This is Part Three of a five-part series featuring the five most likely contenders for the NBA Championship. In case you missed it, Part One (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Part Two (San Antonio Spurs). Check back the next two Saturday mornings for Parts Four and Five.
We should have seen this coming.
In the 2003-04 season, the Phoenix Suns went 30-52 and had the 10th worst offensive rating in the league. In 2004-05, they hired Mike D’Antoni. When D’Antoni took the reins the Seven Seconds or Less Suns were born. That season, the Suns finished with a record of 59-23, and reached the Western Conference Finals. In just one season, D’Antoni brought the offensive rating up 20 spots to the very best in the NBA. The Suns pushed the pace, spread the floor, and revolutionized basketball with D’Antoni and his new favorite toy, Steve Nash.
Yes, after Phoenix, D’Antoni went on to fail miserably with the Knicks and Lakers, but those two teams had a clear deficiency his Suns teams did not, a point guard. In New York, D’Antoni swapped out Nash for poor offensive operators— Chris Duhon and Raymond Felton. And while he was reunited with Nash in Los Angeles, Nash proved to be an oft-injured shell of himself. This forced D’Antoni to hand the offense to yet another sub-par option, Kendall Marshall.
After being hired by the Rockets this off-season, it appeared there may be a similar void for D’Antoni in Houston. Last season, under Kevin McHale and interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the Rockets rolled with Patrick Beverley and Ty Lawson at the point. Serviceable but uninspiring options, much like D’Antoni’s New York and Los Angeles choices. D’Antoni was decided to not make the same mistake again. It isn’t that teams can’t be great without a great point guard, rather his system can not flourish without one. Steve Nash reincarnate was not coming through that door, so D’Antoni went to the lab and created bearded-Nash. And Seven Seconds or Beard was born.
Seven Seconds or Beard
Seven Seconds or Beard is yet another fast-paced pick and roll laden offense, now, headed by a foul-drawing, three-point shooting, left-hand dime-dropping Cyborg of a point guard named James. And it works great.
Harden has, of course, been terrific individually but the Rockets as a whole have exceeded expectations. Vegas projected 44 wins for Houston and they are going to bound past that and finish in the high fifties, only trailing the Warriors and Spurs in the league’s standings.
To make that kind of jump from expectations, things needed to really click. The pieces on the Rockets roster would maybe look a bit odd on other teams if used in the same way, but in Houston they Jigsaw together perfectly.
I swear to God, if I hear one more person say, “the Rockets are just a team built on a spreadsheet,” I am going to pop them in the face quicker than you can say Ne-ne.
Harden may have been built in a basketball factory, but the Rockets style of basketball is anything but robotic. Instead it is beautiful and smart, not beautiful because it is smart. Sure, the Rockets have made more than double the three-pointers of the Chicago Bulls but get over it, the Bulls suck! Turns out layups and threes are the best shots in basketball and Harden is really good at those two things.
We all know that the Rockets, almost exclusively, shoot threes and layups. But rather than breaking down their shot chart for the millionth time, let’s take a look at how they get these high percentage looks.
Okay, fine. One look at their shot chart.
2016-17 Houston Rockets Shot Distribution
The male-pattern baldness that is the Rockets shot chart is truly a novelty. Novelty again has proven to be the great parent of pleasure. And it has been a true pleasure to watch Harden evolve into a point guard. More specifically the ball handler in the pick and roll. Of players who are used excessively in the pick and roll (nine-plus times per game) Harden delivers the best efficiency in the NBA, using the pick and roll nearly twelve times per game.
This is where D’Antoni re-asserts himself in the equation. Harden may be used in ball screen action twelves times per game, but it is rare that one set mirrors another game to game. The Rockets use the pick and roll just shy of one million different ways.
Downhill Ball Screen Action
Here, we see Harden rushing into the offense. He does this for a few reasons. First, this style immediately puts the defense on their heels. They fear his size and speed propelled directly at the rim. Marreese Speights is one more back pedal away from a full-on pants shitting.
Also, notice how high the high ball screen comes from Montrezl Harrell. He’s at freaking half court. A reason for this is that space is created immediately by setting the screen here. A general downside of the pick and roll can be congestion. The Rockets solution, set the pick where no one else is. With the screen coming at half court, Harden is at full speed by the time he reaches the three-point line, as if he’s running down a hill. Hence, downhill ball screen action.
Bait and Change Action
Another advantage of sprinting into the pick and roll is the alleviation of the burden the shot clock imposes. Many teams are patient and slow as they enter pick and roll, this limits offensive options as the shot clock is winding down by the end of the action. By pushing the pace, the screen can be set multiple times.
Here, in Bait and Change Action the ball screen is faked on one side only to be brought back on the other side of the defender. This forces the defense to communicate effectively. It’s paramount for Harden’s defender to know where the screen is at all times, because even a second caught on the screen will free Harden to the rim. The roll-man’s defender needs to be communicating but he also needs to play the pocket (the area in which the ball can be passed from ball handler to roll-man).
On this play, the Bait and Change opens a pocket for Harden to find Nene on the roll. When a Rockets pick and roll is surrounded by three shooters there is no easier system to run an effective pick and roll. The whole lane belongs to Harden and Nene.
Second Pick and Roll Action
Again fostered by their swiftness into their first pick and roll, the Rockets have time to run a second pick and roll if an advantage is not found on the first. Here, the first pick and roll is doubled by Greg Monroe. Harden realizes he does not have the advantage so he swings the ball to Trevor Ariza, but the ball finds it’s way back to Harden. On the second pick and roll Harden finds an advantage, Nene on the roll.
Nene catches at twelve feet, but as we know in Houston mid-range jumpers are faux pas. Even after two separate pick and rolls there is ten seconds left on the shot clock, so the Rockets keep digging for a three or a layup. And this is where the Rockets offense gets pretty. Nene catches at twelve feet swings it to Ariza in the corner, Ariza to Eric Gordon on the wing, Gordon penetrates to find Nene for the dunk.
The supposedly “ugly foul-drawing” offense of the Rockets often looks Spurs-esque.
Shooter Slip to Space Action
The Rockets don’t only use their centers (Clint Capella, Harrell, Nene) as the screener in the pick and roll. Another and unique weapon as the screener is Ryan Anderson. Anderson creates a different type of defensive gravity than the rolling centers as he is shooting 40 percent from three on 7 attempts per game. Where Capella, Harrell, and Nene slip the screen into the lane, Anderson pivots and slips out to the three point line.
When both the ball handler and screener are 40 percent three-point shooters, it is almost impossible to defend the action with only two defenders. In response, some teams try and sneak in a third defender.
Here, against the Timberwolves, the Rockets are again trying to slip Anderson for a three. Having already dropped this on the Wolves earlier in the game, Kris Dunn begins to sniff out the action. He begins to sneak up from the corner in an effort to intercept the pass to Anderson on the slip.
This is where the vast spread of the Rockets floor, again, pays dividends. The space makes the distance from Dunn’s man (Brewer) to Anderson too far of a distance even for the lightning quick Dunn. As the play develops it is apparent that Harden’s spidey-sense is far more mature than the rookies and he takes advantage of Brewer (Dunn’s man) cutting backdoor.
Beyond the Pick and Roll: The Rockets Defense
Another issue before installing D’Antoni was a putrid and uninterested defensive unit. This still may be their downfall in the playoffs, but the Houston defense has also improved. A big reason for this is, again, Harden. He will never be a lock down defender, but he has stopped being a negative on the defensive end. Statistically this shows up as both his Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Box Plus-Minus have improved from last season. But having Harden play more as a point guard has also helped the defense because it has meant less time playing sieve point guards.
Last season, the Rockets three worst defenders (per defensive rating) were Jason Terry, Ty Lawson, and Marcus Thornton. Those three combined to play 3,319 minutes. With Harden shifting into more of the point guard role, those three poor defenders became expendable. Ditching Lawson has been particularly helpful.
Turning the ball over on offense can be one of the most detrimental things to a teams defense. Last season, the Rockets had the fourth worst turnover percentage in the NBA and Lawson was a major culprit, especially in live-ball turnovers. Live-ball turnovers lead to fastbreaks and fastbreaks are the easiest way to score. Too many of Lawson’s offensive possessions ended like these two plays where Lawson struggles to make good decisions or simply throws lazy passes.
The point guard minutes now go almost exclusively to Harden and Patrick Beverley. Through this the Rockets have exorcised some of their defensive demons.
Beverley is an interesting and effective defender. With much of the offensive duties in the hands of Harden, he is able to bring full effort on defense every possession. Beverley is an absolute pest to opposing point guards. Once you cross half court against the Rockets, you need to be prepared for Beverley to be attacking your cookies.
Beverley’s defensive stance is particularly unique. Stylistically, he is not your high school coach’s slap the floor into straight-back defender. Rather, Beverley bends over and figuratively sniffs out opponents cookies. This style extends Beverley’s reach and his ability to get his hand on the ball the moment his opponents handle loosens.
Cross-Matching on Defense
Beverley is not the only unique thing about the Rockets defense. On that end of the floor, Houston has put in as many tweaks as they have to the pick and roll. Being addicted to offense, D’Antoni systemically tries to use defense as an offensive weapon. One example is cross-matching on defense.
With versatile defenders, the Rockets rarely implement the guard who guards you strategy. On this play against the Pelicans, all of the Rockets guards and wings are cross-matched. Ariza (SF) is guarding Jrue Holiday (PG), Beverley (PG) is guarding Buddy Hield (SG), and Harden (SG) is guarding E’Twaun Moore (SF).
After Harden grabs the rebound, the Rockets are off to the races and the Pelicans need to immediately transition into a defensive mode. For the Pelicans, this means switching onto a new player. Moore sprints back from the opposite wing to pick up Beverley, Holiday immediately picks up Harden, but Hield is a second slow in recognizing his man Ariza. All it takes is a second and an inch for Houston and they are popping a transition three.
The Rockets may not thrive on defense, but they know how to take an apparent weakness, tweak it, and turn it into a positive. For Houston, defense often turns into transition offense and therefore a strength. 1,493 of the Rockets offensive possessions have been in transition, good for the most in the league.
The Pace of a Champion
If the Rockets are truly a championship contender, they will be the fastest paced NBA champion ever. Faster than the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors. But their identity does not lie simply in their speed. Yes, they are born out of the principles of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns but they are more than that. Just as much as there is a pace to this team there is also a strategic patience. They know the type of shot they want to get in seven seconds, but if that shot is not there they will audible to option two or three.
If any team knows who they are, it is Houston. Speed usually produces chaos, but speed with discipline is only chaotic for the defense. Their discipline is apparent in the pursuit of threes and layups but it is even more apparent in the big picture— a commitment to the system.
Because the “spread sheet” will always be in their favor, look out if shooting volatility benefits them in the playoffs. A cold shooting streak could, yes, make them beatable. There is a downside to the who the Rockets are but just as likely is a sky-high ceiling and that makes Houston real title contenders in 2017.