What went wrong for the Houston Rockets in 2016? – Part 1

I’ve now had over 48 hours to digest the disappointing end to Houston’s season.  What started out in October carrying expectations of title contention ended in utter embarrassment, with the franchise now unexpectedly again at a crossroads.  The Houston Rockets thought they were right there and now, they’ll need to tear it all down completely.  What the hell happened?

Setting aside the gossip and conjecture, Houston’s twelve month demise can be summed up neatly through one quantitative comparison: the team’s defensive rating fell from 8th overall last year, to 21st this year.  That defensive decline almost solely can be held accountable for the team’s record.  The team actually improved offensively, finishing 12th last season, and 7th this season, in offensive rating.

The two most striking defensive indicators were opponents’ three-point percentage and opponents’ assists.  In opponents’ three point percentage, Houston fell from first to 21st.  In opponents’ assists, Houston fell from 12th last year to 29th this year.  Recall that many believed last season that that sparkling opponents’ three-point percentage ranking Houston boasted was a product of luck and not a reliable indicator of future production.  The outcome either regressed back to a random accuracy rate, or the Rockets stopped closing out as aggressively on shooters as they had a year ago.  (Another theory might be that with different personnel on the floor this season, they were not able to recover as effectively on the perimeter).

Among other notable defensive metrics, in defensive rebounding, Houston fell from 18th in the league last year to 27th this year; the Rockets fell from 14th to 20th in total rebounding.  Consequently, Houston was second worst in the league this season in opponents second chance points.  Last year, they were 22nd overall.  And the Rockets this season fell to 17th in defensive field goal percentage at the rim, after finishing 9th last season.  That might come as a surprise given Dwight Howard’s full availability this year.  A surprise if you were not aware that Clint Capela is a comparable rim protector.

Most of the team’s other defensive metrics remained stable.  As noted above, the Rockets improved overall offensively.  In overall shooting, Houston improved from 20th last season to 14th this year.  On threes though–and this is not insignificant–the Rockets fell from 14th most accurate to 19th.  The team also fell from 9th to 16th in assists.  Such data indicates Houston somehow scored more prolifically this year while passing the ball less overall as a team.  This is rather counterintuitive.

Pace fell from second fastest to 7th, which was expected given Dwight Howard’s aforementioned availability.  But turnover percentage remained stable: 28th last year, and 27th this year.

Offensive rebounding percentage stayed about the same: 7th last year to 6th this year.  Free throw attempts per game actually went up, despite the slowed pace, from 6th overall last year to third this year.

Why the drastic decline defensively after bringing back essentially the same group?  Houston’s most-used five-man combination last year was Ariza/Beverley/Harden/Howard/Motiejunas, with 360 minutes played together.  This year?  It was…Ariza/Beverley/Harden/Howard/Motiejunas, with 295 minutes played together.  Last year, the quintet posted a net rating of +10.7.  This year?  +11.  Naturally, we’ll need to dig much, much deeper beyond the surface, in later installments, to glean any understanding.  On the surface, the 5-man lineup data seems to confirm this was the same group brought back from last season.  Obviously, we know that wasn’t the case.

What I can’t wrap my head around is how devoid of talent the Rockets looked to close the year, even before the Golden State series.  The Rockets looked like James Harden and a band of D-Leaguers.  Juxtapose that with the image and perception we had of the team in October – on paper, they seemed absolutely stacked, even three deep at some positions.  How did every single individual from an entire group regress so suddenly over the course of mere months?  And maybe even more interestingly for me, how is this group such a paradox?  The Rockets are a collection of offensively limited role players many of whom are highly regarded as individual defenders.  Yet they had one of the worst defenses and one of the best offenses in the league this year.

We’ll dig into the individuals in the next installment.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of www.Red94.net.

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