The beauty of a rebuilding team is that it’s a blank slate: a tabula rasa upon which to impart new ideas.
In time, those ideas take shape. They become an identity. As a rebuilding team concludes the process of adding talent, they find out who they are.
The Rockets may be a little behind in their journey. This team is having an identity crisis.
What style should the Rockets play?
In extremely broad terms, there are two types of fashionable offenses in the NBA: motion, and pick-and-spread.
Motion offense is time-tested. It emphasizes ball movement across the roster. It’s the quintessential “beautiful game”. Aesthetically, it’s a better brand.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more effective. Rockets fans watched James Harden and Mike D’Antoni pick-and-spread their way to the Western Conference Finals and nearly beyond (a hamstring away guys...a hamstring away).
There’s not much sense in going through history to see which style has been more successful. The pick-and-spread attack is considerably newer. It’s a consequence of the pace-and-space era. Nobody was playing this way for the huge portion of NBA history, wherein conventional wisdom dictated that if a big man didn’t touch the ball on the low block, the possession didn’t happen.
In any event, teams are successful with either style. They simply have to pick a lane and commit to it. That’s the problem here. The Rockets have a pick-and-spread coach with a motion roster.
Should the Rockets get the wheels in motion?
A hallmark of a good motion offense is usually quality frontcourt passing. Think about it: either style needs a good passer in the backcourt. It’s practically impossible to have success in the NBA if you don’t at least have one guard with an aptitude for passing. What separates great motion teams is a roster full of dime-slingers.
The “beautiful game” Spurs had Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter. The recently dynastic Golden State Warriors have leaned on Draymond Green. To make a motion offense work, you need to get passing out of places you’re not expecting it from. In a literal sense, you need to be able to field lineups that will keep the ball in motion.
The Rockets have frontcourt passers. Alperen Sengun ranks in the 90th percentile among bigs in BBall Index’s Passing Creation Quality metric this year. Usman Garuba lands in the 74.7th percentile in the same metric.
I didn’t run the numbers for Jabari Smith Jr. He’s spent too much of this season trying to find his footing. Still, he’s been throwing some quick, nifty passes in recent games. Kenyon Martin Jr. is a solid passer as well.
With all of that in mind, why do the Rockets rank 17th in passes made per game across the league?
You know exactly why, don’t you?
The Silas/Porter Jr. Connection
Here I go again: throwing a steak into the lion’s den.
This is not an attack on either Porter Jr. or Silas. I think the former is a talented off-guard who’s been miscast as a point guard. I think the latter is a bright basketball mind who was supposed to be coaching James Harden.
Now, he’s trying to make Porter Jr. into Harden. It doesn’t work that way. Oh, and Alperen Sengun isn’t going to become Clint Capela, either.
Let’s elaborate on what pick-and-spread means. We’re talking about a team whose primary sets involve a pick-and-roll, with three shooters around the perimeter. The Rockets rank third in the NBA in pick-and-roll frequency at 21.3. They rank 29th in the NBA in points per possession on those sets.
Third. Twenty-ninth. As the kids say, the math is not mathing.
Leaning into pick-and-roll so heavily requires an exceptional ball-handler at the helm. A James Harden. He’s a basketball computer who happens to be of flesh and blood. Harden always knew where every defender was, how many inches they’d ceded, and how likely his teammate was to hit the shot if he made it for them.
Kevin Porter Jr... lacks the same awareness.
Moreover, those sets work best with a (wait for it) lob threat. That isn’t Sengun. He’s not useless in the pick-and-roll: those sets can set him up for a low block isolation. He can use some crafty head fakes to finish. Sometimes, he can make a brilliant find out of the short roll to an open teammate.
Here’s what he can’t do:
So the Rockets have a coach and a lead ball-handler who want to play one way, and a whole host of players who’d benefit from playing another way.
What should they do?
The Rockets have a year to find themselves
It depends on who’s on the roster next season.
If the Rockets draft Scoot Henderson, they’ve got a perfect infrastructure for him. Keep Silas, and let him work his system. In all likelihood, that’s going to mean a new starting big man in Capela’s mold. The same holds true if the Rockets bring Harden back.
This team needs a new point guard next season regardless. By now, that’s obvious to everyone, right? Please?
They may or may not need a new big man, too. If they’re lucky, it’ll be Victor Wembanyama. With that said, suppose the Rockets draft a wing. Now, suppose they sign a solid, heady, low-usage veteran point guard.
In that event, I think they need a new head coach. That new head coach needs to embrace a motion-style offense that’s crafted, if not around Sengun, then at least with his talents in mind. Either way, there’s one thing the Rockets clearly need in 2023-24: