Did the Houston Rockets get better by subtraction this summer?
The Houston Rockets lost three key members of their rotation this summer, but did that subtraction actually end up helping them?
The Houston Rockets didn't have the summer they were hoping to have.
Daryl Morey created a unique window of cap space in which they could have signed a third star, matched an offer sheet to Chandler Parsons, and had a top heavy team with the chance to fill in the surrounding holes with cheap, veteran role players. He tried to pry Carmelo Anthony away from the Knicks. He tried to swoop in to extract Chris Bosh from the post-LeBron James Decision carnage. Neither plan came to fruition.
In the process of him trying to poach a star from other franchises, the Dallas Mavericks did the same to Morey. They threw a big three-year offer sheet at Parsons, which he signed. It put a rapidly declining shot clock on their offseason plans of the Rockets' summer. Before the buzzer sounded, Morey found a way to use his small window of cap space by signing Trevor Ariza to a four-year, $32 million deal. He then shocked quite a few people in the basketball world by declining to match the three-year, $46 million offer sheet to Parsons.
To create that small window of cap space prior to the free agency pursuits, Morey agreed to trade Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans and Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Asik deal ended up being a sign-and-trade for Ariza. He subtracted three key rotation players from last season's squad and ended up with Ariza, Alonzo Gee, Scott Hopson, a protected 2015 first round pick from the Pelicans, a 2021 second round pick from the Pelicans, and the rights to Sergei Lishouk. That's not exactly fair value return on those trades, especially when you factor in it essentially cost them Parsons as well.
The Rockets may be in better position now than they were a season ago with their roster and their rotation.
Isaiah Canaan will fill the backup role to Patrick Beverley at point guard, replacing what Lin gave Houston off the bench. Lin was better in his role than many gave him credit for. He was a solid defender and the team was 2.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor. The offense suffered a bit with him on the floor, but he was a scoring threat, created well for others, and was a little above average as a 3-point shooter (35.8 percent).
While Canaan will have to continue to adjust to the pro game, he's a much better shooter than Lin. He shot 41.9 percent from 3-point range during his four years at Murray State, and shredded opposing defenses in the D-League last season. As one of the main offensive threats for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Canaan put up 8.7 3-point attempts per game and made 36.9 percent. With the Rockets this season, he'll be much more of a complementary player, stretching the floor and taking better shots. Considering the Rockets shoot so many 3's (most attempts in the league) but are pedestrian at making them (16th in the NBA in accuracy), adding a better shooter who can still play the point guard position in Lin's role could end up being a stylistic upgrade.
Losing Omer Asik is tough because he was a great team defender and insurance for a Dwight Howard injury or foul trouble. However, Asik's complete lack of being an offensive weapon other than catching and finishing around the rim also didn't fit in with Houston's style of play. He wasn't mobile enough to run a lot of pick-and-roll plays and he's horrendous at posting up. You also couldn't play him with Howard at all. In 104 minutes last season, the Rockets were outscored by 16.3 points per 100 possessions when Howard and Asik were on the floor together. The offense was abysmal at 88.6 points per 100 possessions and the two great defensive players couldn't prevent Houston from a defensive rating of 104.9.
However, there are two guys already on the roster you can play next to Howard. The Rockets were 6.2 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents with Terrence Jones and Howard playing together. Jones was the starting power forward for almost all of last season and will still fit as a complementary stretch-4 next to Howard. The key to the loss of Asik being addition by subtraction will be how Donatas Motiejunas fills the role of backup center.
Motiejunas is a 7-foot power forward/center who can stretch the floor a little bit, is a great finisher around the basket, can put the ball on the floor against a hard closeout, and is likely a lock to be a better free throw shooter than Asik. He just fits with the spread-out, free flowing style of the Rockets much better. The Rockets were also a surprisingly better defensive team with him on the floor than with Asik. They had a defensive rating of 100.4, a couple ticks better than the 102.1 with Asik. And when they put him next to Howard, Houston had a net rating of plus-18.1 in 243 minutes. They annihilated teams with this pairing.
Houston will also need replacing Parsons with Ariza to come through as an improvement. Based on their respective seasons in 2013-14, it is an improvement. In his two seasons with the Wizards, Ariza finally became a good 3-point shooter. In his first eight seasons in the NBA, he made just 31.7 percent of his shots from downtown, but improved to a 39.3 percent outside shooter in his two years with the Wizards. Assuming he's capable of keeping that accuracy up, the overall numbers across the board for these two players are about equal. The difference is Ariza is a much better defender than Parsons (although Parsons isn't a bad defender).
The Rockets were a better team defensively with Parsons on the bench, but the offense jumped up 5.4 points per 100 possessions when he played. While it's a different system with different talent and depth, the Wizards were a much better team on both ends of the floor when Ariza was on the court for them. Washington was 4.9 points per 100 better on offense and 3.7 points better on defense when Ariza played.
Throw in sharpshooter Troy Daniels having a full season with Houston, Gee being a nice role player off the bench, and the addition of Kostas Papanikolaou, and you could have a very nice rotation despite losing three key role players for last season. Morey didn't replace those guys with big named players, so it's easy to think they jettisoned them for nothing. This is the benefit of acquiring so many assets over the years though. You can plug existing players into those roles and possibly even be a better team overall.
Morey's plan for this summer didn't execute like he was hoping it would, but the Rockets were still prepared. They could be better off for it too.
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