This year’s Blazers-Rockets series is a surprise candidate to top the short list of Most Entertaining Five-Game Series of All Time. Three of the four games played so far have gone into overtime, but, with the Blazers winning in both 48 and 53 minutes on Houston’s home court, Portland’s imposing 3-1 series advantage doesn’t feel like an unjust accident: the Blazers have been a united front in finding solutions in high-leverage situations, while the Rockets appear to be wildly oscillating between passive and aggressive infighting. The Rockets have both shoulders pinned to the floor and the referee is quickly moving through his count.
How has the league’s most notoriously statistically savvy team ended up on the ground like this?
With D-League three-ball ace Troy Daniels writing out a real-life script to a corny Disney movie before our eyes, Daryl Morey’s penchant for maxing out production from the bottom of his bench has been confirmed as never before. After earning $158,588 from the Rockets this regular season, Daniels has seized his place alongside playoff starters Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley as key Rockets contributors who are earning less than seven figures, a cluster of outrageously efficient payroll value. Blossoming power forward Terrence Jones is the team’s fifth-highest-paid player, for just above the price of a veteran’s minimum, at $1.5M. Using the threadbare budget of a clunky Philadelphia 76ers, Morey has assembled the better part of a rotation that deserves its spot in the thick of the unforgiving Western Conference.
While Morey has filled out his bench on the cheap, the crown jewels of his roster cost a bit more to acquire. You’ve heard of the team’s four highest-paid players; they’re among the league’s most reliable contributors of white-hot buzz. In July 2013, Morey moved opportunistically in signing Dwight Howard out of the shambles of a broken Los Angeles Lakers roster: if Dwight picks up his 2016-17 player option, he’ll earn over $20M every year through that season. In October 2012, Morey was just as opportunistic in trading for James Harden from a suddenly (and inexplicably) thrifty Oklahoma City Thunder team. Harden will be earning a max salary from Houston until the end of the 2017-18 season. It’s a lot of money. It’s most of Houston’s money.
The other two highest-paid Rockets were medium-echelon free agents that Morey signed to level-headed and cost-conscious deals in July of 2012. While Jeremy Lin has perhaps underwhelmed during his 3-year/$25.1M deal, he is still a reliable NBA scorer with the explosiveness to occasionally dominate a game, and his entire tenure in Houston comes at about the same price as a single year of Dwight. Morey has not hit a home run here, but he has not struck out, either.
The remaining of the four big-walleted Rockets has been one of the most confusing players to evaluate in 2013-14: Omer Asik. What to even make of Asik at this point.
I’ll tell you: Asik is a tremendous, game-changing, part-of-the-nucleus player…whose considerable value is almost totally negated thanks to the overwhelming on-court demands made by his needy, moody teammate superstars.
In the 2012-13 season, playing for the price of $8.3M, Asik was a colossal bargain, improving the Rockets’ defensive performance by 5.8 points every 100 possessions when he stepped on the floor. He didn’t miss a game and demanded zero sustenance on the offensive end, collecting almost twice as many rebounds as he had shots attempted.
In the 2013-14 season, playing once more for the price of $8.3M, Asik was one of the most burdensome contracts in the league. After missing zero previous games over his three career seasons, Asik sat out almost half the season with a bizarre maybe-injury that had only one symptom: an uninspiring listlessness that was perpendicular to Asik’s on-court personality of relentless and selfless effort. Asik compiled a career-low in minutes, good for only the ninth-most on his team, behind players who have found themselves rooted to the bench in these playoffs like Francisco Garcia or Omri Casspi.
With Asik’s starter’s minutes of 2012-13 getting redistributed to Jones and Howard, in their playoff-opening home defeats the Rockets have found themselves at the mercy of Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Heading into yesterday’s games, Aldridge was leading the playoffs in points scored, Win Shares, and PER, putting up a scoring average that approaches the legendary, at 35.3.
Don’t get it twisted: Aldridge is definitely a star in this league, even if his personality tends more towards Portlandia cameo than a national ad with viral potential. Coming off his fourth consecutive regular season of averaging more than 20 points a game, it’s fair to say that a realistic game plan will only hope to contain Aldridge. But the reason that LaMarcus has ventured up the SportsCenter run sheet in this series is very simple: he is being guarded by Jones and Howard more than he is being guarded by Asik.
No doubt taking their cues from team leader and noted defensive juggernaut Harden, the defense that Jones and Howard has delivered in guarding Aldridge has been uninspiring and inadequate. For most teams this is an unsolvable problem, resulting in a mad dash through every backup big’s six fouls.
In Asik, the Rockets have a solution that’s as close to perfect as possible. But by waiting until Game 3 to finally give Asik a start (and starter’s minutes) over Jones, the Rockets had already surrendered two 40-point games to Aldridge, their deficit in the series nearly unsurmountable. The Rockets have gravely misused Asik—by not using him nearly enough.
At 6’9″ and 22 years old, Jones is playing with a distinct lack of both size and veteran savvy. In the post, Aldridge is capable of using wizardly pivots that leave Jones behind LaMarcus, no dribbling from Aldridge required:
Jones will also, improbably, wander off of Aldridge, floating around the court aimlessly and unhelpfully:
But Jones is on Aldridge like a shadow compared to Howard, who gets lost way far away from Aldridge on a regular basis. By now the Blazers have figured out that using Aldridge in the pick-and-roll is basically a free pass to open up LaMarcus, as Dwight clumsily struggles his way through traffic in a way that’s unbecoming of a three-time Defensive Player of the Year:
The game looks quite a bit different when Asik is tasked with guarding Aldridge. Quite unlike Jones and Howard, Asik has a keen understanding that defense begins when the opposing team gets the ball, not when your specific man gets the ball. Compared to the free-range roaming that Howard and Jones allow LaMarcus, Asik is already bothering Aldridge from the earliest seconds of the shot clock. In a game built out of “skills that ya just can’t teach!” this is probably one of the easiest and simplest things to teach about basketball. It’s nothing more than putting in the effort and keeping your mind focused on the game:
By aggressively fronting, Asik bogs down the pace of the Blazers’ offense even when he’s off the ball. Note how the shot clock has dwindled with the set play only beginning to start its motion:
And when Portland does manage to get him the ball, Aldridge is forced to catch entry passes deep in the court’s corner, his momentum carrying him away from the basket. Again, the shot clock is hounding Aldridge along with Asik:
Despite all of Asik’s efforts, Aldridge is a talented enough shooter that he still manages to make baskets over Omer’s tenacious and invasive defense. For instance, even though Asik is basically entirely covering up Aldridge in this screen-cap, LaMarcus managed to sink the shot:
Houston’s defensive rating of 114.1 when Asik has been on the court in this series only looks good compared to Houston’s 119.0 defensive rating when Asik has been sitting. According to my informal tally, Aldridge has made shots at basically the same percentage on possessions when Asik has been his primary defender, compared to when other Rockets are doing the defending.
The reason that the individual stats are not friendly to Asik is because, in addition to guarding Portland’s biggest offensive threat, he is constantly forced to help out his backcourt teammates when they have let one of Portland’s many backcourt offensive threats into the key. Without a team-wide commitment to quality defense, Asik’s (entirely necessary) rotations leave Aldridge ready and open for easy shots, and the Blazers are keen enough to find him:
But there is no moment as poetically farcical as the following possession from Game Four. Aldridge has the ball and he is wide open in his sweet spot. Four Rockets stand flat-footed as Asik futilely runs to contest. (Asik had just switched onto Batum in a pick-and-roll; this picture shows the moment when Asik realized that Harden was not ever really going to follow through with the whole “switching” idea.)
There have been moments, brief but inspiring, when Asik and Howard have roamed the floor in unison, putting up an imposing and beautiful Twin Towers of defensive domination:
There is enough talent in that Houston locker room to propel the team into June. There is more than enough ingenuity in the front office to help get them there. But the attitudes, mindsets, and strategies involved are currently a bizarre, selfish, mismatching amalgamation that do nothing to maximize those talents. Collectively outsized expectations would leave the Rockets stinging if they were to exit in the first round. But a first-round exit would be exactly what this team deserves right now. They have yet to figure out how to use one of the best defensive players in the game.