Apart from “points off turnovers,” almost all of basketball’s statistics tend to separate offense and defense as two different systems geared towards the common goal of winning. However, unlike football or baseball—where the two groups are understandably divided—the relationship between offense and defense in basketball is much more fluid, and far more complex.
With a steal, turnover, or made basket, any five-man unit can go from offense to defense (and vice versa) in the blink of an eye. Possessions rarely go longer than 20 seconds, and one might think both sides of the ball would have a clearer statistical correlation. This doesn’t appear to be the case.
But in Houston, a direct alliance could exist this season between their offense and defense—particularly if Kevin McHale continues to deploy an up-tempo, free-throw/three-point heavy style—with one helping the other perform at a much higher level than we all thought possible.
Over the last few days I’ve taken a look at the league wide relationship between a team’s FTA Rate (free-throws attempted relative to field goals attempted by player or team) and Defensive Efficiency over the past couple seasons.
Why? An offense that gets to the free-throw line—like Houston’s, which is currently getting 18.4% of their points on freebies (above league average)—can theoretically make its own defense better, for a few reasons: free-throws allow rest; they place opposing players in foul trouble, which could send key guys to the bench; and, most importantly, they allow ample time for five guys to jog back and set up their half court defense, as opposed to coming back in transition off, say, a missed mid-range jumper.
(The opposite effect would be offensive turnovers, which remind me of the old Jerry Seinfeld bit about the ongoing struggle between Night Guy and Morning Guy. Whenever Night Guy stays up until 3 a.m. taking tequila shots, Morning Guy is the one who wakes up with a massive hangover. When Jeremy Lin drives to the basket, leaps in the air, and drops a pass straight into a defender’s lap, the ball instantly heads in the other direction, with Offensive Rockets immediately transformed into Defensive Rockets, backpedaling up the court and eventually getting dunked on.)
Most of this article is me theorizing on something that might not happen this year, but is definitely possible as the James Harden/Omer Asik/Lin core continues to grow. It’s very difficult to speculate how this group will do moving forward based on the tiny bit of data we have available, but combining their individual skill-sets with the style McHale clearly wants to run can allow for some fairly responsible speculation.
Here’s where they’re shooting the ball through four games.
Behind only the Nuggets and Lakers, the Rockets have led the league in attempted shots from the restricted area. We know how Houston’s offense wants to play, but its defense stands as more of a question mark. Lin and Harden are both smart and above average on the ball, Chandler Parsons has the potential to be a lock down defender, and Omer Asik simply isn’t allowing anybody to enter the paint.
As long as their offense revolves itself around pick-and-roll sequences that allow Harden and Lin to turn the corner and finish plays with free-throws, in theory this gives their defense a solid chance to get back, set up Asik, and have more than enough time to prepare for an oncoming offense.
Of course, at this point nothing should be taken too seriously: Just because a team has an easier time getting back on defense doesn’t mean they’ll know what to do once they get there. The Rockets are the youngest team in the NBA, and growing pains will certainly glare on the defensive end.
On top of that, this entire proposition is useless if Lin and Harden are unable to protect the ball (the Rockets are currently giving up the fourth most points off turnovers in the league). But as the season goes on and they’re able to find more chemistry with their new teammates, expect the mistakes to go down.
What won’t go down, however, is their aggressiveness. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Harden and Lin have combined for a 53.3 usage percentage so far this season. And when they have the ball, chances are they’re taking it to the paint.
Two seasons ago these were the 10 best defensive teams in basketball (based on defensive rating figures from NBA.com/Stats): Chicago, Boston, Orlando, Milwaukee, Miami, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.
Here were the top 10 teams at utilizing the free-throw line (based on FTA Rate rankings on NBA.com/Stats): Denver, OKC, Miami, LAC, Orlando, Charlotte, Utah, Cleveland, Chicago, and Boston.
Here were the 10 best defensive teams from last season: Chicago, Boston, Philly, Miami, New York, Atlanta, Memphis, Dallas, OKC, and Indiana.
And once again, the 10 best teams at FTA rate: OKC, Denver, Indiana, Cleveland, Miami, New York, Minnesota, Utah, Los Angeles Lakers, and Orlando.
Bolded teams represent those found in both categories. So in 2010-11, Chicago, Boston, Orlando, and Miami were all getting to the line at an efficient rate while simultaneously doing a really good job mucking up opposing offenses. Last year, Miami, New York, Indiana, and Oklahoma City were the teams that fit in both groups (no surprise here that the only team to appear on both lists for each season also participated in two straight NBA Finals: Miami).
These figures are either coincidences or a miniature trend, and unfortunately they don’t give us nearly enough information to establish any sort of definitive conclusion about the important relationship between offense and defense. But as this season rolls on, just watch how Houston’s defense looks. Are they scrambling back, or set and in position?
The offense will be as exciting as any in the league, but how it subtly co-exists with the defense could be the difference between an 8th seed and another lottery pick.