How do you replace a star? The Rockets and Raptors are giving us a blueprint.
The density of the NBA schedule is a peril both for the war it wages on players' bodies and the inevitable trials that come when that wear leads to injury. No matter the circumstances, the games keep coming. Just ask Oklahoma City, which saw a fifth of its season trickle away while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were on the mend. Or consult Indiana, which, after losing Paul George for the season and Lance Stephenson in free agency, has largely done without two other starters in David West and George Hill. The pace of the season is so uncompromising that the best teams are often the ones that have the ability to endure it.
Two of the league's better teams are in the process of navigating that crucible. One is Houston, which has won five of seven games since superstar center Dwight Howard was sidelined with a strained right knee. That record – with wins over the Grizzlies and Mavericks, in particular – is impressive. Even more so is the way it was achieved. During Howard's two-week absence, only four teams have held opponents to fewer points per possession than the Rockets, according to NBA.com. This is something of a miracle given the absences of both Howard and irksome point guard Patrick Beverley (who has missed five consecutive games with a strained left hamstring) against a challenging schedule that included four of the NBA's top 11 in offensive efficiency.
On paper, Howard and Beverley were the positional occupants Houston could least afford to lose. The team's depth at the one and five positions, after all, were victims of a high-stakes offseason gambit; the salary of center Omer Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin stood in the way of the Rockets' free-agent pursuits, and thus were cleared for the requisite cap room. Behind Howard on this season's roster are undrafted rookie Tarik Black and basketball nomad Joey Dorsey, and behind Beverley the unproven Isaiah Canaan and veteran cast-off Jason Terry. An ankle injury eventually sidelined Canaan as well, leaving Houston to fend with second- and third-stringers at two crucial positions.
Yet the Rockets, to their great credit, have held up. The defense isn't what it was with a healthy Howard on the back line, but a variation of the same system has subsisted on focus, burl and collective scramble. This is what it often takes to succeed in the vacuum left by an absent star: For those without any single, high-variance player to step into the void, the rest of the roster coils to achieve some similar goal through alternate ways. There was no hope for replacing what Howard supplies. With smart, pesky defense – yes, even from James Harden – and healthy improvement on offense, however, Houston made clear that such replacement wasn't necessary.
That offensive shift cannot be overlooked, especially for a team that ranks near the bottom in half-court scoring efficiency. One might expect that a club with Harden and Howard could gorge in the half-court on free throws alone, but so far that has not been the case. Indiana, Charlotte, Brooklyn and Orlando are just four of the many teams to wring more points per half-court possession than Houston this season, according to Synergy Sports, because of the Rockets' sometimes stagnant execution and slumping core players.
Removing Howard's high-usage post work is a stark structural change that alters the way the offense flows and operates. For the most part, though, Houston's recent uptick on offense has drawn upon nothing more scientific than capable players making good shots they had previously missed. Harden wasn't going to shoot 37 percent forever. Eventually the tide of Houston's shooting would turn, and it did in a big way for Harden (who has been MVP-level great while shooting 47 percent since Howard's injury), Terry, Kostas Papanikolaou and Donatas Motiejunas among others.
Motiejunas, a third-year forward, has capably filled the Howard vacancy on the interior of the Rockets' offense. His level of usage isn't comparable to Howard's, nor should it be. Yet by providing a post-up skill set that no other healthy Rocket could, Motiejunas has created a nice role for himself in Houston's subsistence. He's never been better, at least in part because he has the freedom to work off the team's best players to set up quick, confident moves around the basket.
That windfall makes it easy to forget that the Rockets are also missing power forward Terrence Jones, who has been out for the last month with a nerve issue in his left leg. Those layering injuries – to Howard and Jones and Beverley and Canaan – are a millstone for a team that was already feared as too shallow. One would expect that their collective weight would sink Houston through the Western Conference standings. For all those games to starting-caliber contributors lost, though, the Rockets sit in a tie for third, ahead of the Mavericks, Spurs and Clippers.
Toronto is only beginning its variant of this same ordeal, albeit in more specific form. Whereas Howard is only one of Houston's many injuries, DeMar DeRozan is the only significant deficit from the Raptors lineup. Still, his is a considerable loss. It's never easy to replace a volume scorer with a top-15 usage rate, particularly in the case of a well-rounded player like DeRozan. Even when it seems as if he's not playing a prominent role in Toronto's operations, DeRozan is central to his team's constitution – necessary for the way he absorbs touches and minutes while in turn disguising his teammates' limitations.
Yet in the three games since DeRozan tore the adductor longus tendon in his left leg, the Raptors have begun acclimating themselves to life in this contingency. The starting lineup – which now includes Greivis Vasquez – has shifted and Dwane Casey's rotations with it. The entire offensive profile of the team has changed to feature dramatically fewer mid-range jumpers (a DeRozan specialty) and far more three-pointers. And, on the most basic level: Kyle Lowry has taken his turn at dominance, assuming control of the Raptors' offense whenever possible. The results have been glorious. While using possessions at a rate that would come second to only Kobe Bryant, Lowry has propelled the Raps to back-to-back wins after an overtime loss to the Lakers. On Wednesday he bullied, tricked and shot over the top of the Jazz defense en route to a career-high 39 points.
This is who the Raptors need Lowry to be for the moment, as Toronto's best path forward will come through overwhelming opponents on offense. Throughout this young season the Raps have held pace with the most explosive offenses in the league. They sit just a point shy of the league-leading Mavericks in efficiency and will play another nine games before running into a credible defensive opponent. It's entirely possible that – in continuing with the trends of their previous offensive success without DeRozan – Toronto could become No. 1 in points per possession while missing one of its best players.
In doing so, however, the Raptors will likely push Lowry to his physical limits. Already he looks exhausted in spots, worn down by driving headlong into the defense without the respite of DeRozan's shot creation. Vasquez and Lou Williams are able to spell Lowry some, but Toronto's star point guard is playing big minutes and carrying a heavy burden.
To help offset that workload, Lowry has moved off the ball when possible on defense. There is no scout or metric that would favor Vasquez's defense to Lowry's, yet the former has handled certain point guard assignments while letting Lowry catch his breath against perimeter shooters. That could be a dangerous exchange on the wrong night, and it will be interesting to see how far and for how long Casey is willing to commit to cross-matching. Without DeRozan, though, Toronto may not have a reasonable alternative. Any team that replaces the minutes of a sturdy, athletic defender like DeRozan with more for Vasquez and Williams is going to suffer in coverage. Rather than burn out Lowry on both ends in an attempt to compensate for that, it makes reasonable sense to trust the other guards available (including Terrence Ross) for as long as that trust can keep the team rolling.
Thus far the Raptors have generally managed to stay on the right side of the margin no matter their defensive concessions. Lowry and DeRozan are a tough cover and instrumental to Toronto's long-term success. In small doses, though, lineups featuring Lowry alongside Vasquez or Williams have been even more effective offensively than those in tandem with DeRozan. There's enough dynamism between those three guards and Jonas Valanciunas to carry an offense on most nights, especially when the reworked offense also better taps into the talents of Toronto's floor spacers. Patrick Patterson makes for a welcome pressure release on Lowry's relentless drives and Ross – whom the Raptors cannot afford to be anything but solid during this stretch – has hit half of his 18 three-point attempts since DeRozan went down.
It would seem that, even with that help, the Raptors' offense will stretch only as far as Lowry does. There are workarounds that could buy Lowry time: bits of Williams freelancing, trust in Valanciunas to make good with a few more touches a night, the impending James Johnson supernova or a spin with the increasingly fun Vasquez-Amir Johnson pick-and-roll. The ball will always come back to Lowry, though, on possession after possession, night after night. If he can maintain, then perhaps so, too, can the Raptors.