The Houston Rockets are a conundrum wrapped in a contradiction


Three point shooting percentage

At the beginning of this season, I was a little curious about how some seemingly contradictory pieces would fit together on the Houston Rockets. I want to talk about a few of these pieces and how they butt heads.

Modern GM versus old school coach

This one stood out to me the most. Daryl Morey is known as the most data-driven, experimental, and somewhat avant-garde GM in the league. He relies heavily on data to make personnel decisions and craft an offensive philosophy that emphasizes close shots, free throws, and three-pointers. His head coach is legendary Hall of Fame big man who loved the post game and attempted 20 three-pointers over the first nine years of his career. I think JR Smith attempted more than that in one game this year.

I can’t help but think that, if McHale were a TNT announcer instead of the Rockets head coach, he would be leading the charge in criticizing analytics and waxing nostalgic about the dying post game and mid-range jump shot. Obviously I’m stereotyping McHale based on his pedigree and projecting based on a completely hypothetical scenario, but the match between him and Morey just seems like a bit of an odd couple.

Shooting threes with bad shooters

OK, we know Morey’s offensive philosophy heavily emphasizes shooting three-pointers. We know that the Rockets shot more threes than any other team in the league. Most of us know that the Rockets aren’t actually an excellent three-point shooting team. That seems kind of strange.

The above chart compares the Rockets most prolific three-point shooters against two league averages. The blue line is the overall NBA average, while the orange line is the average for “shooters,” defined as players who shot at least 200 three-pointers, roughly 100 players including the Rockets’ four.

Measured against the NBA average, Parsons and Harden are above average, Beverley is barely above average, and Lin is barely below average. Measured against players who are supposed to shoot the ball a lot, they’re all below average. For all the talk about efficiency that Morey and company have engendered, the Rockets are probably the definition of high-volume but low-efficiency three-point shooting.

Efficient players but inefficient plays

On one hand, it seems like the Rockets acquired the two perfect superstars to fit this system in Harden and Howard. Harden crashes the rim, gets fouled a lot, and shoots threes. Howard finishes near the rim with great aplomb.

But the shot is just the last part of a long story. While the data might say take close shots and three-pointers, actually creating those shots is another story. The data can’t help you there. This is important because despite their shot charts being very in sync with Morey’s philosophy, how Harden and Howard get their shots is very much out of sync with the same philosophy.

Three-pointers are dependent upon movement, space, and pace. Unless your name is Stephen Curry, running to the three-point line and jacking up a shot with a hand in your face isn’t a particularly good idea. For mortals, even mortals who shoot well, a much better strategy is moving the ball more quickly than the defense can rotate until an open three-pointer is found. Similarly, close shots are best taken without the opponent’s big man protecting the rim. Occupying him with penetration or misdirecting him to open up a cutting lane are more efficient strategies.

This is where the contradiction comes in. Despite taking the shots that Morey likes, Harden acquires those shots very slowly. As I wrote about before, Harden is one of the league’s leaders in stopping the ball.  He is also second to last in the league in terms of how much he moves per 48 minutes of game time. His 1-4 flat isolations (maybe the least efficient play in basketball) have become quite nefarious. During these “plays,” Harden is dribbling between his legs while everyone else is standing around waiting for the play to finish. Not exactly great movement to find an open shot (though one can arise, described below).

However, despite the criticism Harden receives for his isolations (my own included), it’s not the worst play in the Rockets repertoire. He “only” isolates 24% of the time he possesses the ball.  His points per possession per isolation is 0.96, which is up from the mid-point of the season, though still below his average for all other plays. In the event that he makes it into the paint, the defense can collapse around him, which can open up a shot for someone else. The worst play is…

Howard’s post up. According to Synergy, over 52% of Dwight’s offensive possessions were post ups. His points per possession on those plays is 0.76. That’s just putrid. That’s much worse than Harden’s ppp on isolations. That’s even worse than when he shoots free throws! And what happens when Dwight posts up? The other four players run to the other side of the court, saturating that side with eight players. Not exactly great spacing.

Once again, the team that emphasizes efficiency the most runs the least efficient plays. Curious.

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

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