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Should Rockets slow the pace under Ime Udoka?

Should Ime Udoka push it or slow it down?

Denver Nuggets v Houston Rockets Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

I’ve pondered what the offensive identity of the Houston Rockets will be as they shift into the Ime Udoka Era. Will he implore the team to push the pace with a handful of uber-athletic wings at his disposal, or will this more closely resemble a more patient offense that requires it’s playmakers to efficiently utilize the half-court?

Of course, much of this is contingent on who the conductor of this train is, but given the talent already on this roster, there are options.

Houston ranked near the top of the league in pace during the Silas years, respectively ranking sixth, second and 13th between 2020-23.

Yes, Silas thought he would be inheriting the second-ranked team in terms of pace with James Harden and Russell Westbrook serving as the primary initiators, but that model quickly dissipated. There was the short-lived John Wall experiment, and then that turned into today’s current construction featuring Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green and Alperen Şengün.

The pace mostly remained intact, but the efficiency is what ultimately faltered. Where Silas failed to implement a system conducive to reliable shot creation, the hope is that Udoka can reintroduce it.

The Boston Celtics ranked near the bottom half of the league at 24th in Pace during Udoka’s one season at the helm. However, that translated into top five results in both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency during the 2021-22 regular season. Going strictly off of that limited sample size, I implore Houston to take that same approach.

So with that in mind, let’s first look at Şengün as the offensive hub going into next season.

As uniquely talented as Şengün is as a playmaker, we haven’t seen him get consistent opportunities to maximize his skills. If we’re to use the other teams that rely on pass-happy Centers as the litmus test, it’s important to point out that it doesn’t appear to matter what pace they play with because they are adept at creating efficient shots from all over the court.

Both teams in the NBA Finals ranked in the bottom third among pace this season. Nikola Jokić is a threat from just about anywhere on the court, and while Bam Adebayo doesn't possess the same range as the Joker, he still manages to impact the game past the three-point line with hand offs and his ability to initiate offense via bringing the ball up court.

Another team of note, the Sacramento Kings, ranked 12th in pace with Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox spearheading their attack.

However, the true difference between Houston and those teams is that regardless of the Pace they play at, the most important factor is that they capitalize on their possessions. Both the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings finished within the top five in Offensive Efficiency, and although the Miami Heat ranked near Houston in the pits, their offense has been night and day when comparing playoffs to regular season.

Ranking in the top three among assists and true shooting percentage also put Denver and Sacramento in a different stratosphere than Houston as the Rockets were, you guessed it, ranked in the bottom two of each of those categories. Couple that with the Rockets turnover kink and you can get the gist of how sloppy these past three years have been.

It also helps that the Şengün prototypes are flanked by reliable shooters and dynamic guards such as Jamal Murray and Fox, but on paper, Houston has a couple of those guys too. Utilizing KPJ and Green as slashers, and in Porter Jr.’s case, a spot-up shooter, could take advantage of their athleticism and cut down on ill-advised shots at the beginning and end of the shot clock.

At the very least, it would encourage a two-man game such as the one Jokić and Murray excel at. Ideally, putting the ball into Şengün’s hand translates into the other four players on the court being forced to be in motion for the half-court offense to succeed.

This isn’t to say that Şengün is near the level of his more distinguished predecessors, but he has shown flashes that warrant an extended look.

Now on the other hand, should Udoka opt to keep the ball in KPJ’s hands, it’s worth noting that he gave the keys to Marcus Smart in Boston, and providing that level of trust enabled Smart to his best season yet. Perhaps instilling that same level of confidence is what Porter Jr. needs to allow him to flourish as he continues to develop into a primary decision-maker.

This will require our backcourt to ditch the iso-ball tendencies that they too often rely upon, but I believe with a system in place that is dedicated to moving without the ball, it’s not too late to curve that. Passing is contagious and as the Nuggets have shown us, Jokic isn’t the only player on that team who is willing to give up the rock in favor for a better look.

The easiest way to do that is to make a commitment to executing in the half-court, and once that happens, everything else can fall into place.

I’m aware that fans have clamored for the team to run more, and while the Rockets are certainly built to play more up-tempo with high-flyers galore, I believe the team must walk before they can run.

Before the team can play at the frenetic pace of the Kings and the Golden State Warriors, they will need to first get into the habit of creating and making efficient shots. Making the opposition take the ball out of the net will more frequently allow Houston to set up on defense, thus giving the team a realistic chance of actually getting stops on the other end.

Once they can consistently hold up on defense, that will naturally open up more chances for easy transition baskets. This game is truly just one large domino effect.

I also believe a slower tempo would make the most sense for any new faces that may orchestrate the offense. If we draft a point guard this year, they will likely require an adjustment period to get used to the speed of the NBA. There’s no need to make processing things even harder for them.

And as much as I’m resigned about bringing back the guy that is “reportedly” split on returning to Houston, I won’t deny that he’d quell the lack of half-court competency that has occurred since he left. He too operates at a slower pace, but at this point of his career, I worry it could be too slow for what the Rockets need.

Either way, after watching the playoff runs by the Nuggets and Heat, I’m in favor of building a style that can grind out possessions in the postseason and create the best shots possible. So let’s take baby steps.