Kevin Martin brings a lot to the table as a basketball player. As one of the most offensively gifted two-guards in the league, Martin is blessed with a consistent jumper, a quick first step, the ability to draw fouls, and an unorthodox shooting motion that makes seems like his shot should get blocked every time.
In his most complete season in the NBA, 2006-2007, in which Martin played a career high 80 games, Kevin averaged 20 points per game and shot 47% from the field. Over the next two seasons, Martin would increase his scoring average to 24 and 25 points per game respectively.
When the Rockets made the deal for Martin, they knew exactly what they were getting. And what they got has been a primary need for them for some time. Without a go-to scoring option on the perimeter, the Rockets often lost control of offensive sets by putting the ball in an incompetent wing player’s hands (*cough* Trevor Ariza *cough*) or having to force the ball into the post with the shot clock winding down.
They also lacked a player on the wing that could actually have a play focus around him. The pick and roll with Aaron Brooks is a standard basketball play and, if its run effectively, 50% of the time he will have the ball and 50% he won’t. That’s hardly something you can rely on if you need to get the perimeter offense going.
Martin is Houston’s first player since Tracy McGrady that has the ability to use off-ball screens to get to a spot on the floor and consistently hit a catch-and-shoot jumper. That’s a vital part of any successful offense. For those of you who watch basketball closely, you will notice how deadly the Celtics look when they get Ray Allen open looks coming off screens. It’s very easy to create that shot but having the personnel to make the shot is a whole different story. Being that Martin is one of the best shooters in the league in that exact scenario, this fits perfectly for Houston.
Martin is also quite effective in isolation situations. If the Rockets were going to isolate anyone in crunch time (pre-Martin), it was most likely Aaron Brooks. While Brooks is quick, shifty and a pretty good three-point shooter, he spent most of his time dancing a few feet beyond the three point line and never really felt 100% confident in whatever look he got. K-Mart is excellent at getting the ball to the rim, drawing fouls and getting his shot off quickly, all of which are major factors for a player in isolation.
For all of those good things that Martin brings to the table, there is also one huge red flag: his lack of defense. Whether it’s a lack of effort, a lack of physical skills (court vision, lateral quickness, etc.), or unfamiliarity with defensive schemes, defense and Martin just don’t click. Last season, while Martin had a great offensive rating of 115 (meaning he’d score 115 points per 100 possessions), he also had a very poor defensive rating of 117.
It can be easy to forget the fact that someone is a bad to very bad defender when someone is scoring at a high rate, especially when it is on a bad team. But now, in the midst of a playoff race, Martin’s defensive short comings will start to show more and more.
With Martin now starting for the Rockets, they are forced to send at least one of their two best defenders to the bench (Ariza or Shane Battier). When the Rockets gave the Lakers the most trouble earlier in the season, both Battier and Ariza started, split Kobe duty and were also able to hassle Ron Artest. Martin will not be the Aaron Afflalo type starter. He won’t start the game because he dominates one aspect of the game (offense) and play about 24 minutes while Battier gets the other half. Kevin will demand 30-35 minutes a game thanks to his superior and much needed scoring abilities.
The problem with leaving Martin out there for most of the game is that his backcourt mate, Brooks, is also a very poor defender, posting 111 defensive rating so far this season. The two haven’t played together for a week yet and they have already given up some gaudy numbers to the opposition’s starting one and two guards. Saturday night against the Jazz, Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews combined to score 53 points, dish out 16 assists and shoot 77% from the field on 26 shot attempts. Overall, the Jazz scored 133 points on 99 possessions. That’s a pretty horrific defensive effort from Houston.
My question is what the Rockets can do to solve their defensive issues, particularly in the backcourt? Do they have to cut Martin’s minutes down in order to have Battier and Ariza play together for longer stretches? Do they go small for stretches, playing Brooks and Martin as the guards and Ariza/Battier and Jeffries as forwards in order to defend? Or do they simply put Ariza or Battier (with Jeffries getting a look or two if needed) on the opposing team’s best player for the whole game (say, Kobe or Carmelo) while the guards simply try to outscore the other team with a lot of shots?
I don’t see a lot of success coming from either of these options.
Right now, Houston is four games back of Portland for the eighth seed and every game is crucial in the next month. What do I suppose the Rockets do as a last month push to the playoffs? Why not become Golden State lite?
You could argue that the Brooks+Martin is just as good as Curry+Ellis and the Rockets certainly have more depth and defensive specialists than the Warriors do. Why not pick up the pace, utilize your two guards, nullify Luis Scola‘s defensive deficiencies and try something completely new for the rest of the year to see if you can make the post-season? The reasons this team made the Lakers work so hard in the playoffs last year was because of their physicality. While they still have tough players in Scola and Hayes, I believe Carl Landry was the key behind it all.
So, in a sense, you have already changed your ballclub in a humongous way once in the past couple of weeks and there isn’t anything stopping you from doing it again. No matter how it works out, whether they change their pace, flip their rotations or make defensive adjustments or not, none of it will matter at the beginning of next season when Yao Ming comes back. When Ming arrives, the offensive will likely go back to working the ball inside first and allowing Ming to go to work.
If they do pick up the pace, at best they sneak into the playoffs with a high octane offense and face either the Lakers or Nuggets. Not saying they would win either series, but at least they can implore their new strategy of sticking Ariza or Battier on Kobe or Melo and letting Martin and Brooks score in bunches down the stretch. Worse case scenario is that you don’t make the playoffs and start fresh next season with Ming and possibly a nice free agent.
There isn’t a whole lot to lose at this point for Houston, so I think making the switch from a hard working team (which the Rockets chose to do, in my opinion, by trading Landry and not getting back a physical presence) to a fast paced one can only be beneficial to the Rockets.