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New-Look Rockets' Offense Still Stagnant

A Daily Babble Production

Perhaps, it's an issue of needing time to jell.  Maybe it is the lack of an upper-echelon guard.  There is a chance Rick Adelman just needs to do a bit more teaching with this team.  Of course, it is also possible that the combination of players, particularly the stars, isn't the right one.  Whatever the reason is, the Houston Rockets' offense is getting out of the gate slow for the second year in a row.

Last season, Rick Adelman arrived in Houston with the expectation that he would turn Jeff Van Gundy's grind-it-out defensive team into one that utilized the high-octane offense that worked so well in Sacramento.  Instead, the Rockets fell from 14th to 17th in offensive efficiency and remained a defensive powerhouse, placing second in defensive efficiency in 2007-08.

The team entered year two under Adelman with the acquisition of Ron Artest and the belief that a second year with the coach and the addition of a 20-point scorer would help add both continuity to the offense and keep the defense strong thanks to Artest's superb skills at that end of the floor.

The defense still looks solid.  But while seven games into the season is a bit early to panic, the offense looks dangerously bereft of effective ball movement.

Watching this Houston team play over the last week, particularly in their thrilling overtime loss in Portland on Thursday and their miserable blowout loss to the Lakers on Sunday, the early impression here is that the addition of Artest has only compounded last year's problems to this point.

Disclaimer: Again, and I can't stress this enough, we're seven games into the season, so it's worth being wary of getting too crazy with statistics.  Certain trends are not going to continue.  Yao Ming is probably not going to shoot 44.6 percent from the field for the duration of the year.  Sure, he could do with getting his shot blocked a bit less, but the guy has established himself as and still is a premier offensive player, and he is an efficient one at that.  At 28 years old, the likelihood is that he will get his legs back under him, and he'll be fine.

But the rest of the issues remain, starting at the top of the offense with Rafer Alston at the point.  Alston has taken a lot of heat for not being on the level with the West's elite point guards (see: Paul, Williams, Nash, Parker), and while he is no doubt not on or expected to be on their level, he has two major problems as the floor general for this team.  The first is that he doesn't get in the lane and break down defenses well at all, which prevents him from garnering easy looks for his teammates from the inside.

However, with a high-usage player like Tracy McGrady next to him in the backcourt, Alston could afford to take on a diminished role in the running the offense if he could shoot the ball well from the outside.  The recent exhibit of this that comes to mind is the job Damon Jones did alongside Dwyane Wade for the Heat in 2004-05, serving more as a floor-spacer for Wade than anything else.  Here's the problem for Houston: Unlike Jones (who shot 43.2 percent from deep that season), Alston is an efficiency disaster as a shooter.  His true shooting for his career is less than 50 percent, and he shoots less than 36 percent from deep. 

On Sunday night, the Lakers routinely allowed Alston to short-circuit the Houston offense by doubling away and effectively daring him to shoot.  Which he did.  Quite poorly, in fact: 3-for-9 from the field, 1-for-5 from deep, totaling him seven points to go with his single assist and three turnovers.  Sure, he is off to a particularly slow start this season, and he probably won't remain below 30 percent from both the field and beyond the arc for the season, but even an improvement to his normal levels of production wouldn't be anything to write home about.  Alston enters his fourth year as point guard for a team with at least two offensive superstars, and he has yet to really capitalize on the open looks that come with playing with such stars.  Sooner or later, it will be time to assess with a more heightened sense of urgency whether this team can succeed with him playing one of the two most important positions on the floor.

But the blame doesn't belong exclusively to Alston.  The two starting swingmen in particular are also fair game for questioning.  Both Tracy McGrady (two scoring titles, 22.3 points per game for his career) and Ron Artest (two 20-plus-points-per-game seasons, 16 points per game for his career) are high-volume scorers.  For those scoring at home, this is good. Scoring points is conducive to winning.  But they're also inefficient scorers.  This is not so good.  Requiring an excessive number of shots to score those points is less conducive to winning.  McGrady posts a career true shooting mark of 52.2 percent, but he hasn't matched that since 2005, and he has fallen below 50 percent in two of his last three seasons.  Artest sits at just 51.3 percent true shooting for his career. 

The bigger problem beyond simply the shooting figures is what happens once these guys get the ball.  This is a much larger issue for Artest as McGrady has a bit better history of being a distributor, but both players have that tendency to seem to decide before the ball is even in their hands that as soon as they have it, they are going to look to go, and that's that.  Again, as a more talented and more complete offensive player, McGrady is markedly better about making moves to get in the paint and getting good looks for his 'mates. 

As was bemoaned by Sacramento fans throughout the last two and a half seasons, Artest too often gets the ball and shuts down the offense.  He settles for the outside jumper more than he needs to, and he has that habit of putting his head down and trying to bull his way to the basket, which he doesn't have the quickness or finesse to do with much efficacy.  When there is not even an auspice of ball movement, it is extremely easy for defenses to collapse on one player and coax him into taking a bad shot.  Artest drove Kings fans nuts with this, and even as an outside observer, it was hard not to get frustrated with his 2-for-11 performance on Sunday, which was largely the result of poor selection.

(For the more succinct and entertaining version of that last paragraph, here's what my colleague Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty had to say in a recent email:  "He makes extraordinarily odd decisions on offense.  Repeatedly."  Ringing endorsement.)

Sure, McGrady and Artest are each going to have nights when he is able to fill it up and carry the offense on his own.  But that will only get this team so far, particularly against good defenses down the stretch.  The type of one-on-one-oriented offensive basketball that the Rockets have displayed recently almost assuredly has a lower ceiling than looking to spread the ball more crisply.  With Artest, McGrady, Yao, Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Brent Barry and Aaron Brooks (plus Shane Battier when he gets healthy), this team certainly has the weapons to move the rock a bit.

Finally, there is simply the issue of making better decisions with the basketball, although that seemed to be an issue more strictly isolated to the debacle in Los Angeles.  The Rockets looked patently sloppy throughout the final three quarters Sunday night, consistently throwing the ball into traffic in the middle of the floor and dribbling into trouble.  Brooks and Alston seemed to be at the top of the sloppiness facilitation list, turning it over eight times between them (though Yao added five of his own), and Artest and McGrady could have done a much better job picking their spots to shoot and to move the ball.  But though the Rockets had 19 giveaways on Sunday night, they sit seventh best in the league in both turnovers per game and turnover ratio, so it is likely that this won't be as much of a long-term issue.

One way or the other, this Rockets team, still expected to be one of the best this league has to offer this year, simply has to become more efficient offensively.  These guys don't have much in the way of excuses at this point.  They have the firepower.  They have the offensive-minded coach.  They have a supporting cast capable of getting points for itself as well.  Which means the ball movement, shot selection and shot-making needs to improve.

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