Houston’s Offense Revisited

In the past eight games, Houston has averaged nearly 118 points per game en route to a 5-3 record. During this stretch, the Rockets won two games of historical import, beating the Jazz by 45 points on their home court (the worst home loss in franchise history) and trouncing the Warriors by the score of 140-109, tying an NBA record with 23 three-pointers in the process. In an earlier post, I noted that although Houston’s shot allocation was as efficient as that of any team in the league, the Rockets were not converting enough of these shots to produce an elite offense. Now, more than halfway through the season and with the Rockets in the midst of a “hot” streak offensively, how does this initial prognosis hold up?

At the time of my post in mid-November, the Rockets’ offense ranked 22nd in the league and produced a measly 98 points per 100 possessions. Now, Houston boasts the 5th most productive offense in the NBA (107 points per 100 possessions), behind only the Thunder, Heat, Knicks, and Spurs. The Rockets’ offensive improvement stems not from an improvement in their shot allocation but rather from an improved ability to hit the efficient shots they were already taking.

In keeping with the offensive philosophy that the coaching staff espoused at the start of the season, Houston is arguably the best team in the league at creating and taking efficient shots. For the purposes of this column, I classify efficient shots as either free throws, shots taken at the rim, or three-pointers. I consider inefficient shots to be mid-range attempts (10-23 feet away from the rim), which leaves shots from 3-9 feet in an undefined grey area. According to Hoopdata, Houston currently ranks 6th in free throw rate. What’s more impressive is the fact that Houston leads the league in percentage of shot attempts from the rim and three point range—73% of Houston’s shots come from these areas, compared with 49% for the bottom-ranked Wizards. The Rockets also take the fewest proportion of mid-range shots, 17% compared with 40% for the (once-again) bottom-ranked Wizards.

What’s changed since the start of the season is the Rockets’ ability to convert these efficient looks. The Rockets attempt 30.5 shots per game at the rim (3rd most in the league), and while their conversion rate of 65% is relatively mediocre, this represents a 5% improvement from their early-season rate. In particular, Omer Asik has increased his conversion rate on close-range shots to a more respectable 61% (from an abysmal 52%) and Jeremy Lin has improved slightly to 62%.

Similarly, the Rockets attempt the second most threes per game (behind only the Knicks) and are now converting at a robust 37% (9th in the league), significantly higher than the 30% they were shooting at the start of the season. In my earlier column, I was doubtful that the Rockets could be an above-average three-point shooting team, given the dearth (outside of Carlos Delfino and James Harden) of historically above-average three-point shooters on their team. To put it mildly, that prediction failed to hold true: Delfino is having a career year from beyond the arc, hitting 39% on 6 attempts per game, Marcus Morris is shooting a scintillating 39% on 3.5 shots per game, Toney Douglas shoots 38% on 3.3 shots per game, Patrick Patterson converts 37% of his 2 three-pointers per game, and Chandler Parsons shoots 36% on 5 attempts per game. In short, the Rockets have five above-average three-point shooters who combine to account for nearly two-thirds of Houston’s attempts from beyond the arc. Even Harden’s current rate of 35%, while below his career average, is far above his early-season rate of 26%. The upshot is that the Rockets are now 9th in offensive ratio at 1.01, meaning they’re scoring as many points as one would expect given their shot allocation, a far cry from the 29th spot they held at the start of the season.

In effect, the Rockets’ two high usage starters (Harden and Lin) have maintained their offensive potency (an especially impressive feat given the high level Harden’s been playing at throughout the season), while a number of role players have blossomed into bona fide threats from deep, allowing the Rockets to reap the benefits of their efficient shot allocation. Some of this may simply be a regression to the mean—the Rockets early season three-point rate of 30% was far below league average while the current rate is not significantly above league average. It’s also worth contemplating what the true mean or long-run average performance of a team as young as the Rockets is— with a young team and an almost entirely revamped roster, the Rockets’ average team performance was bound to be difficult to determine in a small sample of early season games and may in fact still be in flux.  

A simpler explanation may be the fact that this team now has more than half a season’s worth of NBA games under its belt and a relatively stable rotation (with the exceptions being the starting power forward spot and back-up point guard and center spots), factors that are conducive to a team’s offensive improvement. The larger lesson here, however, is that in the long-run, efficient shot allocation pays off. The team that most resembles the Rockets in terms of shot allocation is Denver, which not coincidentally ranks one spot behind Houston in offensive efficiency. In the absence of the elite offensive talent that teams like Miami and OKC possess, teams can maximize their chances of winning by taking efficient shots and preventing opponents from taking such shots.

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