McHale Leads Surprising Houston Rockets Into Western Playoff Race

One of the quiet surprises in the NBA this season has been Houston. Kevin McHale took over the coaching position with a rebuilding project on his hands in a tough Western Conference. Yet, after a win over Portland last night, the Rockets would not only be in the playoffs if the season ended today, they’d be the #4 seed and hold homecourt advantage in the first-round. Now don’t read too much into that, because there’s a sharp drop-off from the West’s top three of Oklahoma City, Denver & LA Clippers and the 4 thru 11 teams are packed within two games of each other. Nonetheless, McHale has made Houston a team to keep an eye, so today TheSportsNotebook will look at them at a little closer.

If you want a reason to be skeptical of the Rockets’ playoff chances, you can start on the defensive end of the floor, where they’re a little below average in defensive efficiency (basically points scored adjusted for tempo), and they’re mediocre in rebounding. Houston has done it with an offense that ranks 6th in the NBA in efficiency and it is tough to survive a long haul relying exclusively on your offense.

The team’s best player is point guard Kyle Lowry. His 6’0” frame hasn’t stopped him from getting six rebounds a game and that’s in addition to solid conventional point guard stats with 15 points & 8 assists a night. The top two scorers for Lowry to target would be two-guard Kevin Martin and power forward Luis Scola. Martin scores 19 ppg, although at 6’7” you would like to see him crash the boards a little more and he’s not a great three-point shooter. Scola is good for 15 a night, but here’s another player that McHale needs more rebounding out of. Six a game won’t cut it at power forward if you want to make the postseason in the deeper of the two conferences.

Chase Budinger at small forward is an X-factor. His nightly average of 9 ppg won’t dazzle you, but he’s the best shooter on this team, hitting 46 percent from the floor and the only one who’s on the positive side of 40 percent from three-point range. In big games, I’d like to see Budinger step up with some big threes and create some more room for Lowry, Martin and Scola.

Center is a weak point, where 6’11” Samuel Dalembert averages an 8/8, something that’s more acceptable for a backup inside player than a starting center. Overall, McHale’s worked at getting more players extra time and tried to make up for in quantity what he lacks in quality. Rookie Chandler Parsons at small forward and second-year man Patrick Patterson at power forward are old SEC rivals (Florida & Kentucky respectively) and now vying for increased time. Courtney Lee is a decent backup to Martin, hitting 47 percent from the floor and Goran Dragic is capable of spelling Lowry at the point.

In a season that’s abnormally compressed, as the NBA tries to jam 66 games into a shortened schedule, Houston’s depth is serving at well, and I have to believe is a big reason they’re enjoying success. They’ve got quality wins over Denver and San Antonio, in addition to Portland last night, and also won up at surprising Minnesota.  But the weaknesses of the team can come out at inconvenient times, and they’ve dropped winnable home games to Milwaukee and to the same Minnesota team they beat on the road.

The immediate road ahead is…well, on the road. Houston goes to Phoenix tonight and then on to Golden State and Memphis. That takes them through Valentine’s Day and then they get to settle in for a nine-game stretch where eight will be at home. This will be a good time for the fans of Houston to come on out. The homestand includes good games against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Denver and the LA Clippers and getting teams like this in a spot where Houston should be the more rested, focused team, will give us a great case study for how much more we can expect of the Rockets.

March 6 then marks a homecoming game for the head coach, as McHale returns to Boston (I know games in Minnesota are even more of a homecoming for him, having been GM of the Timberwolves, but Boston was a gig where he was actually successful).

I like McHale—actually he’s one of my favorite ex-players. Not only was he a Celtic on a team I failed to appreciate properly in the mid-1980s, but he made a cameo appearance on Cheers, which always counts for bonus points in my book. But can he get this team the rest of the way to the postseason?

Normally I’d say no. The Rockets are basically built around Lowry, Martin and Scola and while they’re all nice individual players, especially Lowry, I don’t think of them as a “Big Three.” But in this unique season, depth counts for even more and I give them a 50/50 shot of sneaking and stealing the 8-seed. But unlike last year’s #8 team in the West, the Memphis Grizzlies, who upset San Antonio and then gave Oklahoma City all they could handle, this Houston team isn’t a threat to advance further. But they’ve got to shot to make it and they’re on the right path. That’s as much as anyone could have expected when the season began on Christmas Day.