Call them lucky if you want, but the Rockets are here to stay.
We’ve entered the Daryl Morey Experience. After a year of disappointment, the Houston Rockets GM just watched his team rattle off 10 straight wins, only succumbing this past Wednesday to the always brilliant Spurs. Analytics gurus must be stoked: 78% of Houston’s shots are either threes, layups, or dunks – by far the highest number in the league. It’s honestly a bit ridiculous. This team holds the top three spots all-time for most three-point attempts in a game, all while avoiding long twos like the plague. That’s what Moreyball looks like, and it’s working.
The Rockets (22-8) have climbed into third in the Western Conference, tied with the Clippers, and just behind the Spurs and Warriors. We know those teams are really good. The Rockets, however, present more of a mystery. Before the season, most pundits had them in the bottom half of the playoff picture, if not jostling for the eight seed. Could they just be a lucky, overachieving bunch that will fall back to Earth, or are they a legitimate threat in the West?
On offense, Houston is unstoppable at times, with an offensive rating that ranks fourth in the league. Coach Mike D’Antoni has James Harden running the point, and he’s dishing 11.7 assists per game. According to NBA Stats, he creates 26 shots every night from his passes alone. Add that to his 27.8 point per game average and you get the gist: everything runs through Harden.
This is how many possessions go when Harden gets a good pick amidst perfect spacing:
And this is how many possessions go when a Harden drive causes the defense to collapse:
This style is like a Morey fantasy land with some Stan Van Gundy sprinkled in. That spread pick-and-roll is so simple and predictable it shouldn’t work, but Harden is just too good to consistently stop. Send half-assed help defense and he’ll slice to the rim (where he’ll draw oodles of semi-legitimate fouls) or pull up from range. Cheat off shooters, and Harden, with elite court vision and a 6’5” line of sight, will find the open man.
The latter strategy seems more popular. Eighty-one percent of Houston’s three point attempts are either “open” or “wide open,” per NBA Stats. A merely lucky team wouldn’t get so many clean looks, and it’s not like the Rockets are canning them at unsustainable rates. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson – Morey’s key offseason acquisitions – are assassins from deep, while forwards Trevor Ariza and Sam Dekker, and guard Patrick Beverley are also reliable. On paper, the roster lacks a second star; on the court, the Rockets found a system that suits the star they have.
Of course, when Harden sits, the offense should fall apart. Yet in December, the Rockets have maintained a solid 109.7 offensive rating without Harden on the floor. Beverley missed the first 11 games of the season, and his return has allowed Gordon to settle into a sixth man role. After so many injuries in New Orleans, it’s easy to forget just how good Gordon is, but he currently ranks above the league’s 80th percentile in efficiency on isolation sets and in the pick-and-roll. Harden obviously makes the offense hum, but Gordon, Beverley & co. provide enough playmaking to maintain leads when The Beard is resting.
As predictable and almost rudely mathematical as it is, this offense was probably always going to be a scoring machine. The real question with Mike D’Antoni-coached teams comes on the other end, where Harden, Anderson, and Gordon are sieves. To be fair, the defensive personnel isn’t all terrible. D’Antoni can roll out Ariza, center Clint Capela, and wing/flying squirrel Corey Brewer and feel reasonably comfortable. Beverley, however, is the real difference-maker. According to NBA Stats, the Rockets ranked 22nd in defensive rating before Beverley’s return. Since, they’re up to ninth, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Without Beverley, the Rockets are forced to put either Harden or Gordon on opposing point guards. That’s not an ideal situation in a conference with Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and Chris Paul (and Mike Conley and Eric Bledsoe and the list goes on). Yet Beverley isn’t just another body; he’s an all-world defender who’s tough, handsy, and quick. Here he is terrorizing Westbrook to secure a Houston victory:
Meanwhile, D’Antoni has the rest of the team hustling, rebounding, and contesting shooters. These are normal defensive things, but they were conspicuously absent from last year’s iteration of the Rockets. It’s too early to say whether Houston can sustain this defensive improvement into 2017. That said, even a regression to average defense – now likely due to Capela’s mild fibula fracture – can be survived if the offense keeps churning. But that’s kind of the question, right? Can everything keep running so smoothly with the streak now over?
Critics will point to a few pieces of evidence to explain why the Rockets will start to stumble. First, although Houston has had an above average strength of schedule in terms of winning percentage, their calendar hasn’t been particularly challenging. On the second night of back-to-backs, they’ve played the Suns, Timberwolves, Mavericks, Nuggets, Blazers, and Knicks, none of whom will frighten anybody. Second, Houston had some cupcake matchups during the winning streak. Dallas-Brooklyn-Sacramento-New Orleans-Minnesota is about as simple as a five-game run can get.
These criticisms are misguided. You can only beat the team in front of you, and the Rockets have been terrific in that sense. The mark of a good team is beating teams worse than you and competing hard against teams above and around you, both of which Houston has done. Except for two away losses against the Lakers and Hawks, they’ve only fallen to teams with .586-plus winning percentages. And against such teams, Houston is a respectable 5-6, with signature away wins against the Spurs, Warriors, and Thunder.
So maybe the Rockets are just lucky. But with over one-third of the season gone, this team looks damn good. By any metric, they should terrify playoff-bound rivals. They play comparable defense to upper-echelon squads like Cleveland, all while running a Playstation offense straight from the Morey-D’Antoni handbook. And of course, when the going gets tough, they have James Harden – an early MVP candidate and nigh-unparalleled offensive force. Even with the win streak now over, the Daryl Morey Experience looks set to continue.
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