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The Rockets are feeling the Udoka Effect

Ime Udoka has the Rockets playing at a different level.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Houston Rockets
Alperen Sengun has flourished under Udoka’s guidance
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I feel bad for Stephen Silas.

I really do. He was a scapegoat - a sacrificial lamb. Silas was put in an unwinnable situation. Predictably enough, he lost.

Charge it to the game. Silas was the head coach of an NBA team for three seasons. That’s a childhood dream realized. I feel bad for him, but my sympathies only extend so far.

Besides, there’s no way he’d be coaching this Houston Rockets team as well as Ime Udoka has.

The Udoka Effect

Let’s start with the basics. In 2022-23, the Rockets had an Offensive Rating of 110.5 - 27th in the NBA. They had a Defensive Rating of 118.6th. That was 29th in the league. This year, the Offensive Rating so far is 113.1 (11th) and the Defensive Rating is 108.1 (fifth).

Now, let’s look under the hood.

Shout out to Brad for doing my work for me. It’s also worth noting that the Rockets are second in the NBA in secondary assists per game at 4.1 per night. Last year, they were 25th in the league with 2.7 per contest.

This all matches the eye test. Last year’s Rockets were effectively trying to convert Kevin Porter Jr. into a Harden-esque heliocentric hub. Everything else that happened felt incidental. Alperen Sengun made plays because Sengun is going to make plays - not because he was empowered to make them.

This year, Udoka has the Rockets running a full-blown motion system. It’s more aesthetically pleasing, but more importantly, it’s better. If your name isn’t Prime James Harden or Current Luka Doncic, running isos into the ground isn’t likely to be a reliable source of offense. Udoka has the Rockets playing in a real system, and it’s showing. Yet, the defensive improvement has been even more impressive.

Last year, the Rockets couldn’t protect the rim. They still can’t. Per CleaningtheGlass, opponents are shooting 69.6 percent at the rim against the Rockets. That’s the exact same percentage that they shot last season. With that said, the Rockets have made tremendous strides in other areas.

In 2022-23, opponents shot 37.8 percent from long range against the Rockets. That was good for 27th in the NBA. This year, they’re shooting 31.9 percent - that’s the second best mark in the league.

This has been used as an argument against the Rockets. Some will tell you that this is no more than random variance. The Rockets have been the benefactors of good shooting luck.

To an extent, that’s true. That figure will likely normalize to some extent. With that said, the argument is just so reductionist. Isn’t this how every NBA game is decided? The team that hits the shots tends to win the game, right?

Why do we even have head coaches at all?

In reality, the Rockets are swarming opponents on the perimeter. They’re taking away as much air space as they legally can from any given shooter. They’re switching, communicating and putting in the extra effort to close out. If you’re watching this team, you know that there’s a reason why opponents are shooting poorly from long range against them. It extends far beyond dumb luck.

This all starts with Alperen Sengun. Udoka is deploying him much differently than Silas ever did. Where Sengun had to sink or swim (and typically, he sunk) in deep drop coverage last season, he’s defending at the level this year. He’s hedging and recovering. Sengun has quick hands, and he’s using them to disrupt ball-handlers. He’s also developed a knack for walling off ball-handlers before they can even get to the tin.

Effectively, the Rockets are punting on the rim to pay extra attention to the perimeter. This may not be sustainable throughout an entire playoff run. Eventually, a team will exploit the Rockets’ inability to defend the rim.

For a long time, a certain The Dream Shake writer was putting the onus on Sengun. This particular writer may still broadly believe that a big should anchor a defense. He doesn’t necessarily regret being skeptical about building around a big man who can’t do that.

At the same time, Sengun’s stardom has become undeniable. That writer isn’t going to write another “conversion to Sengunism” piece - that would be trite. I (the writer - gasp) will simply say this:

Sengun is too good to deny. The onus has shifted to Jabari Smith Jr. He needs to develop into an elite weakside rim protector. Otherwise, he’s a suboptimal fit with Sengun, and the Rockets will need to fix that - by finding someone who can play with Sengun.

There’s another glaring difference between last year’s defense and this year’s. In 2022-23, the Rockets were 29th in opponent transition frequency (again, per CleaningtheGlass). This year, they are first. Yes - first in the entire NBA. The Rockets are getting stops, and teams have to inbound far more often as a result.

Does Udoka deserve all the credit?

Is Udoka the common denominator?

Of course not. Dillon Brooks defends every possession like the fate of the universe depends on it. Fred VanVleet is a substantial upgrade over Kevin Porter Jr. The Rockets were built to lose, and now, they’re built to win.

At the same time, Udoka’s plan for Sengun is notable. It’s not reasonable to assume that Silas played him in drop because the team was tanking. It’s more reasonable to assume that he played him in drop because he doesn’t understand NBA defense as well as Udoka does. Coaches don’t typically tank - that’s a front office directive. Rafael Stone could have directly told Silas to misuse Sengun on defense, but operating under that assumption requires quite the leap of faith.

Similarly, it’s entirely possible that Stone wanted the excessive Porter Jr. possessions. It’s a popular conspiracy theory that Stone intended on molding Porter Jr. into “his Harden”. That claim feels dubious as well.

Remember: Rafael Stone signed Fred VanVleet and drafted Amen Thompson before Porter Jr.’s horrendous actions this summer. The wheels were already in motion - it’s clear that Stone recognized that what the Rockets were doing was not working. Moreover, it’s obvious that Udoka had some influence in bringing VanVleet on board in the first place - another point in his favor.

It’s more likely that Stephen Silas’ playbook is full of simplistic pick-and-spread actions. Remember, the highlight of his career has been his involvement in an elite Mavericks offense built around none other than Doncic. Sure, Stone probably didn’t mind - the Rockets were tanking, and he probably did want to see what he had in Porter Jr. Still, there’s no reason to assume that Silas secretly had a comparable playbook to Udoka’s in his back pocket.

More broadly, you can just see Udoka leading. It’s visceral. It’s tangible. When a player blows his coverage, he’s likely to get yanked. You can see Udoka give him an earful, and then, he’s back on the floor.

This is a far cry from the poorly acted “They’re not getting after it like they’re supposed to” monologues we’ve grown accustomed to. This is the real leadership that a Head Coach is supposed to provide. Simply put, it’s the Udoka Effect.

Sorry, Silas.