It should not be this god damn hard to watch the Houston Rockets play basketball. The hallmarks of a great league pass team are here: lightning pace, tons of shooting, dynamic defenders, and the MVP runner up. They won 56 games in a division that had all five of its teams make the playoffs, and they finished with the most threes and most dunks of any team in the league. They should be a fun real-life pairing of team success and NBA Jam, yet they are probably the second most hated team in the league and are consistently written off as a title contender. Still, despite the hatred, the rash of injuries, and whatever the fuck those first four games were, Tuesday night showed that a Rockets team that tries still has a shot to beat the Clippers. How much of a shot is up for debate (they’re eight point underdogs tonight, so that’s not a good sign), but maybe they still have something left to earn themselves a happy trip home instead of a sad one.
The charts you’ll see in this post are set to the league by percentile (the outer ring is the best/top in the league) per 36 minutes, and adjusted by position(G/F/C). RelDefRtg is the difference between a player’s net defensive rating and that of his team’s. All statistics are for the entirety of the regular season, as per NBA.com
Losing Patrick Beverley, Donatas Moteijunas, and KJ McDaniels to injuries has trimmed Kevin McHale’s rotation to essentially eight players (no, Clint Capela does not count), and it looks like these eight guys are splitting into two groups of four. This is the bench half of that, consisting of three players who started the season elsewhere, and one who might as well have.
Terrence Jones is the only holdover in this squad, and under different circumstances he probably would be grouped in with the starting unit. As it happens though, he missed nearly fifty games with injury, and as such has seen his minutes stay in the low twenties per game since his February return. Jones has barely any passing ability, and his usage is fairly low, but he’s a quality finisher when there are proper creators on the floor with him, and he can even hit some threes. Brewer has similar creative limitations, but gets a ton of transition buckets; only Marreese Speights had a higher pace among forwards who played at least half the season. Pablo Prigioni is not the true creator that his assist ratio suggests; his excellent passing belies his complete inability to drive, meaning his assists come almost exclusively from swinging the ball around the perimeter instead of driving, as shown by his near-zero free throw rate. His only other tangible benefit is that he can shoot well enough to at least keep his defender honest, but that’s a pretty important one as far as the Rockets are concerned. The glue for this bench unit is, somehow, Josh Smith. Considering the disaster he inflicted upon the poor citizens of Detroit, Smith’s time in Houston has been mostly positive. The athleticism is obvious from the radar; he blocks shots and gets out in transition at elite rates, and has above average rebounding and free throw numbers. What’s impressive is the way that his god-forsaken shooting numbers don’t crater the offense. Whenever the Rockets took James Harden off the floor, their offensive rating was 96.6, which is almost equivalent to Smith’s offensive rating since he signed in Houston. Smith’s ability to soak up possessions with assists and free throws nearly neutralizes his complete inability to shoot, which is a very backhanded compliment, but a compliment nonetheless. This bench unit might not be the caliber of the Warriors’, but no one is nearly as bad as Hedo Turkoglu, which makes them favorites in my book.
As for the starters, Harden and Ariza were comfortably ahead of the rest in minutes played this season, Howard is absolutely a core piece, and Jason Terry has been playing thirty minutes a night in the playoffs just so Doc Rivers believes that it’s still 2007.
The clearest part of any of these radars is that James Harden is an offensive fireball, but second to that is how important Dwight is to the team’s defense; his -3.7 RelDefRtg is massive, as are his 12.7 rebounds per36. Trevor Ariza is a quality defensive asset, but Harden is an improved mediocre and Jason Terry is 37 years old, undersized, and usually poor on that end, meaning he’s probably outplaying his actual defensive skills due to a good scheme and having Dwight Howard behind him. Ariza and Terry on offense are pretty much spot up shooters capable of swinging the ball around, as neither of them get to the line with any regularity, but they don’t have to as long as Harden is around. His free throw earnings are famous at this point, but it is stunning to see him earn a full ten for every 36 minutes. Couple that with a true shooting percentage over sixty and a usage over thirty percent, and it becomes overwhelming to comprehend how often he dominates offensively. Now that he has been shamed into defensive effort, he turns the load of rebounds and turnovers that he earns into a ton of transition possessions and clean early looks, as evidenced by the entire group being in the top 15% in pace (save Prigioni, who’s pace is skewed by having to play for the Knicks). With Dwight filling the lane and Terry and Ariza spotting up, Harden gets the space to do pretty much whatever he wants. That’s really the core premise of this team; that the role players are good enough to allow the stars to dominate, and that the stars allow each other to work effectively at their respective ends of the floor. Howard’s defense allows Harden to gamble for steals, while Harden’s offensive repertoire means all Howard has to do is dunk, and guys like Jones, Ariza, and Terry do just enough to keep James and Dwight from burning out. In a year not populated with the best team in over a decade, the Rockets would be legitimate title contenders. They have leveraged their stars to create high level play on each end of the floor, and the surrounding role players have been, Josh Smith aside, relegated to the roles that suit them. While they sometimes do play terrible, horrible, no good basketball games, they are a legitimately good team. Now let’s just see if they play like one.