Last preseason, we saw a glimpse of what newcomers like Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker would bring to the 2017-2018 Rockets.
The versatile additions showed glimpses of what was to come in a preseason game against the OKC Thunder. In that preseason game, there were a couple of possessions in which Paul George tried taking Mbah a Moute off the dribble. It was encouraging to see Mbah a Moute hold his own and keep Paul George out of the paint. In that same game, Tucker made his defensive presence felt with toughness, hustle and physicality. His fit in this Rockets scheme was evident from the get-go.
Now that the preseason is behind us, and the Rockets have played a handful of games, we have an inkling of what the new additions to the 2018-2019 Rockets roster will bring to the table.
The “Wing” Additions
James Ennis III
Man, is James Ennis III active or what? I loved the Ennis signing when it was announced and thought that he was the ideal guy on the free agent market to replace Ariza. He’s locked down a starting spot in the rotation because of how well he fits in the Rockets system.
Here’s a microcosm of how James Ennis III is who everybody outside of Houston thought Trevor Ariza was: You can see Ennis here grab a defensive rebound and sprint all the way to the opposite corner of the floor in about five seconds. The result? Great floor spacing and a Harden three. It’s easy to tell that Ennis III already has a great understanding of his role and what he needs to bring to the team: energy, defense, hustle, and floor-spacing. He even offers an element that an older Ariza didn’t offer, which is spacing the floor by running the court. His tendency to get out on the break and run the floor hard will help the Rockets starters and second unit play faster when it becomes advantageous to do so.
Here was Ennis’ net rating in the preseason:
Incredible. It’s also worth noting that he shot 56.3% from three on 3.2 attempts a game in the preseason. That 25.0 minutes-per-game mark should creep up to around 30 minutes in the regular season, as there are plenty of rotation minutes to replace after losing Anderson, Ariza and Moute. I envision four or five three-point attempts per game in the regular season, and if he can knock down, say, 36-37% or higher, he’ll be a great asset to this team.
Through three regular season games, here’s his net rating:
His numbers have normalized after three regular season games. It is worth noting that Ennis is shooting 42.9% from three on over four-and-a-half attempts a game in the regular season. Regardless, we’re looking at some pretty small sample sizes here. The main point is this: James Ennis’ athleticism, activity level and shooting make him a great fit for this Rockets team.
Since the NBA Draft, I’ve had push notifications turned on for Woj’s (Adrian Wojnarowski) tweets, and I’ll admit, I was shocked when I got the notification that the Rockets signed Carter-Williams. Then, one day while I was perusing Twitter, I found myself watching a three-minute montage of Carter-Williams blowing layups and making boneheaded plays during his 2017-2018 season with the Hornets. However, and it pains me to say this, Carter-Williams has looked pretty good in the Rockets system.
In the first preseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Carter-Williams had 19 points, missed zero layups, and was pretty active on the defensive end as well. He poked a good amount of balls loose, though he did get called for a couple of fouls on those plays. He cut to the basket at opportune times, finishing difficult layups in traffic. He also attacked off of aggressive close-outs with ease. He looked bouncy, and when he and Ennis were on the court at the same time, they really got out and ran.
I’ll say this about Michael Carter-Williams: Chris Paul and James Harden had defenses so broken down at times this preseason, that when defenders went to close out on an open Carter-Williams from the three-point line, the defenders didn’t even have time to process who they were closing out on. In a vacuum, an NBA defender is not worried about Carter-Williams from three. But when the defense gets broken down, and either Harden or Paul kicks the ball out off of a drive for an open three, the defenders didn’t process that Carter-Williams was the guy open. The defenders closed out on him as aggressively as if he was a competent shooter, and Carter-Williams just blew by them.
Though there have been instances in which this happened in the regular season. It also took less than one regular season game for an opponent to help off of Carter-Williams on defense in the half-court. That could be why Gary Clark got the first crack over Carter-Williams off the bench in the first quarter of the Clippers game (more on Gary Clark later.) And though Carter-Williams has made some great passes in the preseason and the first few regular season games, too frequently is he missing the open guy or simply not making the right pass. For these reasons, we may see Carter-Williams get phased out of the rotation.
It’s okay if the MCW experiment doesn’t work out. Carter-Williams was simply another Daryl Morey “bargain bin” acquisition: the guy has a three-minute YouTube compilation of missed layups, and Morey finds a way to make him a potential rotation piece. And to add to the Morey-ness nature of this acquisition, Carter-Williams’ contract was partially-guaranteed, with a very late guarantee date. They can waive him by 1/10/2019 and save $500K of his $1.76M contract if the situation sours.
Carmelo Anthony will likely come off the bench for the Rockets, but he’s going to be an important contributor to the team. He also may technically be disqualified from being considered a wing, as the preseason usage indicates D’Antoni will use him more as a four and a five this year.
Rockets fans who were hopeful to see any remnants of Olympic Melo should be encouraged. Here are some key advanced stats from his year with OKC:
For reference, the average effective field goal percentage (EFG%, above) in the NBA last year was 52.1%. Melo didn’t have a very efficient year last year, but early signs show that he’s going to turn that around in Houston. His advanced stats in four preseason games with the Rockets looked like this:
These stats are encouraging. This performance is night and day from his advanced shooting and usage numbers in OKC. His usage (USG%) is down ~30% compared to OKC and his true shooting and effective field goal percentages are up. These changes are the result of taking more efficient shots, as the Rockets system is allowing him to take more open threes and less deep twos.
The Rockets also posted him up at opportune times this preseason, mainly in situations where the shot clock was running down and Melo had a smaller defender on him. This strategy is a great way to use him to maximize his skillset, as well as maximizing efficiency, so long as he buys in. If he buys in, he will be a scary ancillary offensive weapon for this team.
Let’s take a look at his net rating this preseason, compared to last year’s preseason numbers in OKC:
This comparison is also encouraging, as it reinforces what we’ve seen so far this preseason. Melo went on to post a 5.2 net rating last year in the regular season in OKC, so look for his net rating of 2.1 to trend up as the season goes on.
Lastly, let’s talk defense. The team defense for the Rockets has looked shoddy after three regular season games, and perhaps some of that can be attributed to Melo’s arrival. But it’s not all bad. His basketball IQ has shown itself on defense, as he has played the interior passing lanes well, and his quick hands have allowed him to strip some players who tried backing him down. As I mentioned earlier, it appears he’ll be more of a four and a five than a traditional wing defender, so perhaps this helps mask his defensive limitations.
What a pleasant surprise Gary Clark has been. At 6-8 and 225 pounds, the undrafted rookie had the NBA body, the defensive ability, and defensive instincts coming out of Cincinnati. But his shot was way better than advertised in the preseason, as he hit a smoldering 55.6% from three on over three-and-a-half attempts a game.
Though that 55.6% clip is unsustainable, I think Clark’s play gives the Rockets an additional wing rotation piece that they weren’t initially anticipating. Clark is a very similar body type to Mbah a Moute, and he should be able to switch onto nearly any player and hold his own defensively. That, coupled with his athleticism and his seemingly improved outside shot, means that Clark could be a real rotation player this season. Here are some of his advanced metrics from the preseason:
Unreal. These numbers indicate that although he’s on a two-way contract this season, he earned a roster spot on the Rockets and he even saw first quarter action against the Clippers. Even if he’s not a contributor this year, and it looks like he will be, I’m very excited for Clark’s future. Simply put, he just makes sense in today’s NBA.
* Source: stats.nba.com