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How Will Yao's Return Affect The Rockets Offense?

I've made it quite clear over the past few months that I believe Yao's greatest impact upon returning to the Rockets will be made on the defensive side of the ball. To add an entire foot to a paint defender is to make a world of difference. This, I'm certain, is a foregone conclusion.

I've also assumed that the offense will remain as potent as ever upon Yao's return. However, I thought it smart to check the numbers to see how exactly the Rockets of this year will adjust from the Rockets of last season, a team that managed to put up a fair number of points per game, but weren't the most efficient team in doing so.

Last season, the Rockets finished eighth in the league with an average of 102.4 points per game. However, because the Rockets played at a faster pace than many teams, these numbers were destined to go up. Rather, it makes more sense to evaluate how effective they were per possession. To borrow Mike Kurylo's analogy, if two running backs rush for 1,000 yards, but one of them does it in 200 attempts while the other does it in 300 attempts... that's quite a difference in effectiveness, no? The same goes for the Rockets. How successful were they in converting the increased opportunities that they had to score this year?

The Rockets finished 18th in the league in offensive efficiency with a score of 104.5. In other words, if the Rockets were given 100 possessions per game, they would score 104.5 points per game. The Phoenix Suns led the league with an offensive efficiency of 112.7. Clearly, the Suns converted far more often than the Rockets.

It's easy to point to Golden State and say that they have a "great" offense, as they averaged 108 points per game in 2009-2010. However, their offensive efficiency was in the middle of the pack among league standards, as they played at a whopping pace. This is why offensive efficiency matters much more than points per game.

Now that we've discussed the team aspect as a whole, let's look closely at how Yao should change the way the Rockets run their offense.

Using Synergy Sports technology, we can determine the various methods that the Rockets used to score last season. Here are the numbers (click to enlarge):


Note: The post-up game will likely improve with Yao in tow. No need to venture too deep there. This also rings true for Luis Scola, who should see less double-teams. I also expect the Rockets to continue to employ the back-cut with or without Yao, as it is a staple of the Adelman offensive scheme.

Clearly, the Rockets emphasized the spot-up jumper - it made up one-fifth of their offensive plays. The Rockets converted on a fair percentage of these attempts, averaging .99 points per possession. Without a legitimate post game, the Rockets had to play "small ball" and manufacture shots off screens and cuts.

Yao's Impact: With Yao back in the paint, the Rockets will have a legitimate post threat. Notice I say 'threat' and not 'player.' Yao should be plenty effective in the post, but his presence on the block will likely open up options for spot-up shooting and general spacing. That said, I expect the Rockets to focus less on the spot-up jumper. Many of these shots took ample time to produce - the Rockets would like to employ a more free-flowing offense that doesn't use up nearly as much clock. Yao's presence will aid in that respect.

The transition game was also a major point of emphasis for the Rockets, but they did not convert on their many transition attempts as highly as they'd like, finishing 24th in the league at 1.09 points per possession in transition.

Yao's Impact: It's a double-edged sword. While Yao's presence will likely result in a slower pace for the Rockets, they should be a much better defensive team. Trevor Ariza and many other perimeter defenders should be able to take more gambles and cause more turnovers with Yao in the paint. This will lead to plenty of fast-break attempts, which are usually more successful than normal transition attempts. I expect the Rockets to have far less transition attempts in 2010-11, but I also expect them to convert at a higher rate.

The pick and roll did not result in much success last season, as the Rockets finished near the bottom of the league in converting in each of the possible pick and roll situations (ball handler keeps or passes).

Yao's Impact: The Rockets used the pick and roll on 14% of their possessions last season. With no telling how mobile Yao will be, it's really a toss-up on how often they'll use it this upcoming season. The Rockets will likely involve Scola on the majority of their pick and roll chances. However, the Rockets could decide that playing Yao on the pick and roll could reduce his chance for injury, as he would be taking jump shots from the elbow and not banging inside for an offensive rebound. That said, the paint is where Yao should be the majority of the time - he did not rehab for an entire year to play like a wimp.

Having Yao as a second or third option on the pick and roll should improve the shot selection and effectiveness of the ball handler. Aaron Brooks has become a much better passer and finisher on the drive. Even if the Rockets decide to use the pick and roll with Scola, having Yao on the opposite block should give Brooks a one-on-one matchup or an easy passing target should the defense double him off the screen. Many of the pick and roll plays in which Brooks kept the ball led to a three-point shot (converted 30.5% of the time). With added talent surrounding Brooks this season, shooting a three off the dribble would be a less-than-desirable way to end a possession. This is the common theme throughout the post: Yao's presence itself opens up the offense and provides more options.

This same philosophy can be applied in the isolation game. More options and more space should aid Brooks in the iso game. In crunch time, the Rockets should look to run an isolation play that features two alternate options: if Yao's man slides, Brooks passes down. If Kevin Martin's man slides from the corner, kick-out to Martin. If neither slides, we rely on Brooks to beat his man and go strong to the basket. I'm no expert playcaller, but this seems logical, if not too simple.

Lastly, we have the three-point shot. The Rockets shot very well from three this past year, hitting on 35.3% of their attempts. The majority of their three-point shots came on spot-ups, in which the Rockets shot 37%. 

Yao's Impact: Despite how well the Rockets shot from three-point land last year, they should look to reduce those numbers in 2010-2011. Kyle Lowry should be shooting less threes, as should Shane Battier and Trevor Ariza. Instead, the bulk of the outside shooting will fall on Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks. Not to say that Ariza won't be used in spot-up situations - that's actually what we want to see - but that he'll instead be taking less attempts, as we saw near the end of last season. Look for similar conversion rates, if not higher conversion rates from the Rockets, but on less attempts.


Yao's presence on offense should ideally do the following:

1. Less three-point attempts, with better shooters taking relatively the same amount.

2. More options in crunch time, yielding better results.

3. A more effective pick and roll game that will rely less on Brooks' playmaking ability.

4. Fewer transition plays, but higher conversion rates.

5. Better post game. Duh.

6. All of the above should lead to a higher offensive efficiency rating, which is what we want to see. Same ppg on fewer opportunities, which in turn should help the defense.


Anything I missed here? Post away in the comments section.