Houston Rockets: How the Rockets Can Resolve Their Issues
The Houston Rockets recently ended their seven-game losing streak after they snatched a win against the Charlotte Bobcats, even though they were trailing for most of the game. They're now 1-7 in their past eight, featuring losses against mediocre squads such as the New Orleans Hornets, Philadelphia 76ers and an injury-depleted Minnesota Timberwolves team.
Less than two weeks ago, the Rockets established themselves as a solid playoff contender among the top six seeds in the Western Conference. Now they're eighth in the conference and barely clinging to that last playoff spot after falling to a sub-.500 record.
Give Greg Smith More Playing Time
Although the Rockets are known as a proficient offensive team, they scored less than 100 points in four of the seven losses, which also includes two atrocious 79-point games in losses to the Hornets and Wolves.
In the seven straight losses where Greg Smith was on the floor, he only averaged 15.1 minutes per game. Per Basketball Reference, Smith currently has an absurd offensive rating of 133, which would certainly help a team that's struggling to find its offense during a losing streak.
He also maintains a great PER of 18.7, while shooting a mind-boggling 64 percent from the field. Not only that, but his total rebounding rate of 17.3 also greatly trumps both Patrick Patterson's and Marcus Morris' (and every other Rocket except for Omer Asik, for that matter).
In the few games where Smith was given more opportunity to shine, he demonstrated that he is very mobile, has good hands and can finish at the rim as well as any big man in the league. Truthfully speaking, he has been in foul trouble in a few of the losses, but the guy deserves to play more than 15 minutes per game in an average night.
Although Omer Asik is known as a defensive powerhouse in the paint, his lateral quickness isn't on pace with Smith's, and he's not exactly the type of offensive presence that can help the team score points, even with a few decent scoring games in his possession.
Take Fewer Threes
According to Hoop Data, the Rockets are taking more shots from beyond the arc than any other area on the court combined. Although their effective field-goal percentage from taking three-point shots is actually quite high (hovering at more than 50 percent in four of the losses), their lack of attempts at the rim and in the paint is clearly hurting their overall offense.
Make no mistake, the Rockets can light it up from three-point land in any given night, but the highest percentage of shots in the NBA come at the rim or in the paint.
Possessions that include James Harden dribbling the ball 15 times, then jacking up a three or Carlos Delfino pulling up early in the shot clock can sometimes lead to wins, but it certainly doesn't help the flow of the offense.
Drive and kick is the Rockets' specialty, but when defenses close out the perimeter and force tough long-range shots, then it's time for the Rockets to adjust and take the ball closer to the basket.
Move the Ball More
During their past eight games, the Rockets registered fewer than 18 assists on four occasions.
Known as a team that excels offensively and moves the ball well to find the open shot, the offense seemed to be very stagnant in some of the losses. Any good defensive team will close out on shooters to contest perimeter shots while clogging the paint to give James Harden a difficult time scoring.
The Rockets should look to move the ball closer to the basket off of Harden's and Jeremy Lin's drives instead of allowing opposing defenses to collapse and force a tough shot. This means that players such as Chandler Parsons and Marcus Morris must find open lanes to cut to the basket so they can get higher percentage looks from a Lin or Harden pass.
According to Synergy Sports, 34.9 percent of the Rockets points are scored off of isolation and spot-ups. Only 16.4 percent of their points come from cuts to the rim, pick-and-roll finishes and hand-offs.
The Rockets are a transition team, but they must find ways to run an effective half-court offense because nobody can play at a breakneck pace consistently.
Get a Legitimate Second Scoring Option
Players don't win championships—teams do. But in this case, it's safe to say that Harden accounts for nearly all of his team's success and failures on a nightly basis.
In Harden's past four games, he shot 5-of-23, 5-of-19, 5-of-18 and 5-of 20 from the field. Not to mention, he registered his highest usage rate (36.6 percent) of the season in the loss against the Dallas Mavericks, where he shot 5-of-23.
Even though he's still scoring at a decent rate by drawing fouls and going to the free-throw line, he's been incredibly inefficient. Because of Harden's struggles, the Rockets are struggling—plain and simple.
There are some quality players on the trading block that can help ease the burden off of Harden. The Rockets, who have the lowest payroll in the league, have young prospects with high potential and the cap space necessary to trade for a high-caliber free agent before the deadline.
Paul Millsap and Josh Smith are two versatile, two-way power forwards who can play off of Harden's ball-dominant style and run the floor while also being able to act as a secondary scoring option. Smith has been in trade rumors for years, but Millsap's name primarily surfaced this year because it's almost a surefire thing that he will be dealt due to the Utah Jazz's current situation and his expiring contract.
Either one of these players would unquestionably give the Rockets a lift. If they can't complete a trade with one of them before the trade deadline, they should definitely try to strike a deal with one of them in the offseason.
Run More Pick-and-Roll
If this team wants to succeed at playing small and fast like Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns, they must utilize the pick-and-roll to its fullest extent. Although this can be seen as an extension of ball movement, the Houston Rockets are seriously not running one of the most effective offensive sets in the game.
Per Synergy Sports, the pick-and-roll finishers for the Rockets only score less than six percent of the team's points. However, the Rockets have three young, energetic bigs in Patterson, Smith and Morris, who all finish more than 65 percent of their shots as the roll man (per Hoop Data).
The Rockets are also attempting shots at the rim less than either the mid-range area or the paint, two areas where they have the lowest field-goal percentage.
The pick-and-roll is one of the hardest plays in basketball to defend, and with numerous good pick-and-roll finishers, the Rockets aren't exploiting their strengths.
Omer Asik, albeit not a skilled finisher at the rim (makes approximately 60 percent of shots at the rim), is averaging a double-double this year primarily due to drop off from Jeremy Lin and James Harden off the pick-and-roll and offensive putbacks.
However, when the Rockets go small and Morris and Patterson are at the 5, they don't run this play as often even though they are two of the best pick-and-roll finishers on the team. Although neither of them are as devastating as Amar'e Stoudemire in his prime, they're both quick and can get to the basket faster than stockier big men.