Houston is now third in the Western Conference with a record of 31-10 (.756) and James Harden is in the middle of one of the great individual seasons in NBA history, so it’s easy to forget what the perception of the Rockets as a team, and organization, was just a few months ago.
After a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference semifinals against the Clippers in the 2015 playoffs, with Harden (who finished second in MVP voting) and Dwight Howard, the Rockets had put together a one-two punch that many expected to compete for the best record in the league.
Forward to last summer and the Rockets were coming off a year where they fired a head coach a month into the season, crawled over the finish line to make the playoffs with a .500 record amidst general unhappiness between their star players, a quick first-round exit and Harden being (rather shamefully in hindsight) left off the All-NBA teams. Howard was never going to re-sign, nor did any Rockets fans really want him to, and general manager Daryl Morey was to be “evaluated” during the summer, according to league sources.
As a rather perfect example of the NBA’s selective memory when it comes to every short-term success, or lack thereof, the Rockets are once again darlings of the NBA, revolutionizing the way the sport is played with record-breaking three-point shooting. Morey is once again a genius and Mike D’Antoni is back to coaching a brilliant style of offense. Bogus think pieces about Houston focusing too much on analytics and too little on intangibles such as chemistry (and what other generality comes to mind) have happily been laid to rest.
The praise the Rockets are now receiving is well-deserved, as they have won 20 of their last 23 games. Since December 1, Houston ranks first in offensive efficiency scoring 114.1 points per 100 possessions and in an unexpected twist, the defense has been the sixth best in the NBA allowing 104.5 points. Coming into the season, most statistical models were optimistic the Rockets would bounce back and had the team projected at 46-48 wins, but they have far outpaced those expectations and should finish in the high 50s (or even compete for 60 wins) as long as Harden stays on the floor.
Mike D’Antoni’s Winning Formula
46.0 percent of the Rockets’ field goal attempts have been three-pointers this season and their mark of 39.9 attempts per game is seven more than any other team in NBA history. The Rockets have made 36.2 percent of their attempts this season, and on the back of that math it’s pretty straightforward to conclude there’s no reason to shoot any less.
With D’Antoni as the head coach, Houston has a revamped offense that is incredibly fun to watch and effective, but it’s worth noting that the biggest difference has come from the Rockets executing and valuing the correct concepts on the floor on every possession.
Apart from some nifty baseline- and sideline out-of-bounds sets, most of what the Rockets run is actually pretty simple stuff. Every offensive possession starts the same way, with the Rockets boxing out and rebounding with the priority of Harden getting the ball as quickly as possible. Last season, Houston ranked 30th in defensive rebounding percentage while this season they’ve been at the league average, which is an important and mostly overlooked improvement.
There’s more value to Russell Westbrook or Harden receiving the defensive rebounding than almost every other player in the NBA. The idea isn’t to chase triple-doubles, but to create an advantage against a scrambling defense. When Harden runs the break, everyone else runs to their spot at the three-point line, or non-shooting bigs like Clint Capela or Nene will sprint under the rim for post position that is essentially a lay-up.
If there’s no immediate advantage on the fast break, the first action is a transition pick. When Harden penetrates on the single side (meaning there’s one offensive player on the side Harden drives), most defenses will provide support from the weakside and Harden has perfected passing to the corner shooter. The other shooter who may be open in this case is the player cutting from the wing to the top of the key behind Harden, often referred to as the “asshole” cut. If no help is provided, Harden gets to attack the big one-on-one and in most cases that’s death for the defense.
Another quick hitter the Rockets like to run is the double drag staggered screen for Harden, and generally the Rockets have a few different ways of getting Ryan Anderson open on flare screens early in the shot clock.
The Rockets run pick-and-rolls where Harden gets to choose which of two different picks he uses and actions where all three shooters are on the weakside and the strong side corner is open. Typically, these are some of the best times to hit the roll man since half the court is open.
Again, none of the actual sets are complex, but Houston has a variety of different quick hitters to keep the defense guessing. For the Rockets, it’s important that the execution is precise so that spacing is always optimized. This also helps secondary ballhandlers like Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley drive all the way to the rim against closeouts.
Typically late in close games, the Rockets will set the pick really high on the floor for Harden to get a running start. This is a great way of functionally making the court bigger, creating additional space and putting the defense in a situation where they have to start defending the action from half court. Most players are happy jogging back to position on the three-point line and will be out of position when the pick hits earlier than expected.
None of these concepts are revolutionary, but with a nice variety of options Harden makes the offense exceptional. Harden is a master at controlling the pace of the game and making sure his teammates are in the best position on every possession.
What separates Harden from Westbrook in the MVP discussion right now is efficiency. Harden has a 61.1 True Shooting Percentage compared to Westbrook’s 54.4, and while Harden’s number is historically high among volume scorers, Westbrook is just below league average.
The Rockets’ path to success was always going to be an incredible offense with a defense that wasn’t terrible, but their recent performance has been much better than anyone could have anticipated.
One built-in advantage with a great offense is that the Rockets get more opportunities to defend in half court. Overall, the defense seems to be built on much better principles than last season when no one had any idea what might happen on a given possession. They know they won’t be able to defend the rim (opponents are shooting 66.4 percent against them at the basket), but they’ve done a nice job limiting attempts and rank in the top half denying looks at the basket.
When a team outperforms expectations defensively, the reason is often packing the paint and getting lucky with opponents missing three-point looks, but that hasn’t been the case with the Rockets. They will throw a few different pick-and-roll coverages against opponents and even traditionally poor defenders are showing effort.
Anderson, in particular, seems to have improved hedging and recovering, and it’s nice that Corey Brewer isn’t getting back cut five times every game anymore. Nene and Beverley are both very good defenders, and while Ariza has been overrated defensively the past few seasons, he’s still a solid option on that end.
By moving the ball and forcing the Rockets to defend multiple actions, teams should be able to expose some of the inherent weaknesses on the roster. And in the playoffs, I would be surprised if in a first-round series against the Jazz, Grizzlies or Clippers, or in the second round most likely against the Spurs, the Rockets defense run into serious problems.
In any case, this season looks like a fantastic success already. Eric Gordon is probably the favorite right now to win Sixth Man of the Year and ranks second only behind Stephen Curry in three-pointers made. Sam Dekker has become a solid rotation player on the wing, capable of playing from shooting guard to power forward on both ends of the court.
Nene, Gordon and Anderson have serious injury concerns from past seasons but have mostly been healthy this year. Still, the Rockets should consider themselves lucky if all three make it into the playoffs in full strength.
At full health, though, Houston has the upside to compete with anyone in a series.