watch with them going forward is whether they can go small and maintain their defense or whether they feel the need to play bigger and how much that affects their offense. 
  • Where to start with Houston? I guess let's go with James Harden, who continued his abysmal start to the season with a 2-15 shooting line that featured an 0-10 performance from beyond the arc. The nice thing about Harden is that he's a well-rounded player so he can still impact the game with 14 trips to the line, 6 rebounds and 7 assists when his outside shot is off. There's not much more to say than that - he missed a lot of reasonably open shots that he normally makes. This explanation makes as much sense to me as anything:
  • The one thing with Harden in comparison to guys like Russ and Steph is that he isn't as ridiculous an athlete as Westbrook so he doesn't get as many wide open shots and he isn't as pure a shooter as Curry so he's not quite as dangerous from 3. The margin for error for him is smaller than with some of the other stars in the league, which you saw in the WCF against Golden State. Even when he was cooking against the Warriors, it was because he was making some flat-out ridiculous shots.
  • The real concern with Houston is the play of Ty Lawson, although an adjustment period was always going to be in the picture. 
    • The offense: They need him scoring the basketball. He got into the lane fairly easily but he was playing too unselfishly in terms of looking to distribute. The Rockets don't have the type of shooters to where Lawson can just be setting guys up all night. He's their 2nd best shot-creator and he needs to look for his own offense on a nightly basis so 1-3 from the field isn't cutting it. The concern is that he's not an elite shooter and he's so small that even the slightest loss in explosiveness and burst is going to really impede his ability to score in the paint. If he doesn't have the Tony Parker floater shot in his game, he needs to develop it yesterday.
    • The defense: Lawson's offense will figure itself out. The real concern is the defense. He's just so freaking small that there's almost nothing he can do. Goran Dragic was looking like a giant playing next to him and he could drive the ball right at him and post him up whenever he wanted. This is what happened to him in the Nuggets series against the Warriors in 2013 - where are you going to hide this guy on defense in a high-level playoff series? He's a great player but I really worry that playing him big minutes puts a ceiling on your team when it comes to the playoffs.
      • Lawson's play in 2013 was a low-key reason why I think Isaiah Thomas couldn't get paid two seasons ago. As great as he is on offense in the regular season, you have to be able to defend your position or at least hold your own on a cross-switch in the playoffs. Little guys like that are just going to get killed match-up wise. I feel like the league is really going to those all 6'6+ wing line-ups the Warriors use, which effects the more traditional big men but also the super small guards as well.
    • Here's another way to look at it - when was the last guy as small as Ty Lawson started on a championship team? Don't even say JJ Barea because that was an adjustment thing where Rick Carlisle took advantage of Spo falling asleep at the wheel and leaving Mike Bibby in his starting line-up until Game 6 of the Finals. 
  • I don't think it's a coincidence that Patrick Beverley was -5 and Lawson was -23 on Sunday, let's put it that way. Beyond the big picture concerns, Lawson's effort level on defense was just terrible. He might want to think about putting a body on Tyler Johnson at some point.
  • Marcus Thornton was a nice adjustment from McHale. He's going to have to play a lot for the Rockets this season because he's the one guy in their supporting cast besides Jason Terry whose a pure shooter. Houston has a ton of guys who fire up 3's but Thornton is one of the only ones whom you have to stick too on the perimeter.
  • Trevor Ariza at the 4 created some real advantages for Houston in the first half and he has the size to be a Harrison Barnes type when it comes to sticking bigger 4's in the post. As much as I love Jones and Motiejunas, I wonder if they get caught in the same trap that Bosh and McRoberts are in Miami when it comes to the way the league is moving at the 4 position. If those guys are going to be successful as modern 4's, they need the ball in their hands and that's probably not going to happen in Houston, although they do need to figure out how to find some shot-creation in their frontcourt to diversify their offense.
  • One thing I wonder with the Rockets is whether it might make sense to play bigger around Harden ala the Warriors with a bunch of 6'5+ wings who can shoot 3's and defend and Ariza a the 4. That's where KJ McDaniels comes in and he's someone who should get a chance pretty quickly if things don't start turning around. Go something like Thornton - Harden - McDaniels - Ariza - Brewer or have 4 of those guys and one of your rim-running 5's in the game.
  • Why did Clint Capela only play 14 minutes? That was the real head-scratcher for Houston. He's like a slimmer and smaller version of Whiteside in that he's crazy effective as a finisher in the two-man game. He's also a much, much better rim protector than Chuck Hayes and Montrezl Harrell and I really have no idea why McHale went to line-ups with those two at the 5 over Capela in the 2nd half. Plus/minus isn't everything but Montrezl was -18 as a small-ball 5 and Clint was +4. 
  • There's a lot to be excited about when it comes to Montrezl but I feel like he falls into a trap as a small-ball 5 that's going to be hard to get out of. He really can't space as a 4 and he struggled with the size of Whiteside when playing as a 5. When Dwight and Capela are healthy, I'm just not sure where the minutes are for Harrell, despite how efficient he has been on offense and how much energy he plays with.
I'm not terribly concerned about Houston and I think the key adjustment is going to be having one of Dwight or Capela in the game all long as the 5 and running them in pick-and-rolls with a spread floor. That should improve the defense and it should make the game a lot easier on Harden and Lawson. From there, they just have to make sure they get enough shooting and perimeter defense from the other spots in the rotation. The one area where they can bump their ceiling up is getting more offense from the 4 position from either Jones or Motiejunas. If those two guys aren't on their game, though, they are going to have to go pretty fast to Ariza and Brewer at the 4 and playing pure 4-out basketball.


  1. In the winter and spring of 2010, a high school basketball team from Houston made national headlines for obliterating their competition. The Yates Lions were consistently posting outrageous points totals (especially considering high school games are 32 minutes), and often were winning with near triple-digit margins. These outrageous drubbings caught a lot of attention, and lead national media outlets to crow about sportsmanship, but no one seemed to care that Yates was doing this, not by having the most talented team, but by playing a unique brand of basketball that blew me away when I witnessed it firsthand as a spectator during the state championship game on the campus of the University of Texas.

    Yates met Lancaster (a Dallas suburb) in the state championship game, and while the Lions came into the game riding a wave of national media hype, Lancaster’s five starters were all headed to division one schools and they had a definite overall height advantage. Despite having less talent and less height, Yates won the game, and won it playing in a similar fashion to the four-out revolution that you describe the Heat using now in 2015.

    Yates had two rim-protecting centers that they rotated back-and-forth based upon fatigue and fouls. The remaining four on the floor came from an arsenal of speed demon guards who looked as much like a 4x100 relay team as a hoop squad. The action all started on defense, where the four guards relentlessly pressed full court, but their press was different than anything I had ever seen. They denied the inbound, with each of the four guards face-guarding the non-inbounding opponents. The inbounder was left unguarded, and the rim protector played a deep center field ready to literally protect the rim. If Lancaster was successful getting the ball in bounds (a big if), the Yates players didn’t respond with normal basketball methods of using ball-you-man, or ball-you-rim principles. Instead they chased and funneled. The man guarding the ball handler allowed a clear path to where the rim protector was waiting, but chased closely behind, all the while swiping at the ball. The pressing guards resembled herding dogs nipping at the heels of sheep while guiding them to a pen.

    Thanks to this style, and the intensity in which they played it, Yates either forced a ball handling turnover, a contested layup, or free throws—they fouled at a ridiculously high rate. They had the depth to avoid foul trouble, and played with a general ethos that Lancaster was going to have to “earn” everything. Occasionally, Lancaster was able to kick the ball out for three-point attempts, but there was no such thing as a mid-range shot given up.

    When in control of the ball, a Yates guard sprinted to each corner and the two others hung out on opposing sides of the court, above free throw line extended, and the rim protector set ball screen after ball screen for whichever guard was in possession of the ball. It was pace-and-space on steroids. Traditional points of attack—the elbows, the short corners, and the blocks—were barren wastelands.

    The Four-out Revolution is changing the NBA fast and furiously, but it has been alive in high school hoops for over half a decade. I wonder if any of Yates’ defensive principles of chasing and funneling will ever take hold.

    Your thoughts?

    Thanks for the blog. It is great.

    1. Interesting comment.

      What you described is pretty much what Louisville did in 2013 when they won the title with Gorgui Dieng and Montrezl in the middle.

      I like the idea of constant ball pressure but I'm skeptical of how great it would work at the NBA level because of the quality of NBA guards and the grind of the NBA schedule.

      What I think the next great question in basketball is going to be is whether you can play better defense with 5 wings and switching every P/R or funneling towards 1 big man in the paint and leaving the jumper off the screen open.

  2. If the switch-everything defensive approach takes over, in a few years time, it will be interesting to compare the market values for guys like Shaun Livingston as compared to guys like Greg Monroe.

    Livingston has giant holes in his game but his main defensive strengths align perfectly in a switching system. As the game evolves his strengths could be valued higher than ever before--similar to drawing walks in the Moneyball baseball revolution.

    Monroe, and his ilk, have giant holes in the outside shooting and defensive versatility areas, and their ability to score 20-25 from the block, short-corners and elbows, may lose its value--similar to how Wins and RBIs in baseball carry much less weight than they did in years past.

    Monroe currently makes three-times the yearly wage as Livingston. It will be interesting if and when this flips for their style of players.