When the Houston Rockets traded for shooting guard Kevin Martin last season, I suggested that the Rockets switch up their mindset and enter games as a fast paced, Phoenix/Golden State type team that took advantage of their offensive weapons at a high tempo in order to mask their inability to defend in a half-court based game. They did up the pace a bit towards the end of the year and they finished the season ranked sixth in the league in pace.
I was a bit worried about how the offense would adapt to Yao Ming‘s return but his trip back to the sidelines assured that the Rockets would continue to push the ball up the floor and run an offense that tried to outscore teams, which, despite its lack of recent success for any team that runs that system, is the best option for a team with the personel that the Rockets have. With Patrick Patterson, a rookie that has seen sporadic minutes and has made a few trips to and from the D-League, being their best defender, it was easy to concede that this team was going to win basketball games with fluent and efficient offense.
The Rockets have had their up and downs this season but remain just three games out of the playoff picture with two looming implosions – Denver (Melo trade) and Portland (Camby injury) – providing them with a couple of wide open opportunities to notch a playoff spot.
After ranking 19th overall in offensive efficiency last season at the league’s sixth fastest pace, the Rockets have made a vast improvement this season, jumping to eight in offensive efficiency at the league’s fifth fastest pace. Remarkably, the defense has actually improved, albiet not my a wide margin. They were the 17th ranked defense in 2009-10 and are currently 15th in defensive efficiency. It may be a minor improvement but the fact that they have been able to withstand a major drop-off is pretty impressive considering the individual defensive capabilities of their players.
More on Kevin Martin and his incredibly efficient play this season after the break…
What allows the Rockets to get away with more than a few defensive miscues a game is their ability to get extremely effective production from Kevin Martin. Martin is such an under appreciated talent in this league. He spent the first few years of his career lighting things up in Sacramento, which was undergoing a length rebuilding process at the time. When Tyreke Evans came along, it was clear, at least to the Sacramento front office, that Evans was going to be the future of the team and realized that reducing Martin to a spot-up shooter getting looks only when Evans was denied a lane wasn’t the best idea. Instead, Houston offered up a package centered around hard-working forward Carl Landry and are now benefitting from having the most efficient shooting guard in the NBA at the focal point of their offense.
Martin, like Ray Allen, is often run off of down screens to get the defense off him for a split second. Martin has a quick, though quirky release that he can get off over anybody, so when he’s getting a wide open look, even if the momentum of running around the screen has him falling away from the basket, he’s impossible to stop. On the year Martin is scoring .89 points per 100 possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology, coming off of screens, which is 40th in the NBA. It isn’t a great mark but its definitely a good one and his ability to score well while only having the ball for a split second is very valuable. When Houston’s quick and heady guards get into the lane or start moving the ball around the perimeter, Martin expertly fills the open gaps beyond the arc to find himself high percentage looks. In spot-up situations, Martin is scoring 1.18 points per 100 possessions, the 31st best number in the league.
The Rockets use Martin in a lot of different and creative ways, but they have also frequently isolated Martin and allowed him to create looks for himself. That is where Martin has been most effective this season. 25% of his 836 possessions used this season have been in isolation sets and no matter who is on him, he almost always finds a way to get a quality shot off or get to the line. He is scoring 1.14 points per 100 possessions in iso sets this season, the second best mark in the NBA. That’s a better number than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Amare Stoudemire and every other player in the league that isn’t named Dirk Nowitzki (Dirk sits at a ridiculous 1.18 points per 100 possessions). Overall, Martin is scoring 1.11 points per 100 possessions, the 16th best mark in the entire league.
What makes Martin so incredibly good in isolation sets is his insane ability to get to the free throw line. Though he is not a physically imposing beast like LeBron or a blur of speed like John Wall, Martin is just a brilliant basketball player. He is crafty with each of his dribbles and gets defenses to bit with his unique dribble moves and some uncanny body fakes. The next time you see Martin in a one-on-one situation, take note of his ability to get by defenders by selling his shot perfectly. He’ll square up as if to shoot and then quickly switch the ball to his hand opposite of the basket. Once he has the first step, defenders always try too hard to stop his penetration by bodying up his off arm and once Martin makes the contact obvious, the whistle blows and nine times of 10 he tosses up a floater that goes down on occasion.
Larry Bird used to do the same thing. He was such a lethal shooting threat that once the defense saw him square up, they’d either close out too hard or start boxing out too soon. The difference with Bird is that he’d break the defense down with his stellar passing. While Martin isn’t as good of a shooter as Bird was, he uses a similar tactic. Catching the defense off guard and exploiting their reaction to his fakes by getting trips to the line or easy buckets at the rim. Martin is averaging 8.6 free throw attempts per game, the fifth most freebies per game in the league, while making 88% of them. Additionally, to complement his stellar outside shooting, Martin is converting his looks at the basket, which often come off a backdoor cut or off the dribble, at a rate of 66%.
Martin is currently having the best season of his career. The 27-year old shooting guard out of Western Carolina has a career high in PER this season while posting a points per game average of 23.3 is just 1.3 points behind his career high. Martin is shooting 41% from three-point land on the year, which, despite his ability hit the deep ball regularly, is the second highest percentage of his career. This boost in accuracy from deep has led to Martin’s climb in true shooting percentage. He has a career high 62% true shooting percentage this season, which is the fourth best mark among shooting guards behind Ray Allen (understandable), Arron Afflalo (also understandable) and DeShawn Stevenson (shocking!).
The Rockets are playing incredibly well on the offensive end right now because of Martin’s growth as oen of the top all-around offensive players in the NBA. If they can get a couple of breaks when it comes to the Blazers and Nuggets dropping out of the standings sooner rather than latter, this is a team that can make some noise in the playoffs. They don’t have the same toughness and aura around them that they did back in 2009 when they took the Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference semi-finals, but they do have players that can score the basketball and Martin is the ring leader of the group.
Martin’s play has earned him a spot on the Western Conference all-star team no matter how crowded the West may be with star players. Deron Williams or Manu Ginobili will likely get the nod over him for one of the final guard spots on the roster but its hard to say that they have played better basketball than Martin has during the first half of the season. As bad as his defense is, his offense is just about the most deadly force in the league and a guy with a similar distinction, Steve Nash, won a pair of MVP’s while playing the worst defense of any point guard perhaps ever (Yes, I know that Nash also creates at a gaudy rate while scoring well, but the point remains).
For his entire career, Martin has received very little mainstream attention despite playing pretty good basketball for a bad Sacramento team. Now that he is playing his best ball ever on a team that is just a tad outside of the playoff picture with a good shot at sliding into the seventh or eighth seed, I think its time to recognize him as one of the best scorers in the league. Even if he doesn’t get to showcase his abilities at the all-star game, keep your eye on him and the Rockets throughout the rest of the season. Because any time you watch, there’s a good chance you’ll see an offensive explosion.
And more often than not, Martin will be at the helm, getting to the line with clever basketball plays and effortlessly stroking three’s with that awkward jumpshot.