Free Agency for the Houston Rockets is usually filled with dramatic story lines and first-class free agents. However, this off-season has been more about continuity and building off of what was a very successful season and playoff run.
In an attempt to save their MLE (Mid-Level Exception) for K.J. McDaniels and/or Josh Smith, the Rockets will likely only add players through minimum signings or through trades. The signing of Marcus Thornton, on the veteran's minimum deal, brings an off-ball shooting threat and an offensive spark off the bench; instant offense the Rockets needed to add to their up-tempo second-unit.
Shot-chart and Shooting Percentages
The above shot chart is very compatible with the Rockets philosophy of three-point shooting. Thornton excels from the corners and shoots above-average from both wings. He's not as great at the top of the key, but last season shot 37.3% from above-the-break.
Marcus Thornton is a career 36.2% three-point shooter. In recent years, he's shooting 38% from three overall and 87% of his threes are assisted. One can conclude from his statistical figures that he's great on catch-and-shoot, and provides much needed spacing to keep the defense honest. But, if you have watched Nets, Celtics, or Kings games in the past you know that Marcus Thornton is a very streaky shooter. He has had games where he's attempted 9 threes in less than 19 minutes, only making 4. In games where his three-point shot isn't falling his +/- can be staggering low, showing that his shot does truly effect his style of play. Thornton isn't a very good defender either, but he'll try and give good effort occasionally (especially when his shot IS falling).
His field-goal percentage around the basket has hovered around 40-50% in the past few seasons. However, in his years with a depleted Sacramento squad, Thornton shot around 68-70% inside 0-3 feet. He's somewhat underrated when attacking the basket, particularly when you turn the film on. We'll talk more about that as we start to breakdown his offensive fit.
The Three-Point Shot
As was discussed when looking at Marcus Thornton's shot-chart, he's a great three-point shooter and a player who can provide spacing. The Rockets, this past season, relied heavily on James Harden to initiate the offense. As a result, defenses game-planned to overload his side and make others beat them. The coaching staff developed isolation sets to effectively utilize Harden's prowess as a shot-creator and combat opposing defenses. Here are a few offensive sets where I believe Thornton will find success as a member of the Rockets.
The Rockets institute certain characteristics of a motion offense, particularly the free-flowing and methodical elements. Flare screens are a staple of this type of scheme. This screen is defined by a player (usually the 4 or 5 man) setting a screen (around the elbow or high-post area) for another player (usually a three-point shooter) moving without the ball towards the wing or corner. In the Rockets offense, James Harden is usually the primary ball-handler, and this play opens up the half-court and spaces the offense to open driving lanes and high-percentage opportunities.
Here's an example from this past season:
In the three freeze-frame images above, the Rockets run their 'quick-flare' set. James Harden gets a screen from the 5 man, while simultaneously on the weak-side the 4 man and the shooter prepare to run off-ball action. Harden throws the ball, and as soon as he does the 4 man runs to set a flare screen on the shooter's (Ariza) man. This takes away the opportunity to close out and provides Ariza with an open three-point attempt. The big guarding the 4 is worried about Harden on the opposite end, therefore is too late to rotate over and contest the shot. This all took place in a matter of a few seconds. Now let's take a look at an example with Thornton as the shooter.
In the play above, Marcus Thornton sets up in the left corner. Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk run the pick-and-roll, but in reality they're set play is opening a three-point attempt for Thornton. Notice how as soon as Smart comes around his screen, the ball is thrown in the air. The weak-side big sets a screen on Thornton's man who moved up to help on the ball-handler, and the opposing big is too late to contest Thornton as he quickly gets up a made three.
In the same way the Rockets like to run Ariza off screens, they'll also have Thornton running similar patterns and routes. The team has always had "shooters," but Thornton adds a streaky dynamic that can further spread the floor. Depending on where he's placed in pick-and-roll, likely the left side of the floor, Harden can have more space to operate and bigger driving lanes when attacking the basket.
With the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, Marcus Thornton was great coming off down screens, pin-downs, and spotting-up in transition. He'll add that shooting dynamic to the Rockets bench unit.
I see Thornton sharing ball-handling responsibilities with second-unit floor general and creating space for the second-unit's low-post threat, whether that be Dwight Howard or Donatas Motiejunas. The Rockets like to have Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza, and Josh Smith (hopefully he returns) on the floor at the same time. With another spacer like Thornton, the team will have more flexibility in matching up against smaller/bigger or faster/slower bench units.
Anyways, back to the catch-and-shoot. The Rockets love to bring Corey Brewer off pin-downs and curls; getting the ball at the elbow and slashing inside. They also like to get him to come off down screens where he can catch-and-shoot from the corner or wing. Now, Corey Brewer was not and still is not a "great" three-point shooter, but the Rockets adapted his strengths to the offense and allowed him to play an efficient style of basketball.
This is similar to how I see Houston using Marcus Thornton on offense. Having him come off of screens, getting the ball on the run and either driving to the basket or quickly spotting up for three.
Here's an example from this past season. The player coming off the screen and getting the dribble hand-off is Ariza, but you'll get the point.
And now here's Marcus Thornton with a 'catch-and-shoot' attempt. His quick, fluid release will fit nicely in the Rockets offense. He can provide floor spacing and balance on the floor, causing his defender and other weak-side defenders to think and rotate slower to contest the shot or ball-handler.
The Rockets LOVE to use the 1/2 pick-and-roll, particularly late in the fourth quarter. James Harden and Patrick Beverley have great chemistry running this play. Most of the time Harden tries to force the switch and get matched onto the smaller guard, backing him down and taking him to a favorable spot on the floor. If Harden is doubled coming off the screen by Beverley, then Patrick gets the ball with an opportunity to let fly a three or drive it inside.
In Boston and especially in Brooklyn, Marcus Thornton ran the 1/2 pick-and-roll. As a shooter, the pick-and-pop was an option available and both teams utilized his shot (when hot).
In the video above, I've included TWO plays that display Thornton's ability to handle the basketball.
In the first play, Marcus Thornton is the 1 and Joe Johnson is the 2. Joe Johnson sets a screen, but Derrick Williams and Isaiah Thomas don't switch. Williams does show and allow Thomas to recover, but Isaiah doesn't get a hand up and Thornton makes him pay with a three-pointer.
In the second play, Deron Williams attempts to set a screen for Marcus Thornton. As Williams approaches, Thornton shifts his weight and drives downhill at the basket and finishes over the defender with a soft floater.
This is where I like to touch on Thornton being somewhat underrated around the basket. He's not a great finisher, but that's because teams forced him to be a spacer and shooter, more than a scorer (like he was years ago in Sacramento). Most of his attempts come from the three-point line, but if given the opportunity to run the 1/2 pick-and-roll or come off a dribble hand-off, Thornton could have success in the Rockets free-flow offense.
Yes, Marcus Thornton isn't a superstar or a great role player who changes the direction of your starting lineup. However, at the price of a veteran's minimum deal, he provides great value with his shooting (streaky at times) and secondary ball-handling ability.
Marcus Thornton said he turned down more money from other teams and believed Houston to be a perfect fit. After analyzing the film, there's a high probability that he'll be a great offensive contributor off the bench for this Houston Rockets team.
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