The Houston Rockets play basketball like the Starship Enterprise flees danger. It’s beyond entertaining to watch—with a style that offers very few opportunities for blinking, let alone bathroom breaks—but looking at it from the big picture, is their blistering pace a good thing?
By a wide margin, the Rockets are the fastest team in basketball, averaging 99.51 possessions per 48 minutes (nearly three possessions more than the second place San Antonio Spurs). For easy reference, that’s a quicker tempo than all of the Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni “Seven Seconds or Less” teams, and two full possessions faster than last season’s pace-setter (Sacramento).
The Rockets don’t subscribe to the simple offensive philosophy of accepting the first or second quality shot that’s open. Instead they seek transition baskets in every possible situation (even off opponent made baskets) and its led to wide open looks from beyond the three-point line and at the basket. And when they’re attempts at running are stifled, they execute pick-and-roll sets with more efficiency than any team in the league, per Synergy.
The Rockets are fourth in defensive rebounding percentage—grabbing three fourths of all their opponents missed shots—which in large part (no pun intended) is due to the gargantuan Omer Asik/Greg Smith duo. As a result, fast breaks are born in the most seamless way.
Straight off a missed Josh Smith baby hook, Asik snares the rebound and outlets a pass to James Harden. By the time Harden catches it, he’s already in front of three Hawks who’ve had less than a second to realize they should be transitioning to defense. The Rockets don’t have an advantage in numbers (it’s still two-on-two), but being that the ball-handler is one of the five most productive scorers in the league, to attack would be wise.
Instead of pulling it back out and waiting for Asik to lumber up the court for a pick-and-roll, attack is exactly what Harden does. It’s in his DNA. (Are you really getting a more efficient look at the basket running a set with all five guys? Doubtful.)
More often than not the result of action like this has been positive. According to Synergy, Houston ranks ninth in the league with 1.18 points per possession in transition (it’s 17% of their offensive production). They’re also first in fast break points (with 19.0 points per game) and third in points off turnovers (with 18.6). Averaging 105.8 points per game, that’s 35% of their offense on super easy baskets. Any team in the league would take that.
Look at these two possessions.
Both are basically basketball cheat codes: quick lobs over the top of a defense, bypassing all the concentration, timing, and precise execution that a half-court set requires. They’re the youngest team in the league, so don’t look down on this as anything besides a coaching staff playing smart with its personnel.
This play reeks of stubbornness, but it’s exactly what Jeremy Lin should be doing. The Hawks (has is it been mentioned yet that Atlanta has one of the NBA’s 10 best defenses?) shoot a three-pointer and send four guys back on defense (Josh Smith being the lone man who crashes the offensive glass).
Houston could care less. After getting the ball around his own three-point line, Lin pushes it past half-court, surveys the floor, and notices Al Horford is the defender immediately in his path. He attacks Horford in the open court, finishes at the basket, and draws the foul.
Being “the fastest” in anything is interesting, though. What affect has it had on teams in recent years? Do they have good defenses? Great offenses? Do they make the playoffs?
Here’s a rundown of the league’s regular season leaders in pace (possessions per 48 minutes) since the 2000-01 season; where they finished in terms of efficient offense, defense, point differential, and how they did in the postseason.
In 2001 the Pistons were ranked 24 on offense, 8 on defense, 19 in point differential, and missed the playoffs.
In 2002 the Kings were ranked 3 on offense, 6 on defense, 2 in PD, and lost the Western Conference Finals in 7 games.
In 2003 the Kings were ranked 6 on offense, 2 on defense, 2 in PD, and lost the Western Conference Semifinals in 7 games.
In 2004 the Nuggets were ranked 9 on offense, 13 on defense, 11 in PD, and were eliminated from the first round in 5 games.
In 2005 the Suns were ranked 1 on offense, 16 on defense, 3 in PD, and lost the Western Conference Finals in 5 games.
In 2006 the Suns were ranked 1 on offense, 16 on defense, 4 in PD, and lost the Western Conference Finals in 6 games.
In 2007 the Warriors were ranked 10 on offense, 17 on defense, 14 in PD, and lost the Western Conference Semifinals in 5 games.
In 2008 the Nuggets were ranked 11 on offense, 9 on defense, 11 in PD, and were swept in the first round.
In 2009 the Warriors were ranked 11 on offense, 28 on defense, 24 in PD, and missed the playoffs.
In 2010 the Warriors were ranked 14 on offense, 29 on defense, 22 in PD, and missed the playoffs.
In 2011 the Timberwolves were ranked 24 on offense, 27 on defense, 28 in PD, and missed the playoffs.
In 2012 the Kings were ranked 22 on offense, 28 on defense, 25 in PD, and missed the playoffs.
So of the league’s 12 fastest teams from the past 12 seasons, none made the NBA Finals, three made the Conference Finals, two made the Conference Semifinals, and seven didn’t win a playoff series.
The Rockets? They’re 7 on offense, 19 on defense, and hold a point differential that’s ranked 10. Good, not great; definitely on the fringe of a playoff team. But the interesting point here is will it wear them down?
The more offensive possessions the better, especially when you’re second in corner three-point attempts, fourth in free-throw rate, and trail only the Thunder, Heat, and Spurs in team true shooting percentage. But will this early season rapid fire style eventually cause significant wear and tear on the Rockets’ solid nine-man rotation.
They’re young, sure. But, for example, in late March when they’re going against the Pacers, Grizzlies, and Clippers in the span of four nights, it’ll be intriguing to see if their tempo comes back to haunt them.
On the second game of back to backs Houston is 4-5 this season. They’re 10-7 with one day of rest, 4-1 with two days of rest, and 1-1 with three days of rest. The last thing I’m suggesting is that they should slow it down now for the sake of their legs later on, only that to see what could happen will be fascinating.
All statistics in this article were found at NBA.com/Stats