While everyone was looking at whether the Houston Rockets could figure out a way to trade for Carmelo Anthony, Daryl Morey went out and inked Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (LRMAM), who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, and who can also hold his own in the low post. It was a move that tipped the best offseason winner to Space City.
Make no mistake about it: While the Golden State Warriors are still the class of the NBA, this was a shot across the bow — perhaps even more than if they’d managed to work a trade for Carmelo Anthony, who is a terrific offensive player, but whose defensive effort is often questionable.
In 2016-17, the Rockets were the 10th-most efficient offense since at least 1973-74 (earlier than that is harder to say because offensive and defensive rebounds weren’t separated, and turnovers weren’t tracked; that makes possessions impossible to calculate). On the other end of the court, they were 18th on the season. Obviously, they needed defensive help more than offensive help.
This offseason, they lost one defensive piece in Patrick Beverley, but they’re suddenly looking like they could very well be a top-10 defense in the league next season. That’s because they’ve added pieces that can make a huge difference. While such things are hard to measure, we can estimate how much they’ve improved using Defensive Real Plus Minus, tracked at ESPN.com. DRPM approximates how many points per 48 minutes a player saves (represented by a positive number) or costs (represented by a negative number) his team on defense against what an average player would do.
First, let’s look a the data for the players who are on their way out:
It’s a bit surprising, but even with the loss of Beverley, the net impact on the outgoing players is negligible. The outgoing cost is just plus-0.721 points per game.
Now, let’s look at how much impact the incoming players are going to have. We don’t know for sure how many minutes they’re going to play, so we’re just going to estimate.
|Luc Mbah a Moute||PF||22.3||2.32||1.08|
So, big picture snapshot, with all kinds of caveats about switching teams and so on, the Rockets look to save about 5.29 points per 100 possessions. That would cut their defensive rating down to 101.11, which would have been third in the NBA, behind only the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors last season, according to NBA.com.
Of course, the next (and responsible) question is, what about those caveats? How will the pieces fit together? Does just slapping new players in place of old ones assure that they’ll have the same DRPM as they did before?
There’s a tendency to ask those questions and say, “stats don’t tell the whole story,” as though the part of the story they don’t tell will corroborate the side the arguer assumes they will. But let’s peel back some of these things a layer and determine if the 5.29 figure is high, low, or about right.
Chris Paul vs. Patrick Beverley
This is the most intriguing comparison. Beverley is the only plus-defender that the Rockets sent out. His DRPM doesn’t quite indicate how good he is, because the average DRPM for a PG was minus-0.852. In fact, the only point guard whose was higher than Beverley is Paul. Also, while Beverley was First -Team All-Defense, Paul was First-Team, too, but received more votes. Here’s how they compare based on Synergy numbers.
|Play Types||Paul, Poss||Paul, PPP||Beverley, Poss||Beverley, PPP|
|P&R Ball Handler||297||0.768||326||0.807|
As you can see, the two most frequent play types for the two point guards were the same, the ballhandler in the PnR and spot up. And in both instances, Paul was better than Beverley.
P-Bev took the toughest assignment in the backcourt and let James Harden take the easier one. Can Paul do the same? If this is any indication, then definitely.
Whether you’re looking at the numbers or the eye test, Paul is still an elite defender and an upgrade over Beverley.
The Rest vs. the Rest
I’m going to take the rest of the players going in and out as a group because it’s a little less direct than starting point gaurd vs. starting point guard. Harrell brought a lot of energy and was great off the glass. Sometimes we associate defense with energy because you don’t have good defense if you don’t have effort, but the opposite isn’t true. Just trying hard doesn’t ensure good defense.
Black will probably be taking up Harrell’s minutes, and he’s also a blue-collar dude. But he’s a better rim protector. When Harrell was the closest defender on the play within six feet of the rim, opponents shot 1.9 percentage points better than their season averages. When Black was in that same situation, they were 5.8 percentage points worse.
Adjusted rebound chance percentage is the percentage of rebounds that a player did get that were within reach, adjusted for when he deferred to a teammate. Black’s was 63.6 percent while Harrell’s 57.9 percent. So, not only did the Rockets get better inside defensively, they also got better on the glass with this switch. Now, it might be that down the road that Harrell becomes a better player. But right now, Black is.
Dekker and Wiltjer (but mostly Dekker) brought offense to the game and didn’t do much to help on the defensive end. If anything, Dekker was a bit of a liability, although he did improve as the season progressed. He was especially susceptible in spot-up situations, where he gave up 1.11 points per possession and ranked in just the 23rd percentile. That’s significant because it’s literally the most common play there is. A lot of that was because Dekker lost track of his man or missed the switch and got caught way out of position a lot. Opponents got a lot of open 3s because he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Wiltjer didn’t play enough minutes to warrant discussion.
And Lou Williams was just a disaster on defense. He’s a perfect example of how you can’t play well if you don’t play at all. His attitude on defense was utterly and completely indifferent.
Where the Rockets made a significant improvement is at the wings, with Tucker and Mbah Moute taking up the minutes that Williams and Dekker will lose. What’s really impressive is that they can both guard the 2 through 4, and even some 1s.
In particular, LRMAM’s versatility is worth discussing here. His percentile ranks for the various play types:
- P&R Ballhandler (74)
- Spot-Up (31)
- Post-Up (79)
- Isolation (92)
- Hand Off (83)
- Off Screen (36)
- P&R Roll Man (75)
Overall, he was in the 86th percentile. And the best part is that he’ll have the same role on offense that Dekker did, which was primarily as a catch-and-shoot player. Last season, Dekker’s effective field-goal off the pass was 49.4. Mbah a Moute’s was 54.3. So yes, they got better on defense with this move, but they got better on offense, too.
And while his spot-up numbers are a bit low, it’s a bit misleading. While Dekkers are lower because he was caught out of position, Mbah a Moute’s are negatively impacted by him coming over and helping out a teammate, thus getting charged for an error he didn’t make. Case in point:
Even accounting for context, its’ a pretty conservative estimate that the Rockets shaved four points off their defensive rating with the additions of Paul, Mbah a Moute and Tucker.
Morey’s genius wasn’t just in adding a superstar; he actually made the Rockets deeper in the same offseason. And that’s not an easy trick to pull off.
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