Regardless of whether you spent Thursday celebrating Thanksgiving or if for you it was just another day of the week - there was plenty to be grateful for, and the Houston Rockets should be thankful for Armoni Brooks.
They not only are grateful for his pair of consecutive double-digit outings but also for their decision to finally play him in meaningful minutes.
The first of those double-digit outings came against the Boston Celtics, where he scored 17 points and shot 5-8 from beyond the arc, but the Rockets ultimately fell short, watching their losing streak extend to its 15th straight game. His follow-up performance left him with 11 points, where he shot 3-6 from three-point range and helped Houston snap their nightmarish streak of losses.
His last two performances have begun to feel like an indicator of what he can do on a nightly basis when given the opportunity. That “opportunity” word is key, and also strange, because it felt like exactly what he was being handed when inking a four-year deal worth just over $7 million back last month.
It felt like the contract was a declaration of his importance to the team - that the new deal came with a realization that the 23-year-old sharpshooter that averaged 11.2 points per outing throughout 20 games would heavily benefit the Rockets’ offense. Instead, he hasn’t lived up to the deal so far and not because of his productivity, but rather the inactivity that’s been forced upon him.
Oh yeah, no, there’s no need to double-take; you read that right.
Houston has roughly spent a whopping 733 minutes this season with Brooks on the bench and only about 132 minutes with him on the floor. Looking at the chart would tell you that they’ve been better with him on the floor which is true, but truthfully, using those numbers would be cherry-picking.
The reason is because of those 132 minutes that he’s played this season, he’s spent the most time with Kenyon Martin Jr, Josh Christopher, David Nwaba, and Usman Garuba along his side. That group has compiled about 22 minutes together, and while they play with high energy and effort, they are mostly known for cutting into 4th quarter leads during garbage time once the game is out of reach.
The group he’s spent the second most minutes with consists of Alperen Sungun, D.J Augustin, Garrison Matthews, and Martin, whom he’s shared the floor for 14 minutes. The latter of the two groups isn’t necessarily their “empty the bench” unit but still, they aren’t a tandem that’s on the floor during crunch time.
(Just in case curiosity is eating at you, I'll save you a trip to basketball reference and attach the full breakdown below.)
Numbers make the case for Brooks, but again, they aren’t necessarily fair in this situation. But still, it feels obvious that the Rockets are better when he’s on the floor. Not just since he’s played as good as any of his teammates in their last two outings but because, well...
He just makes life easier
When briefly catching fire from long range in the third quarter of their 118-113 victory over Chicago, the whole team seemed to feed off it. Suddenly, the crowd had begun to roar like it was a playoff game as they watched the Rockets pile up stops on the defensive end of the floor while canning triples on the other end of it.
Great shooters are renowned for their ability to swing momentum. All it takes is a couple of shots to fall, and suddenly offense becomes instant and possessions tend to be easier.
The impact of a three-point specialist on an offense is similar to one a traffic guard has on a packed parking lot after an event. The guard can dramatically speed up how up quickly drivers get home by the way they help unclog a jam and get things flowing in the right direction by simply being there and doing their job. A packed parking lot without a guard is just as ugly as an offense without a shooter because both desperately need that added support.
As I said earlier, numbers won’t help in this situation, but eyes will.
If you’ve ever seen a discussion regarding Stephen Curry, then you probably have heard the term gravity. For those that don’t know, what it means is that essentially defenders are more focused on stopping him than anyone else on the floor which leaves his teammates with scoring opportunities.
Now while typically Curry’s gravity isn’t as insane as it is in this play, it’s a prime example of just how much of a weapon he is even without the ball in his hands.
3 on 3 fastbreak. KD has LeBron and Kyrie in front of him, they both decide to go on Steph who is on the left side. KD has a wide open dunk.— Antonin (@antonin_org) August 23, 2019
If this isn’t gravity what is it ? pic.twitter.com/hAEAm0Ab3J
What’s interesting about gravity is that all great shooters have it. Of course, Curry has the most the league has ever seen because he not only is the greatest shooter to walk the earth, but can create space with his handle and a willingness to run off screens. He’s one of a kind, but gravity isn’t strictly found within him.
You can see it in Brooks... it’s just a lot more subtle.
It’s seen here when Sengun got left with a much easier shot attempt once Grant Williams left his helping position to guard a wide-open Brooks. If Brooks wasn’t on the floor, Williams likely would’ve forced Sengun into a bad shot or turnover due to there only being five seconds on the shot clock once the ball left his hand.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
At this point in the game, Brooks had already drilled three shots from beyond the arc and although Boston led big; he still had posed a threat. Which landed him with a heightened level of defensive attention.
When Wood received the ball atop the perimeter, Augustin ran over to set a pick that’d free up Brooks, but instead realized that Dennis Schroeder and Williams were going to switch. He darted to the paint and was fed by Christan Wood, but noticed Marcus Smart lurking in the paint rather than defending Martin, and from there it became basic basketball.
It’s fair to call it a defensive breakdown, but it was caused by Brooks. The reason Augustin was able to slip into an open area is that Schroder had been committed to defending the wing knowing that Brooks would want to catch the ball and fire - after all, all his makes came from that area of the floor regardless of whether on the right or left side.
In the second clip, the Rockets again made basketball look simple. On the following possession, while Wood was busy facing up Al Horford - Brooks was able to give him more space to operate by simply shuffling to the left.
Wood wanted Horford one on one, but Smart was lurking, ready to steal the ball once it was dribbled. Brooks noticed that a gamble was coming and took Smart out of range, then Martin was on his way to set a screen for Brooks, which again caught Smart’s attention, all while Wood had made his move and got a bucket.
Again, it’s subtle, and also simple, but also a reflection of not only Brooks’ gravity, but his spatial awareness as well. Both scoring players felt easy, which to say the least, hasn’t always been the case this season for the Rockets.
Interestingly enough, if you were to jump back to the first half - two of their worst possessions of the opening half came immediately after he was subbed out.
On the floor for the Rockets were Jalen Green, Eric Gordon, Jae-Sean Tate, Daniel Theis, and Christian Wood. With Green as the ballhandler and Gordon as the lone knockdown shooter, this told the Celtics one thing; they can trap at half court.
Brooks had likely been sat down because he had just turned the ball over right before picking up a foul, but keeping him on the floor would have prevented the two horrific possessions that followed. Boston wouldn’t have been able to trap if Brooks stayed in the game alongside Gordon, because there would’ve been two perimeter threats that they’d have to respect. But instead, he took a seat and disaster followed.
When the trap was deployed onto Green, Schroder focused on Gordon since it had become a 3-on-4 situation in which you never want to leave a dangerous shooter on the opposing team open in a moment like that. Boston decided that they’d camp Horford in the paint and leave Theis, who’s shot 14-46 ( .304 percent) from three-point range this season, wide open in the corner.
The Celtics were comfortable with Tate either trying to make a play at the rim or kicking it out to Theis, Tate attempted to finish over Horford and it ended as just another ugly possession.
They practically ran the same trap on the following Rockets possession, but this time it was made even easier for them once Green panicked and floated a wild pass over the head of Wood. Brown then scored an easy layup, and all of a sudden, it began to look like a high school basketball game.
Brooks is more than a jump shooter, he’s a tool that if used correctly can tighten things up. Even while on the defensive end, he’s been positive, which is largely thanks to the high energy that he plays with. There were concerns about him on that end of the floor when coming into the season, but there aren’t any after the past couple of games. He’s currently playing like a hooper that never wants to ride the bench again.
Although some of the positive play from Brooks came in a game where they ended up losing, he’s undoubtedly left a winning impact on the hardwood as seen in their 118-113 victory over the Chicago Bulls. There is no coincidence that their losing streak came to an end right after he began to play meaningful minutes, and while it’s a surprise that it’s taken this long, it’s no shock that the offense suddenly looks better.
Just look how simple things are when he’s on the floor.
Brooks needs to play heavier minutes and see an expanded role if the Rockets want their offense to stop giving its fans headaches, because he’s just that much of a weapon. Kevin Porter Jr. called him the greatest shooter that he’s ever been around, and with statements like that, it feels as if his teammates understand the impact his presence holds.
Armoni Brooks playing these early minutes has to be a regular moving forward. He makes their offense so much more smooth with his shooting and awareness— Ray Jr (@RaymondLucasJr) November 25, 2021
Don’t look now, but we may just be watching Armoni Brooks’ accession to a key player within the young core.