LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 04: Head coach Kevin McHale of the Houston Rockets shouts during the game with the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on January 4, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
After a few bad losses, it's natural to look around and try to assign some blame. The Rockets are 2-4 on an early schedule that is kinda brutal, but that's not terribly surprising. Daryl Morey himself said they were looking at a number like 4-6 or even 3-7 as decent enough records in the first ten games of the season. The Rockets are still in this thing, and suggesting that they aren't able to recover from a two-game losing streak in January is at least a little silly. So I'm not really looking to blame someone right now. The Rockets have played tough teams, and they beat two of them handily, lost three in no-contest fashion, and lost another more closely. It could be a lot worse.
But there are some significant problems with this Rockets team that opposing teams have exposed in the first six games.The biggest problem (bizarrely, for the Rockets) is the offense [edit: okay, maybe it's the defense]. There are other problems with the Rockets, definitely: Scola's rebounding numbers are way down, Lowry's is really awesome but his turnover numbers are dangerously high, and Jordan Hill seems to be our best non-Scola big man right now. But the single biggest difference between the 2011 Rockets (winning record!) and the 2012 Rockets (we'll see!) is the offense.
The Rockets' offense has declined a lot since last year. Last year they scored a little over 111 points per 100 possessions, good for 4th in the league. This year they're scoring 104.1 per 100, good for only 13th. The offense is slower, (there's a difference of about two possessions per game) but not enormously so -- the main difference is that many other teams (the Blazers, for instance) have gotten much, much faster, and so the Rockets have slipped from 8th in pace to 14th. My early assumption was that at least some of the slippage in offensive efficiency had to do with the slower pace, but the Rockets haven't slowed down enough to really account for that.
The main problem on offense is a much greater propensity for jump shots. Going off of the possession statistics provided by 82games.com, the Rockets' offense has gone from shooting jump shots 67% of the time in 2011 to 74% this season. Most of the difference comes from shots in close to the basket (layups and post shots), which have declined from being used in 29% of possessions to just 22%. And, yet despite the Rockets' offense getting away from the basket, the Rockets' effective field goal percentage (FG% adjusted for threes counting more than twos) has actually improved -- 51.4% compared to last season's 50.3%.
So what's up with the Rockets? Why does the offense suck so bad (you know, comparatively)?
Last year the Rockets were basically the True Shooting Poster Children. In case you're not aware, True Shooting Percentage is a statistic that takes eFG%'s accounting for the difference between threes and twos and joins it with free throw shooting. True Shooting tries to capture how important it is to get to the line (and, secondarily, how important it is to make the shots you take at the line). The Rockets last year were very, very good at that: #7 in the league in free throw attempts per field goal attempt at .219.
This year, the Rockets are dead last in the league in FT/FGA, and it's not even really close. The Rockets are at .138, while #29 (the offensively hapless Bucks) are at .164. There's about as much distance between #24 (the old and jump-shotty Suns) and #29 as there is between Milwaukee and Houston. Ouch.
Okay, so the general problem is free throws. That's not terribly surprising, right? It's something everyone has noticed (though I didn't think it accounted for so much of the problem), after all. So who's to blame?
Kevin Martin is certainly the leader in this decline. During the 2011 season, he had a free throw attempt for roughly every two field goals he tried (FTA/FGA = a ridiculous .52). Now he gets one for every five tries (FTA/FGA = a boring .19). According to 82games, he has gone from drawing a foul on 16.8% of his shots to just 3.3%. He isn't getting to the basket like he used to. Last year he got close shots on 20% of his field goal attempts, but now he's at the basket only 14%. Just doing the math in my head, that seems to account for almost all of the decline in his foul numbers.
But this is an across-the-board decline for the Rockets. Martin is leading the retreat, as it were, but the only player who hasn't declined from his numbers last season is (naturally) Kyle Lowry (15.9% fouled vs 9.6% last year; .42 FTA/FGA vs .31 last year).
That leads me to believe that the problem is the offense they're running right now. Lowry has upped his free throw numbers at least partly because the offense now runs almost completely through him. He drives to the basket and either takes it to the hoop or finds the open man (usually Scola at mid range, it seems). There's less back-cutting and high-post passing, which means that while Lowry's assist numbers have skyrocketed, overall assist numbers are down, and so are the number of players actually getting to the rim. Martin is so hard hit partly because he's in a different offense (but then again he played in a different offense in Sacramento after Adelman left, right?), partly because he's handling the ball less (he's being assisted on 60% of his shots now, rather than 53% in 2011), and partly because of a supposed toughening of the rules on what constitutes "contact."
So what can the Rockets do to help fix the problem?
McHale has done a fine job working with the defense (the Rockets have improved from 28th to 19th in defensive efficiency NVM, the defense sucks, too. Mixed up 2011 and 2012; the Rockets have fallen from 19th to 28th in defensive efficiency), but maybe he needs to go to more plays from the Adelman offense. We've seen the Rockets use some of Adelman's system this year to great effect -- Chase Budinger and Martin both got to the basket in the past few games on the sort of ball-in-the-high-post, back-cutting wing man offense that Adelman used so often last year.
On the other hand, it's possible the Rockets are taking a longer view of this, putting Kyle Lowry firmly in the driver's seat so that he develops. Lowry is certainly developing, but the team offense as a whole has taken a step back. Maybe, in a month or so, the investment in Lowry's development will pay off, but if the Rockets really want to win now, perhaps they should return to the old ways of doing things. Maybe the Rockets offense can rebound on its own, anyways. Going from 7th to last in free throws is so ridiculous it just has to regress to the mean, right?