Everyone knows the Rockets shoot a lot of free throws. It's James Harden's superpower, and it's a part of the efficient brand of basketball that GM Daryl Morey has tried to build in Houston. But recently, the Rockets have been shooting more free throws than ever before, and it's not a good thing.
For the full season, the Rockets are averaging 25.9 free throw attempts per game, second in the NBA. But they are also averaging only 71.6% on those attempts, fourth-worst in the league, ahead of only the Clippers (DeAndre Jordan), the Pistons (Andre Drummond) and the 76ers (everyone).
That's not actually that big of a deal, considering the Rockets still make the fifth-most foul shots of any team in the NBA. It's not ideal, but getting to the line still has produced points at a satisfactory rate for Houston -- and we can thank the MVBeard for that, of course.
However, since Donatas Motiejunas went down with a back injury, things have gone haywire. In the nine games since D-Mo's injury, the Rockets are averaging 35.8 FT attempts per game, the most in the league by over six attempts. Their percentage has also dropped to 65.8 over that span, third-worst in the league -- and only 3 tenths of a percent away from the bottom. They're making two more free throws per game than any other team, but the efficiency drop makes it a less rosy picture.
Here are the remaining healthy big men for Houston, and their season free throw percentages:
- Dwight Howard: 52.8%
- Terrence Jones: 61.1%
- Josh Smith: 52.1%
- Joey Dorsey: 28.4%
- Clint Capela: 10.5% (lol)
If you've watched the Rockets recently, you've seen it yourself. Hack-A-Dwight, Hack-A-Smoove, Hack-A-Dorsey (we really need another catchy term for the strategy) have all been employed recently, most notably by Greg Popovich and the Spurs in their back-to-back victories over Houston last week.
It's an ugly brand of basketball that no one enjoys watching, and didn't result in the Spurs pulling away, leading some to question its effectiveness. But Popovich broke it out in moments when the Rockets' offense seemed to be flowing at its best, and the disjointed, discouraging periods always served to break up the Rockets' rhythm and prevent them from going on any extended runs. Causality is a dangerous game to play, but Popovich employed the Hack-A-Tactic, and the Spurs won twice.
Thanks to James Harden's heroics, it hasn't been a pure tragedy. He's taking 11 of those 35 attempts per game and converting at an 86% clip, and in general, keeping the Rockets solvent on offense. They're averaging around 107 points per 100 possessions since Donuts went down, 11th best in the NBA but still very good. Their True Shooting percentage, which factors in free throws, is 55.5%, 7th best in the timeframe in question.
The problem will only grow in the postseason, however, as every possession will be more hotly contested and the scouting will be more detailed. It won't take too much film for the Rockets' biggest weakness to become obvious. Of course, one of the many scenarios in play tonight is a Spurs-Rockets first round series, which makes this hypothetical all but assured -- as if the Rockets needed more reasons to dread that assignment.
If the Rockets face the Spurs, or if whoever they face starts a hack-a-thon, the Rockets don't have a viable way to prevent that strategy without Motiejunas. He only shot 60% from the line this year, but that has seemed like enough to keep Terrence Jones off the line with about the same success rate.
The difference between Jones and D-Mo is obvious: size. T-Jones gets overpowered by bigger power forwards like, say, LaMarcus Aldridge as a crazy random example. Matching him up against centers is a non-starter. He'll be out there, and we'll need him to play well, but he can't anchor the defense inside.
And that leaves us with the fifty-percent-or-less crew of Dwight, Smoove and Dorsey. (McHale has said that if Capela gets playoff minutes, something's gone horribly wrong. Which of course means it's bound to happen.) The first two have the potential to impact the game positively on defense enough to compensate for being hacked on offense, but there still is no substitute for making those dang free throws. Joey Dorsey will probably play too. That's pretty much all I can say about him.