Kevin McHale shouts instructions with Dwight Howard in range.
The Houston Rockets have an opportunity to compete for a championship this season under the tutelage of Kevin McHale.
The favorites to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals are the Oklahoma City Thunder, according to ESPN.com’s Winter Forecast, but the Rockets are a sleeper team with the opportunity to make it into the title round and win it all.
Zach Lowe of Grantland echoed that sentiment earlier in the campaign: “The Rockets can absolutely win big this season, but going all the way means accepting some unpleasant tweaks.”
They have two superstars in James Harden and Dwight Howard to carry them for stretches offensively, and in addition, Howard’s defensive prowess allows him to anchor the paint and limit the interior production of opponents.
Moreover, Harden is one of the most lethal one-on-one scorers in the league, which permits Houston to produce points in late-game situations.
Indeed, the left-handed guard leads the league in clutch (defined as the last five minutes of the game with the scoring margin within five points) scoring per game, according to NBA.com.
With that said, there are reasons Houston is merely a dark-horse candidate as opposed to a consensus pick to schedule a parade in June. The Rockets have a few challenges they must overcome.
Born Alone, Die Alone
The Houston Rockets are statistically one of the best offensive teams in the league. They boast a top-10 offense in large part because they place a huge emphasis on the three most efficient shots in basketball: layups, three-pointers and free throws.
NBA.com tells us McHale’s group is featured among the top-five leaders in attempts for those different types of shots. Thus, the Rockets are a group worth fearing on this front, except when they become one-dimensional.
Harden has a tendency to forego sets and team-oriented concepts in lieu of isolations. It’s almost as if the bearded one believes he is playing at the Drew League, and it prompts him to attack his defender repeatedly. That sets up situations where low-percentage shots are taken and as a result, the offense stagnates.
This is a product of the vision of the coaching staff.
As McHale shared with ESPN.com’s Beckley Mason, he does not believe in putting shackles on his players. In reference to the "grind-it-out NBA of the 1990s," he said, "Coaches became a lot more control freaks. I thought when they wanted to hold everything down, possessions down and all that stuff."
A team can get away with this during the regular season, but the playoffs are a different animal. Opponents produce in-depth scouting reports and place a bigger emphasis on taking away first and second options.
Typically, field-goal percentages plummet and scoring becomes tougher with defenses sitting on a player’s pet moves. Not so coincidentally, Harden only converted 39.1 percent of his shots in his first playoff series with Houston.
If we look at Harden’s production this season, we will see some similarities. According to Synergy Sports, the 2-guard is converting 36.4 percent of his isolation field goals.
McHale must absolutely clean this area up. It’s one thing for players to attack a player when a play breaks down and the shot clock is set to expire, but systematically operating one-on-one is perhaps the best way to sabotage an offense.
Granted, a reduction in isolations means other shots will be taken. This is the ideal opportunity to profit from Howard’s skills. Houston can run more of the offense through him via post-ups and pick-and-rolls.
Although this is a bit of a work in progress, it seems to be the plan based on what the Houston coach said to NBA.com’s Sekou Smith:
That’s the positive. Dwight’s playing a lot better. I think we’re figuring out how to get Dwight the ball a lot better. We’re not missing him as much. We’re starting to figure out the angles we have to get at to get him involved more and to get easy baskets and stuff. We put in some different stuff offensively and defensively that works, because I don’t know if you knew this or not but everything works on paper.
So I just think everybody, the staff and this entire group, is getting more accustomed to each other and how we’re going to have to operate. You know, hopefully, in the future you can bring back the entire core group healthy and then you can know what works and what doesn’t work.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year has proved himself to be unstoppable when given a steady diet of touches around the rim. Also, because Howard tends to attract defenders, it will allow for teammates to get open looks at the basket.
At the conclusion of 2013-14, McHale will have coached his fifth season in the NBA. His fairly short tenure as a professional headman makes one wonder if McHale has a lot of room to grow when it comes to analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of his units.
The Houston Rockets have a three-headed monster in Howard, Harden and Chandler Parsons. Everyone outside of the trio is essentially expendable under McHale.
He will allocate minutes to one player on a given night and then yank him in favor of someone else the following evening, as Omri Casspi can attest. One of the issues that has forced McHale’s hand as it pertains to his rotations is his inability to recognize when to downsize his lineup.
The Rockets have been crushing teams by 12.1 points per 100 possessions with their starting five this season, per NBA.com. For context, the Indiana Pacers are outscoring teams by 8.7 points per 100 possessions.
Houston’s opening five-man unit is a big lineup that defends quite well and does a respectable job on the boards. Things get a little dicey when the team substitutes Harden for Jeremy Lin.
It’s technically still a big lineup, but the guards are quite diminutive, which makes them easy to score on. Keep in mind, allowing guards to get into the paint is the one of the best tactics to get Howard into foul trouble, given that he is quick to help out his teammates on the defensive end.
Instead, McHale should opt to utilize the group of Harden, Casspi, Lin, Parsons and Howard. It’s a small-ball squad, and it’s quite effective as evidenced by the fact it outscores opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions.
McHale has only used this grouping for 109 minutes this season, which equates to 5.1 minutes per game on the season. It’s quite likely that McHale stumbled into this quartet in the face of injuries, but it should still see more court time.
The coaching staff is probably worried about putting the foul-prone Howard in a position where he must cover up for all of his comrades; however, most teams in the league are playing small.
Hence, Howard’s teammates should be able to hold their own for the most part when both units downsize.
McHale also faces challenges with his late-game strategy. He allows Harden to dictate far too much of the offense as opposed to designing plays that take advantage of defensive schemes. Here’s an example:
It’s easy to get seduced by the skills of one of the best players in the league, but the previous play simply should not manifest itself from a team with title aspirations. Teams with great defenses will simply snuff out these possessions and send the Rockets packing in late April.
All Is Not Lost
McHale might not be the best head coach in the league, but the same things were said about Erik Spoelstra when the Miami Heat unleashed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh out on the floor in their first season together.
That should give Rockets fans some hope. Ultimately, talent and defense was enough to get the Heat to the 2011 NBA Finals in Spolestra’s third season as a head coach.
McHale might not have the same caliber of players at his disposal, but he still possesses arguably the best shooting guard and center in basketball. Also, the coaching staff’s shortcomings are not necessarily damning.
Consider this: Scott Brooks has consistently been ridiculed for playing Kendrick Perkins heavy minutes because he hurts the offense.
Through it all, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been to the NBA Finals and currently own one of the best records in the Western Conference despite never wavering from their stubborn belief in Perkins.
This illustrates that Houston can win in spite of the issues that McHale brings to the table.
Houston has already recorded victories over the Portland Trail Blazers (twice), San Antonio Spurs (three times) and Golden State Warriors (twice). Clearly, the Rockets can defeat upper-echelon teams despite some of McHale’s failings, which suggests they can also take on the elite come May and June.
The Rockets have the talent to make up for some of their deficiencies, and that will go a long way towards determining their fate. Still, should McHale improve in these facets, that would probably strengthen the belief that Houston can win a championship.