Are the Rockets a “Run and Gun” Team?

Overwhelm the opponent, wear them out, and attempt significantly more shots.  In theory, it’s a great idea.  The typical “fun and gun” strategy features copious three pointers, a fast pace, and an aggressive defense.  The idea rests on a few key assumptions:

1) Attempt more shots:  This is for a couple reasons.  First, if your team is used to a fast pace and the opponent is not, the opponent generally will make more mistakes (more turnovers).  You dictate the speed of the game.  Second, due to lots of quick, long-range shots before defenses are set, there are more opportunities for offensive rebounds.  Think about it –  if the offensive rebound rate off of three’s is higher than the rate off of two’s, then shooting more three’s will increase the number of possessions for your team.

2) Shoot lots of 3-pointers:  Long range shooters must pull the trigger when open.  The eFG% of 3-pointers is better than any other type of field goal attempt other than those close to the rim (dunks, layups, hook shots, etc.).  Also, three’s are easy and take little effort, allowing for more energy on defense and crashing the boards.

3) Take the first available shot:  Maintain the fast tempo by taking quick shots.  These are not always great looks, but remember – your team will have more attempts.

Historically, there have been very few pure run and gun teams.  I remember back when I played, one team in our conference, Emory and Henry, experimented with it for a few years.  Here is an example of one of their box scores.  They would full-court press the entire game, and subbed 5-man units every 4 minutes to keep the guys fresh.  They would shoot primarily three’s, and through steals and offensive rebounds would attempt about 30% more field goals than their opponents every game.  I couldn’t understand why this formula wouldn’t win every single time (they won some games, but could never win against the good teams).

There are zero teams in the NBA with that drastic of a commitment to the run and gun approach.  I think a major reason is that, as the opponents’ skill level increases, the effect of full-court pressure becomes less beneficial, and is often detrimental to a team’s success.  It takes a lot of energy to run a full-court press, a cost that may be too high for the slim rewards yielded against NBA-caliber back courts (against lesser opponents and in lower levels of play, however, it is still very effective).  In the NBA today, teams instead like to embrace the offense part (push the ball up the court, take quick shots), but not the defense part (force turnovers by pressing).  They instead hope that the other team will take quick shots as well, but at a lower percentage.  If you don’t already have some teams in mind, think of the Suns, the Warriors, and the Knicks.  I don’t think the Rockets fall into this run and gun category, even though a few aspects of our team are eerily close.

Run and gun does not win for 1.5 reasons (1.5 because reason #1 is significantly more important):

1) Free throw differential.  This is the single most important reason why run and gun does not work.  If you are camping out on the 3-point line, you are not drawing contact and getting to the free throw line.  Free throws are the second highest percentage shot in basketball (behind dunks which, coincidentally, are also pretty rare when attempting lots of 3’s), so less free throw attempts means that your team has a lower TS%.  Using the same general equation that I presented last time, I investigated the relationship between two different ratios:  free throw attempt differential and three point attempt differential, and their impact on wins.  I used data for all teams in the NBA from 2002 to 2009 (not selection bias – Excel could only handle 255 rows for regressions…), courtesy of databasebasketball.com.  Just as a quick overview, free throw attempts differential is a team’s weight of free throws per offensive possession divided by the opponents’ weight of free throws per (opponents’) offensive possession.  The formula looks like this:  ((.44*o_fta) / o_pos) / ((.44 * d_fta) / d_pos).  Three point attempts differential is the exact same thing, but insert 3-point attempts as the numerator (instead of .44*fta).  These first two charts show the relationship of attempts differentials to wins.  Note that these ratios are not impacted by shooting efficiency (FT% or 3PT%), and are only indicative of attempts.

So what does this data show us?  Both charts essentially confirm the idea that attempting a greater number of high-percentage shots will increase the likelihood of winning.  However, as I previously mentioned, players do not get fouled very often when they attempt 3-pointers.  A key differentiator between run and gun teams and, more generally, “fast-break” or “up-tempo” teams (think Showtime), is that run and gun focuses more heavily on attempting 3-pointers in any situation, rather than exhausting other options first (ie. getting to the rim and getting a layup or drawing contact).  The best teams, it seems, find a way to attempt a high number of 3-pointers and get to the foul line more than their opponents.  Daryl Morey obviously knows this, which would explain why he went after Kevin Martin (think of Martin’s two biggest strengths – drawing fouls and shooting 3-pointers).  The propensity to draw fouls and shoot a high percentage at the charity stripe is a key differentiator between the Rockets and typical run and gun teams.  Also, considering the Rockets’ commitment to lumbering centers Yao and Brad Miller, the openness to sign a shoot-last point guard like Ish Smith, and the lack of follow-through in trading for volume-shooter Carmelo Anthony, many signs point to our Rockets preferring a more dynamic scoring attack.  I will further discuss the implications of this realization with regards to the Rockets after reason #1.5:

1.5) eFG% is misleading for end-of-game shots.  Being a run and gun team with a reliance on high eFG% 3-point shooting does not help much in crunch time in a close game.  I don’t need to pull out any fancy stats here.  Even though Aaron Brooks had a 59.7 eFG% from three last season, the odds of him making a three-pointer on any given attempt were still 39.8% (his 3-point shooting %).  This is the intuition side of me, but good teams make clutch shots.  If your team relies on 3-point shooting (Rockets), and you need a clutch shot at the end of a game (against New Orleans or San Antonio), the odds of you making that particular shot are lower than a 2-point attempt (given the higher possibility of drawing a foul).  I don’t want this to appear like a contradiction from my last post.  I stand firm that 3-pointers are a crucial ingredient to winning, but an overreliance on them allows for greater variance.  Variance is fine during the course of a season or even a full game, but when your team has one shot at the end of a game, variance is the enemy.

Implications for the Rockets:

No, by most definitions the Rockets are not a run and gun team.  However, after digesting this information and thinking about our team, I am of the opinion that we are not optimizing our personnel.  Last year, the Rockets had a free throw attempts differential of 1.038 and a three point attempts differential of 1.35.  While our team’s FT% has been consistently above the league average the past three seasons (this year included), we are not getting to the free throw line enough.  Having excellent free throw shooters is a major competitive advantage that we are not exploiting.*

Despite not getting to the line very often last season, we allowed our opponents to get to the line even less.  Last season 9.88% of our possessions ended on free throw attempts, while our opponents ended 9.52% of possessions on free throw attempts (compared to a league average of 10.38% from 2002-2009).  Our defense, and more specifically our ability to not foul our opponents, covered up our inferior offensive free throw attempt rates.  Before Sunday’s game**, sitting at 0-5, we had attempted 2.8 less free throws per game than our opponents.  As we have witnessed the steady dilution of Jeff Van Gundy’s defensive impression on the Rockets since his departure, this may be the final straw.  Remove a defense-first coach, add an offense-first backcourt, and throw in a bunch of young, undisciplined defenders, and you have maximum exposure to some of the Rockets’ biggest flaws.

With Rick Adelman as coach and with our current roster, I do not see us magically becoming more disciplined defensively.  It’s just not going to happen.  Our best chance of reversing this trend is to attack the basket – a lot.  No more 19-foot jumpers.  We need to finish our drives, go all the way to the rim and get blocked, get fouled, or make a close shot.  The referees may be to blame for a call here and there, but over the course of a season there are no excuses.  The Rockets are currently built to outscore opponents, but if we shy away from one of our biggest competitive advantages on offense –  the highest-percentage shot in basketball outside of dunks – how can we be expected to overcome our defensive ineptitudes?  I implore you to join me in a collective cringe every time the Rockets settle for a long 2-pointer, appreciate aggressiveness, and by all means, learn to love free throws.

*In 2008, when the Rockets won 52 games, our FT attempts and 3-point attempts differentials were 1.098 and 1.273, respectively.  That slight boost in FT attempts over opponents (combined with some other factors) was enough to propel us into solid seeding in the playoffs.  The results of the Minnesota game Sunday were more of a confirmation than ever that the free throw attempts differential is especially important for the Rockets.  In that game, we attempted 47 free throws (shooting 83%), while Minnesota attempted 33 free throws (68%).

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