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What happens when the threes start to fall?

The Houston Rockets are shooting over twenty-six three pointers per game, number which leads the league. The three pointer is an integral part of their efficiency-minded offense, a style which pushed them to an unlikely playoff run last season. By only attempting shots at the rim or behind the arc, the Rockets are at the forefront of a revolution in the shape of offense in the NBA. This revolution has definitely been televised, but it’s hit a snag in Houston. So far, the shots aren’t falling very well.

Last year, the Rockets shot 36.6% from deep on the season. This year, they’ve only managed a much more meager 32.9%. That’s only a change of about 4%, but in the cutthroat world of the NBA, 4% can be the difference between life or death, a lesson the Rockets have been learning the hard way in this season. The numbers are starting to even out, and may even settle at a higher number this year, given the improvement to Jeremy Lin’s shot form and the overall benefits of another year of improvement for such a young team. What happens, then, when the three pointers start to fall?

Here’s a little spoiler: if the Rockets shoot better, it’s good for them. The counter-argument would be that they might not improve their shot to 36.6% or better. It’s unlikely that this is just who they are, now, and there are good reasons to believe they’ll hit that mark. They’ve been finding open shots, though the offense has admittedly looked more reliant on isolation plays. As the offense comes together and more corner threes open up, that number will go up in the long term. Adding shooters like Omri Casspi certainly won’t decrease the three point percentage, and over a season, the mean will be regressed to. This time, the regression will go up.

Those 8.7 made three pointers a game account for about 26 points per game, about a quarter of their points per game. The difference between 32.9% shooting and 36.6% shooting seems minor, at first. That’s a mere shot per game more accurate; improving to last year’s standard would account for only one more success in each outing. It only lifts their points on threes to 29, and only lifts them up a couple spots in the three pointers made per game rankings. It’s an improvement, but how much would it really matter?

Here’s the abridged edition: the Rockets would be sitting at 9-2 right now if they had made one more three pointer per game. They would have flat out won against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers if they had 3 more points, and not allowed for game-saving last second heroics. The games against the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks also would have been less stressful affairs, and the Rockets would have avoided to overtime periods worth of wear and tear against Philadelphia and Toronto.

The Rockets have been underperforming so far, and find themselves on the razor’s edge too often for comfort. The silver lining is that any tiny shift toward the good side of that razor will pay huge dividends. That 3.7% difference currently is the difference between Houston’s current 6th seed and a potential 2nd seed with a 9-2 record. The sample size is small so far, but the need to improve their shooting is real and impending. The Rockets won’t keep missing and they won’t keep taking bad shots. They showed last year that they can score at a high level, and there’s no reason they can’t or won’t return to that. One more shot per game can make all the difference.

 

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