NBA basketball is changing. Rules changes and new methods for measuring and developing talent usher in new styles of play, new styles of player, and new styles of winning. Teams like the Miami heat are reaping dividends by throwing out the idea of standard NBA positions, and so-called “small ball” is pushing the league to ever higher scoring heights. Never one to sit idly by, the Houston Rockets have joined in as a pioneer of new styles of basketball. While the Miami Heat may have brought the positional revolution to the average NBA fan with LeBron in the post and Chris Bosh starting as the tallest Heat player on the court, the Rockets are having their own quiet revolution.
The five players on the floor, as understood by the traditional positionality, are as follows:
- A Point Guard to handle the ball, distribute to scorers, and hopefully space the floor and score as well.
- A Shooting Guard to score, to space the floor and to handle the ball as well.
- A Small Forward to score, usually space the floor, hopefully rebound and maybe handle the ball.
- A Power Forward to rebound, usually score, sometimes distribute and often post up.
- A Center to rebound, often score, usually post up and hopefully protect the rim.
In a nutshell, teams and players have been rejecting the idea that those role combinations need to be connected in that way. Point Guards can score, Small Forwards can distribute, and centers can dribble. Teams now look to cover the various offensive needs without needing a standard set of players. This opens the door for creative, smaller lineups. As post play seems to become more and more rare, scores, paces and pulses rise.
In the 16 games since the Rockets lost in overtime to the San Antonio Spurs on December 10th, the Rockets have made adjustments that have allowed them to win a shocking 12 of them. One of these adjustments was not just to tighten their guard lineup, but to make a critical change that defies the ideas of the traditional positions. Daequan Cook was eliminated as the backup shooting guard (and eventually eliminated entirely from the roster), replaced with Toney Douglas. Toney’s place as backup point guard? That was handed to starting shooting guard James Harden.
That isn’t really quite accurate. Whatever type of players Harden, Lin and Douglas were, they’re still those players. The change is what roles they’re being asked to perform, and how often. A team obviously needs at least one ball handler and distributor on the floor at all times, preferably in one player. The quintessential point guard dribbles around the floor, creating chaos (in an orderly way, usually) and then passing the ball to the open man for easy shots. When a player can dribble and shoot but not pass or create for others very well, this defies the idea of what a point guard is. A team that doesn’t pass typically can’t get the kind of looks they want.
Some teams, like the Thunder, embrace an assist-low gameplan, allowing their primary ball handler to focus more on scoring than average, though it must be noted that Westbrook has had impressive assist numbers this year. What they don’t have, and what they lost with James Harden, was a second strong creator and distributor. And that’s what Houston gained. In November, before the rotations had been solidified, the Rockets tried a number of rotations, most of them revolving around Lin and Douglas staggering minutes as the point guard. Douglas looked lost at times, coughing up the ball 4.9 times per 48 minutes and only notching 5.6 assists per 48. Given that he was only playing 16 minutes a game, and that players typically find it easier to post better per 48 stats in shorter minutes, that’s a poor showing. The Rockets’ bench unit looked shaky and was viewed as a point of weakness.
In the last 10 games, Douglas has looked much better, dropping his turnovers to 3.2 per 48 in 19.7 minutes per game. He also dropped his assists to 4.9 per 48. This suggests something that can be corroborated with stats and the eye test: he’s scoring more, passing less. In November, Douglas averaged 15.9 points per 48 minutes on 30.4% shooting, which is obviously not satisfactory. In the past ten games Douglas has shot much better: 22.4 points per 48 on 45.9%. He’s taking better shots because he’s not the backup creator/distributor. He can dribble well, and he can find looks for himself. And now that’s his primary responsibility on offense.
The new guard rotation for Houston is tighter, with only three players: Harden, Lin and Douglas. Under the terms of the new positionality, it may be more accurate to describe them as the ball handlers lineup, as that’s the primary ability that sets them apart from the rest of the team. Parsons isn’t bad, and Delfino plays as though he can slice apart on offense, but they don’t have the same tight handles as the aforementioned three Rockets. (New Rockets Patrick Beverly and James Anderson have yet to have a place in the rotation, and as such aren’t yet being considered, though I’m sure they will acquit themselves well at putting the ball on the floor.)
Due to a tighter rotation, all three players are playing more minutes, though Harden’s only picked up about half a minute more. Most importantly, the Rockets are keeping at least one of Harden or Lin on the floor at (almost all) times. Lin, when he’s on the floor, is the primary distributor and creator now, and he’s on the floor more. This is has upped his turnovers, but his assists have held steady. Harden, for his part, has had a high usage rate throughout the year, and hasn’t seen as much of a change in his per 48 numbers. He’s gained half an assist and lost half a turnover.
This is all because while Lin can easily be seen as a traditional point guard, Harden and Douglas are new breeds. Or, at least, they’re more valuable when viewed through new lenses. Harden is an amazing player, skilled at nearly every facet of the offensive game, including creating looks for his teammates. Harden has point guard abilities, despite being advertised as a shooting guard. And Douglas has shooting guard abilities, despite being billed as a point.
Douglas isn’t the only one to shoot better in the last ten games than in November. As rotations and player roles settle, the other two creators on the Rockets have found more success. Harden picked up his shooting from 41.2% to 47.8%, though his scoring per 48 has actually fallen slightly as he passes a little more (from 38.4 to 36.6). Lin has had the more drastic change, turning a dismal 14.3 points per 48 on 37.3% to a much better 18.9 points per 48 on 47.3%.
What data the Houston front office compiles is a closely guarded trade secret, but their decision making has led the Rockets to come together and play to their strengths in a blistering series of wins. And those wins are in large part attributable to the backcourt finding itself, which leads to looks for the entire team. The Houston backcourt is better now, and it’s because they’re doing what they’re good at, not what they’re supposed to be good at.