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Saturday, March 15, 2008

T-Mac Proves Worth During Streak

The Houston Rockets have put together the second longest winning streak in NBA history. Think about that for a moment: the 2007-08 Rockets will forever have a place in the record book next to some of the most storied teams in the history of the league: the Chamberlain-West-Goodrich 1972 Lakers (33 straight wins), the Abdul-Jabbar-Robertson 1971 Bucks (20), the O’Neal-Bryant 2000 Lakers (19), the Frazier-Reed 1970 Knicks (18) and the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman 1996 Bulls (18) each won championships, while the Bird-McHale-Parish 1982 Celtics (18) were defending champions who eventually lost to Julius Erving’s 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, the only team that is ahead of the Rockets—at least in terms of regular season winning streaks—is the 1972 Lakers.

The tight playoff race in the West—where it might take 50 wins to get the eighth spot—is unprecedented and the flurry of trades that happened after the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol is remarkable but at least those things can be explained in some fashion: West teams are winning a lot of games because they have accumulated a lot of talent and that led to an arms race to acquire more talent for the stretch run. However, Houston’s winning streak seemingly came out of nowhere and remarkably did not end even when All-Star center Yao Ming suffered a season-ending injury.

An undeniable part of Houston’s success is the team’s gritty, stingy defense. The Rockets currently rank second in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage and are tied for fifth in point differential. Their performances in both of those areas have been off the charts during the streak, during which the Rockets tied a single-season NBA record by winning 10 straight games by at least 10 points. The Rockets rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring and are in the middle of the pack in field goal percentage but they are fourth in points allowed, a strong indication that former coach Jeff Van Gundy and current coach Rick Adelman have a better idea what pace the team should play at than critics who have been insisting for years that Houston should speed the game up. Adelman is renowned for coaching fast paced, high scoring teams in Portland and Sacramento and it was widely assumed that he would guide his Rockets to play similarly but instead he has done what good coaches do: evaluate his personnel and tailor his system to accentuate their strengths and hide their weaknesses.

When Yao got hurt, many people assumed that the Rockets were doomed but anyone who has followed the team closely since Houston acquired Tracy McGrady in 2004 should have known better. There is a stark and dramatic contrast between the Rockets’ record when McGrady plays (162-83, a .661 winning percentage) versus their record when he is not in the lineup (19-46, a .292 winning percentage). Prorated over 82 games, the Rockets have essentially performed like a 54 win team with McGrady and a 24 win team without him. This year, the numbers read 36-13 (.735) with McGrady and 8-7 (.533) without him, which prorates to 60 wins and 44 wins respectively.

What exactly does McGrady do that has such an impact on his team’s success? The two-time scoring champion is a major offensive threat as both a driver and a long range shooter, which means that he regularly commands double-teams. This opens up scoring opportunities for teammates who cannot create shots for themselves. McGrady is also an excellent passer and this facet of his game is overlooked not just by fans but even by commentators who should know better. Van Gundy, who is now an excellent analyst for ABC/ESPN, has done his best to educate people about this, repeatedly praising McGrady’s playmaking skills and unselfishness. During the Suns' 94-87 victory over the Spurs last Sunday, Van Gundy declared that anyone who really understands McGrady’s game would never have predicted that the Rockets would collapse without Yao.

During that same broadcast, Van Gundy and fellow analyst Mark Jackson each listed who they consider to be the second through fifth best shooting guards in the NBA (Kobe Bryant is the clear number one, in case you had not noticed). Jackson left the second spot blank because he said that no one is even close to Bryant and then he mentioned Manu Ginobili, McGrady, Allen Iverson and Richard Hamilton. Van Gundy put McGrady second, followed by Ginobili, Iverson and Dwyane Wade, who he said is not having a great season but belongs on the list from a talent standpoint.

People who do not like Bryant for whatever reason have latched on to Ginobili as their candidate to be the best shooting guard in the NBA. One big problem with that is that he is not even the best player on his own team. Everything the Spurs do offensively and defensively revolves around Tim Duncan; he draws double-teams that create open shots for Ginobili, not the other way around, as Van Gundy astutely pointed out. Van Gundy added, “There is no way that Ginobili could win 18 games in a row (now 20 and counting) with that (Houston) roster.” ABC ran a graphic showing that Ginobili is having a career year this season in terms of scoring (20.4 ppg), rebounding (4.9 rpg) and assists (4.7 apg) and Van Gundy immediately noted, “If McGrady had those numbers you’d call it a down year”; indeed, McGrady is averaging 22.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 5.6 apg, outdoing Ginobili in each area but not coming close to his career-highs (32.1 ppg in 2003, 7.9 rpg in 2002, 6.5 apg in 2006).

Great team defense and an unselfish collective attitude on offense are twin pillars of Houston’s success but without McGrady’s scoring, playmaking and ability to take over a game down the stretch there is no way that the Rockets would have put together this historic winning streak. McGrady recently said of Yao, “We’re a great team with him. We’re a great team without him”—but the numbers show that whether or not Houston is great depends much more on McGrady than it does on Yao. With McGrady, the Rockets can be great; without him, they are mediocre at best.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:12 AM

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