The Houston Rockets have a terrific bench… and don’t use it

During the recent game against the Chicago Bulls, Aaron Brooks came off the bench for a few minutes. Jeff Van Gundy remarked, “If Aaron Brooks were on the Bulls he would be their best offensive player. He’s the third string point guard on the Rockets. That’s how deep this team is.”

JVG is right. The Houston Rockets are incredibly deep.  Coming off the bench regularly are a scorer (Lin), two 3-and-D wings (Garcia, Casspi), a big (Asik… yeah, I know), and a grinder (Smith). Seeing spot duty or injury fill-in duty are a microwave man (Brooks) and a stretch 4 (D-Mo).  Those are very useful roles to be filled by young, talented players. Just ask the Pacers or the Bulls (when Rose was whole) how valuable a productive bench can be.

Here’s how the Houston Rockets bench ranks league-wide, according to

  • 3rd in points per possession
  • 4th in TS%
  • 5th in net points per possession
  • 8th in +/- per game

But here’s the most important stat about the Houston Rockets bench:

  • 25th in minutes per game

Only five other teams play their benches less than the Houston Rockets. Below is a chart that plots every team’s bench according to how much they play and their net points per possession (click for a full-sized interactive version).

Playing time on the y-axis is in terms of the percentage of a team’s minutes played by the team’s bench.

There are a couple of things I want to point out. Most teams’ benches don’t play very much, and most teams benches aren’t very good. The number of teams below and to the left of the respective average lines are far more numerous than their counterparts. The averages are skewed positively by some truly remarkable bench play.

Unsurprisingly, the Spurs are running away with the title of most amazing bench ever. The Heat and the Thunder also have some incredible benches (hint, these three teams have a track record of knowing what they are doing). The chart also portends a dangerous a future for teams like the Pacers, Blazers, and Warriors. Their benches are pretty meh and don’t play very much (probably because they’re pretty meh). Injuries and fatigue loom darkly.

The Houston Rockets, it turns out, are one of very few teams (maybe just two, with the other being the Clippers) that has an incredibly productive bench… that doesn’t play. It’s very apparent where those minutes are going.

  • James Harden ranks 3rd in the league in mpg
  • Chandler Parsons ranks 12th in the league in mpg
  • Harden, Parsons, and Dwight Howard rank 1st in the league in mpg for all 3-man lineups
  • Harden and Parsons rank 4th in the league in mpg for all 2-man lineups

Basically our super productive bench is being squeezed through a bottleneck. Those five guys (potentially seven) are all subbing in for two players, Jones and Beverley, thus severely limiting their playing time.

Interestingly, the Houston Rockets staff seems to know this. The big question regarding the Asik trade has always been who can be brought in to help the team? The answer seemed to gravitate towards no one, because any player received in return will be a role player who will only add to a talented bench that doesn’t play very much. Hence, the focus became draft picks, which never materialized.

But to fix this situation, doesn’t that mean (gasp) Harden, Parsons, and Howard have to (gulp), sit? Yes. Their replacements are more than capable.  It also keeps them fresh and healthy. Don’t forget that these three players, over the course of less than a year, have all suffered or are suffering from what can be considered chronic wear-and-tear ailments (Howard-back, Parsons-back, Harden-ankle and foot). To make matters worse, Parsons is also 4th in the league in distance traveled per game. Why not give them a break?


About the author: Richard Li is an independent researcher and consultant. He likes numbers and pictures.

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