The NBA All-Star Weekend, trade deadline, and player buyout period have all come and gone, and we’re now just about a month away from the NBA playoffs. This is the point in the NBA season where the playoff picture, and more importantly, who the NBA champion might be, starts becoming clearer.
It seems that this season more so than the last few however, the Finals picture remains a complete toss-up. An argument can be made for several teams to win it all come June, especially Miami (because Lebron is still the best player on the planet), Oklahoma City (because it’s just simply been Durant’s year), Indiana (because defense wins championships), San Antonio (because it would just be foolish to count them out anymore), and the Clippers (because adding Glen Davis and Danny Granger might be enough to push them over the edge).
But what about Houston? The Rockets seem to have done just about everything right so far, being one of just three teams with a top-eight offensive and defensive rating (along with Oklahoma City and San Antonio) and having (arguably) two of the league’s best 15 players.
Both the trade deadline and player buyout period passed without Houston making any flashy moves, despite having enough cap room to add one or two more nice players and rumors swirling that the team was interested in shopping Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. The Rockets only decided to swap out the lightly used Aaron Brooks for Jordan Hamilton, a player with a lot of raw, yet unpolished talent who may be more of a long-term project than a key role player on a playoff team. The roster as it stands now is still certainly one to be feared in the playoffs, and can possibly even be looked at as a legitimate title contender.
The Rockets play the model offensive system for what NBA analytic nerds consider to be the most efficient way to play basketball: Taking mostly 3-pointers and shots at the rim, while omitting long 2-pointers. Houston has followed this scheme almost perfectly, with a league-high rate of 32.5% of its field goal attempts coming from behind the arc while only jacking up four 15-19-foot jump shots per game (the lowest rate in the league by about 5 attempts). The Rockets have also learned to play efficiently in both the slower and faster paces of the game. Houston is 5th in the league with 17.4 fast break points per game, but also ranks 6th on pick-and-roll ball handler plays (scoring on 44.4% of these plays) and 3rd on pick-and-roll plays where the screener rolls to the basket (scoring on 57.2% of these plays), according to Synergy Sports.
But an offensive system can only be as successful as the talent of the players allow it to be. The Rockets assist on its field goals at a bottom-five rate of 55%, and have a dead-last turnover ratio (turnovers per 100 possessions) of 16.7. And despite chucking more 3s than any other team in the league, Houston ranks just 18th in the league scoring on only 35.4% of its 3-point attempts. The Rockets also go to the line more than any other team with 31.6 attempts per 100 possessions, yet only shoot 69.7% from the stripe (ranked 29th in the league).
These numbers might be less relevant come playoff time, however. We’ve seen teams heat up from downtown in the post-season before, and the turnovers should hopefully lower as the game typically slows down in the playoffs.
The Rockets do a good job of pleasing the stat nerds on the defensive side of the ball as well. Houston defends the corner 3 very well, a shot that is considered to be the most efficient shot in basketball, limiting opponents to just 34.5% shooting on these attempts (ranked 2nd). Having two of the better defensive centers in the league has certainly paid off so far too, limiting opponents to 36.1% shooting in the paint (outside of the restricted area, ranking 1st) and 39.8% shooting on post-ups, according to Synergy.
One worry about this defense in the slowed-down pace of the playoffs though: Houston likes to stick just two players on pick-and-roll defense instead of bringing help over and potentially leaving a man open. This scheme works well in tightening up an offense if both defenders are able to contain the pick-and-roll, but also often forces a Houston guard to switch onto a bigger player.
You’ll see here where both Chandler Parsons and Donatas Motiejunas are able to lock their guys down, resulting in a bad shot for the Suns. Phoenix likes to use these pick-and-pop plays with Channing Frye frequently, hoping that the guard rolling around Frye will draw a double-team and create an open 3-pointer. Knowing that nobody is going to rotate over to bring help though, Motiejunas and Parsons simply switch men. Motiejunas brings extra size without a significant drop in speed when trying to defend Gerald Green, being able to force him into a bad shot on the baseline. Both Asik and Howard, being very athletic defensive big men, are capable of doing the same as Motiejunas on this play, where the ball handler is typically forced into a bad shot. According to Synergy, Houston allows just 37.4% shooting on pick-and-roll plays where the ball handler shoots, ranked 6th in the league in doing so.
This gets a little bit trickier to defend when there is a significant size difference in the Houston defenders, however. You’ll see here on this Rubio-Love pick-and-pop where Love is left wide open for a jumper. Lin should have switched onto Love, although not an ideal defensive matchup, and let Rubio deal with the much taller Motiejunas one-on-one. Rubio likely would’ve flipped the ball back even if Lin switched over to Love, but Love certainly wouldn’t have had any trouble scoring on Lin, a below-average and much shorter defender. Although Houston is able to lock down the other three offensive players on the floor by not moving over to help, the defense will often face these significant size mismatches on pick-and-roll plays. The Rockets allow teams to score on nearly 51% of these plays, according to Synergy, a rate that ranks 19th in the league.
This is an area that will really help Houston come playoff time, where teams’ starting lineups start seeing a lot more playing time with each other. The starting five of Beverley-Harden-Parsons-Jones-Howard has played extremely efficiently together, putting up a 110.1 offensive rating in the 413 minutes that the five players have shared the floor.
And this unit will only get better if Beverley can keep up the shooting improvements that he has made lately. Beverley, commonly known as a defensive pest but a limited offensive player, has shot the 3 exceptionally well over the last 10 games completing 40% of his attempts. Houston’s offense also never really suffered when Beverley was on the floor with a 109 offensive rating, making the decision to start him over Lin an easy one. With Beverley’s improved shooting over the last 10 games though, the Rockets’ offensive rating has had a decent little bump up to 110.8 when Beverley hit the floor with a net rating of 12.8.
We’re all aware of the kind of offensive player Harden has become by now, but he’s gained the stigma (and rightfully so) of being an extremely lazy defender over the past few seasons. Harden isn’t quite as bad a defender as advertised though, and he actually plays pick-and-roll defense fairly well only allowing opponents to score 35.2% of shots on these plays. Outside of the pick-and-roll however Harden might be one of the most unaware defenders in the league, often leaving his man completely wide open on the other side of the floor as seen here where he leaves his man, Darren Collison, completely unguarded in the left corner while Harden accomplishes absolutely nothing by planting himself under the basket:
Barnes noticed this immediately and hit Collison for a wide open 3, while Harden didn't have nearly enough time to close out on the shot.
Harden’s biggest flaw on the defensive end though remains the fact that he’s an excessive gambler, and will almost always completely give up on a play if he doesn’t gamble successfully. It’s easy to spot him on several plays trying to swoop into the passing lanes for a steal, only to miss and watch his man go right to the basket.
These aren’t unfixable problems however, and just require some defensive discipline from Harden. He’s shown potential to be a good defender by the way he guards pick-and-rolls, he just needs to use that same intelligence in all other aspects of his defense. Harden also allows 55.3% shooting on opponent isolation plays (ranked 246th among all players), which can be fixed simply by applying more effort on these plays.
Chandler Parsons has quietly evolved into one of the most useful offensive players in the league this season, being able to create his own shot both with and without the ball. He’s one of the best pick-and-roll ball handlers in the NBA, finishing on 45.2% of these plays (ranked 32nd amongst all players). He’s somehow even better coming off the ball though, shooting 50% off of screens (ranked 8th) and 54.7% off of hand-offs (ranked 8th).
The combination of both Parsons’ length and speed has made him a very versatile defender as well, being able to switch over from taller forwards to quicker guards with ease. Parsons' contract is the best bargain in the league right now by far, making only about $927k this season with a team option for about $945k next season.
Terrence Jones has also become another very decent bargain for this team, steadily improving in his starting role while being only owed about $5.6 million over the next three seasons. Jones has been a nice complement to Howard posting a very respectable 12/7 stat line on nearly 53% shooting, and even though he isn’t a great 3-point shooter at 29.2%, he still often demands defensive attention from behind the arc.
Like Parsons, Jones is also extremely athletic for his size, and is often able to capitalize on his athleticism on offense. At least once a game Jones will be able to make a quick cut right under the basket as his man is helping double Dwight in the paint, just as he does here:
Jones’ athleticism has also helped him chase around guards in the way that Houston likes to use just two defenders on pick-and-rolls, while not giving up a lot of height to his main defensive assignment. Jones does often struggle against bigger 4s defensively however, typically getting bullied by heavier players in the post.
We’re all aware of the defensive improvements that Dwight Howard brings to a team (although the 101.4 defensive rating when Dwight is on the floor is slightly higher than the 99.4 rating when Asik plays), but Dwight has been an absolute monster on offense this year. Howard scores on a ridiculous 72.9% of pick-and-roll plays when he goes to the basket, a play that Houston likes to use frequently, and scores on 89% of plays where he cuts to the rim. And although Dwight has never been a necessarily great post player, he still often draws double-teams when posting up, leaving the Houston wings open from behind the arc for him to kick the ball out to.
The biggest worry with Dwight in the playoffs will obviously be his poor foul shooting, although he has been able to hit a slightly respectable 61.7% of his free throws over the last 10 games. If he is able to maintain a rate like this in the post-season, hopefully teams will choose to use the "Hack-a-Howard" strategy slightly less.
This is probably the biggest worry with this team going into the playoffs, where the Houston bench does not offer quite as much depth as that of the Clippers, Thunder, or Spurs. Even though starters see the bulk of the minutes in playoff games, not having bench depth can especially become a problem in this loaded Western Conference where many series might be taken to seven games.
Omer Asik is finally back and healthy, and seems to has accepted his role as Dwight’s backup (at least for now). Having Asik coming off the bench is a unique luxury for Houston that many other teams don’t have, where the defense actually gets better when he replaces the star center. Asik’s offensive limits are still a problem for Houston however, where he struggles to be a productive tool unless he’s standing directly under the basket. This makes it nearly impossible for Asik and Howard to ever play together, where the offense plummets down to an 89.6 offensive rating when the two players share the floor.
Jeremy Lin is also a decent player to have coming off the bench, but he has really struggled as of late, shooting just slightly over 40% in his last 10 games. Lin has never been a great playmaker and seems to have lost his confidence to take even wide-open shots recently, turning him into a fairly limited offensive player currently. The Rockets’ offensive rating even lowers when he’s on the floor to 106.6, as opposed to the 109.2 offensive rating when he’s on the bench. Lin has also been an infamously below-average defender over the course of his career, and he won’t be of much use to the Rockets if he doesn’t get his offensive game back together soon.
Houston suffers a bit of a drop-off from the bench after Lin and Asik. Motiejunas is a decent backup providing floor spacing and average defense coming off the bench, but he’s been a below-average shooter this season only completing 26.4% of his 3s and 44.2% of his total attempts. Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi also provide floor spacing as well as decent defensive effort, but both players struggle to score inside the 3-point line or run pick-and-rolls. And as mentioned before, Jordan Hamilton has a lot of talent but might not be totally reliable in a playoff situation. The skills are all there for Hamilton, but he often tries to do too much with the ball, either resulting in a turnover or an extremely inefficient shot.
But much of the pressure will be taken off the rest of the bench if Lin is able to regain his offensive rhythm. Teams typically use only eight or nine-player rotations in playoff games anyway, and a bench core of Lin, Asik, and Motiejunas might be good enough to get to the finals. Many of Houston’s other problems are simple disciplinary flaws (turnovers, running too many isolations, a lack of ball movement, etc.), and can be easily turned around over the next few months if the Rockets plan on winning it all. The foundation to win a championship is definitely in place here, it’ll just be up to the team to decide whether it can go all the way.
And if not this season, the core will still be here for the next few years to come. Dwight and Harden are both locked in through at least 2016, while Parsons, Beverley, Motiejunas, Lin, Jones, and Asik are on the books for next season. Hamilton, Ronnie Brewer, Casspi, and Greg Smith all come off the books this summer, leaving the Rockets with some wiggle room and the possibility to add another above-average role player either via trade or free agency. Regardless of the choices made though, Houston should be feared just as much as anybody to win the title over the next few seasons.
(Just like I did here, I've been writing articles recently breaking down different NBA teams using advanced stats, video clips, cap numbers, etc. I wrote similar articles for Bullets Forever and Bright Side Of The Sun over the last few weeks, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.)
 The 2011 Mavs are a nice example of this, a team that had a 36.5% 3-point percentage in the regular season jump to nearly 40% in the playoffs.
 Dwight has a player option in summer 2016, and Harden has a team option in summer 2017.
 Both Parsons and Beverley have team options under $1 million next season that Houston will absolutely pick up.