Luck is part of everything. We’ve all had that one friend who’s been touched by an angel. No matter what they do, it works out. Defying reason, they simply have good luck.
I have an old friend who’s got that type of luck. We’ve always said that if he puts money in the slot machine, it’s paying out. We said that for a decade, and then he and his wife won a dream home. The kid is just lucky.
Only...he must be doing something to maximize his luck, right? Luck is a probability game. You can flip a coin one hundred times, and it can land on heads each time. Still, each time you turn up a Roosevelt, the odds that this coin is weighted increase.
Are the Houston Rockets maximizing their luck this season?
Are the Rockets just lucky?
Opponents are shooting 33.3 percent from three-point range against the Rockets. That’s the third-best mark in the league, although the margins are thin at the top. They’re shooting 33 percent against the New Orleans Pelicans and 33.1 percent against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Is that random variance, or are those numbers substantive?
That’s the point of contention. Here, I’ll attempt to answer the question empirically. There are a lot of angles to look at here. How are the rosters that limit three-point efficiency constructed? How have they been constructed in recent history? Is there a causal relationship between guarding the three-point line closely and limiting three-point accuracy?
Let’s (try to) find out.
How have teams limited three-point accuracy?
First, let’s take a look at the three teams leading the league in opponent’s three-point percentage.
The Pelicans and Rockets bear some similarities. Neither has a big man who “anchors” the defense. Some will argue that this is irrelevant - I disagree. Interior defense and perimeter defense are directly related. If you limit dunk and layup attempts, it’s easier to be aggressive on the perimeter.
Still, you don’t need an anchor big to design a scheme that limits three-point efficiency. The Pelicans start Jonas Valanciunas at the five. He’s got the lateral mobility of a Macy’s Day float. Yet, they’re leading the league in this stat - and they led it last year, too. In 2022-23, opponents shot 33.9 percent from long range against New Orleans.
Wow. The Pelicans sure are lucky.
Or, they roster Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, Larry Nance Jr. and Dyson Daniels. Why should we assume that the Pelicans are just getting lucky every year when they’ve clearly and deliberately designed their roster to prevent points on the perimeter? That feels entirely nonsensical.
By contrast, the Timberwolves have a more traditional defensive structure. Rudy Gobert is the prototypical anchor, and Jaden McDaniels may be the best wing defender in basketball. Last season, they struggled to hide Karl-Anthony Towns on the perimeter. Either they’ve gotten lucky or they’ve made schematic adjustments. We’d need a larger sample size to conclude.
Speaking of larger sample sizes, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat tied at 33.9 percent opponent three-point percentage to lead the league in 2021-22. This should surprise nobody. Boston’s roster was defensive Teflon during that season. Between Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Grant Williams, Al Horford and a healthy Robert Williams III, they could guard inside and out. The fact that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are neutral-to-plus defenders doesn’t hurt either.
They even had Bruno Fernando!
Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and P.J. Tucker aren’t slouches either. So far, the trend is holding. Teams who were expected to defend well have limited three-point accuracy. It was true in 2019-20 when O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and others helped the Toronto Raptors lead the league in the stat (33.7 percent).
The 2020-21 season is something of an exception. The New York Knicks held opponents to the lowest three-point percentage (again, 33.7 percent). A look at this roster reveals some serviceable defenders, but it’s not a group that you’d expect to be dominant on that end of the floor.
So if you want to attribute a Tom Thibodeau-led defense to luck, go ahead. Just don’t be surprised if he visits you in a dream Freddie Kruger-style yelling “ICE”!
If you didn’t notice, the Rockets spent a lot of money on defense this summer. Moreover, Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason have continued to develop. Are we sure that a defense that’s fielded by Ime Udoka and led by Dillon Brooks, Fred VanVleet, Smith Jr., Eason and Jeff Green is just lucky?
What are the Rockets doing?
In 2023-24, opponents are shooting 5.4 threes per night against the Rockets where the closest defender is within two to four feet (defined as “tight” coverage by NBA.com). That’s tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the second-best mark in the league.
Interestingly, they’re shooting 37.7 percent on those shots. On the other hand, opponents are knocking down 32.6 percent of those looks against the Sixers, and just 31.1 percent against the league-leading Miami Heat.
Luck can cut both ways, can’t it?
Surprisingly, the Rockets are allowing 13.4 threes per game that NBA.com defines as “open” - the sixth-worst mark in the league. They’re shooting a putrid 29.4 percent on those attempts. Fair is fair - the Rockets are getting lucky in that regard. Although, they’re allowing the fifth-fewest “wide open” attempts. Opponents are shooting 35 percent on those attempts, which is the lowest mark among the top five teams in that stat.
OK, fine - the Rockets are getting lucky to some extent. Remember what we said - luck is a part of everything. Still, there are explanations for this data that are a bit less lazy than “the Rockets are lucky”.
The Rockets are forcing the second-most “tightly contested” three-pointers in the NBA. In other words, they’re guarding the three-point line aggressively. Opponents are shooting a higher percentage on those shots than they are when they’re open.
Isn’t it likely that the Rockets are disrupting opponents’ rhythm? Do you play any basketball? Have you ever had a game where your assignment is hounding you all night, and you can’t get an open look?
When you finally get that open look, doesn’t it have a lower likelihood of going in?
Unless, of course, you’re especially lucky.