To date, the Rockets have arguably had the most difficult schedule in the league and have come out of it with a 20-16 record. That’s better than almost anyone would have predicted. But with the Rockets now experiencing their first 3-game losing streak after a tough road swing through New Orleans, LA, and Phoenix, it is difficult to look past what has, of late, been a glaring problem — slow starts. In a recent tweet, Daryl Morey expressed the concern:
We are just not playing well.Not getting good shots¬ making shots we get.TOs.Start of 1st&3rd needs new approach.AB/Carl kept us in it.
– Daryl Morey (twitter)
Charting the Rockets Starts Over the Course of the Season
How bad have the starters been performing of late? Below, I’ve charted their offensive and defensive performance in the 1st quarters for each game, looking only at possessions that came before the first Rockets substitution. The bars represent efficiency for each game, while the lines are a “last 4 games” average. Red color represents points scored, while blue color represents points allowed. Note that there is a blank for the game played at Oklahoma City on 11/29, because that is the game in which starter Luis Scola was injured on the first possession.
There has indeed been a recent downturn in the 1st quarter starts, but of late the Rockets have only trailed the last two games — a back-to-back on the road against the Lakers and Suns. It is troubling that the Rockets would have had such a difficult time scoring against the poor Phoenix Suns defense (they managed only 7 points in 12 possessions, while allowing 21 points). But should we be concerned with the larger trend? Before the Lakers game, the Rockets starters ran out to a favorable start in 4 of 5 games, and they played the Hornets evenly on the road. And for the first month of the season, the Rockets generally played well at the start of games.
But 1st quarters are only a part of the story. This is what the starters have done to begin 3rd quarters:
Now we see a much more troubling trend. In 7 of the last 9 games, Rockets starters have been outplayed to start the 3rd quarter (before their first second-half substitution). The offense has ranged from mediocre to anemic over that stretch, and the defense has struggled also on average (with particularly poor defensive efforts coming against Orlando, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Phoenix).
Below, I summarize the net results (that is, points scored minus points allowed) for the 1st and 3rd quarters. Here, the red color refers to the 1st quarter start, the blue color refers to the 3rd quarter start, and the green color refers to the combined net efficiency to start both halves. From this, the starters did their job pretty well through the first month of the season. At the beginning of December, the team had a string of poor first quarter starts, and over the last few weeks the team has struggled in their second half starts.
The following summary stats indicate how poorly the Rockets starters have sputtered since the first month:
Entire season ... start_1st start_3rd start_combined OFF 107.0 98.1 102.7 DEF 105.1 99.3 102.4 NET +2.1 -1.2 +0.3
Since beginning of December ... start_1st start_3rd start_combined OFF 100.0 90.0 94.8 DEF 106.9 102.4 104.6 NET -6.9 -12.4 -9.8
The defensive efficiency has been respectable, but we expect at least that with a unit consisting of Shane Battier, Chuck Hayes, and Trevor Ariza. It has not been close to good enough to overcome the awful offense.
Patterns in Starters’ Performance and Final Margin
Strangely, of late there has been a large divergence in the performance at the start of each half. An interesting pattern emerges when I plot net efficiency in the 1st quarter versus net efficiency in the 3rd quarter (below). The 14 times the Rockets starters have “lost” in the 1st quarter (the left quadrants), they’ve “lost” the 3rd quarter 9 times (the lower-left quadrant). But in the 20 times the Rockets have “won” the 1st quarter (the right quadrants), they’ve “won” the 3rd quarter only 9 times (the upper-right quadrant). This would seem to suggest that when the Rockets starters play poorly to start the game, its because they’re typically outmatched. But when the Rockets starters play well to start the game, it is much less an indicator of superiority — opposing starters will adjust to the Rockets more frequently than the Rockets can adjust to the opposition.
How are these slow starts impacting the Rockets ability to win games? Ultimately, this is the concern. Below, I have plotted the final margin against the combined performance to start the 1st and 3rd quarters (which will usually represent about 1/4th of the game).
Interestingly enough, these result show that the starters are not losing their portion of the game any more often than the team loses overall. The team’s overall win-loss record is 20-16, but if we only consider the start of the 1st and 2nd halves, they have a “win-loss” record of 21-15. If we only consider the start of the 1st half the record is 21-14 (very good), but considering only the start of the 2nd half the record is 14-20 (opponents are adjusting, as I said earlier).
Being a team of role players, there is much less of a gap (perhaps no gap?) between the players that are 1-5 in the rotation versus 6-10. Consequentially, it should come as no surprise that the starters would be outmatched on many nights by opposing, star-laden units. But because of the depth and talent on the bench, the Rockets have been well-equipped to overcome this. The numbers show that the starters have played pretty well when looking at the season as a whole, but they having been trending seriously southward since the beginning of December.
It should be fairly obvious that major improvement on the offensive end is necessary. The competition should ease up over the coming weeks. This could be an opportunity for the current starting group to regain some of the cohesiveness and chemistry they seemed to have in the month of November. I could also see a change in the starting lineup, with Carl Landry replacing Chuck Hayes seeming most likely. I am hesitant to endorse that particular change, as the defensive performance with Scola and Landry on the floor has been consistently awful for years, but it is possible that Landry’s insertion would jump start the offense enough to offset this. Other suggestions I’ve read from other fans include replacing Chuck Hayes with David Andersen or replacing Trevor Ariza with Chase Budinger or Kyle Lowry. A combination I would like to see more of is Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes, but I understand the concern in using such a tandem. With Hayes having effectively no shooting range, the defense is free to load up on Carl Landry and (likely) reduce his effectiveness as an interior scorer.