The Houston Rockets have found a lot of success with their unique basketball paradigm—but it’s not going to win them a championship.
Based around a proliferation of three-point shots and at-the-basket opportunities created through an aggressive fast break and quick actions, the Rockets’ offense is one of the best in the league. Currently averaging 105.3 points per game, the Houston attack has been in the NBA’s top five all season.
At root of the offense is a simple equation that has slowly caught up to the league since the induction of the shooting arc: three is more than two. GM Daryl Morey wants his team to take only the shots with the highest of risk-to-reward ratios. His squad is near the forefront of playing in harmony with advanced analytics movement, but it's worth wondering whether this is the best way for them to win.
Because a repetitive losing tale is told every time the team faces off against any number of rivals they’re likely to see in the playoffs. Despite their current six-game winning streak, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies all have their number. They’ve had trouble with the Phoenix Suns, too, and have been whalloped by the Indiana Pacers, an Eastern Conference squad Houston would be lucky to see by reaching the NBA Finals.
The Rockets’ offensive success thus far should be primarily taken as a sign of the team’s impressive talent base—not as an expression of them playing the right way. Morey seems to believe his team needs to catch up to the carrot of future NBA offenses, but the on-court results say otherwise. This young, freshly-assembled crew has a lot of evolution ahead of them, and many more facts to develop. They're nowhere near the level they’re capable of playing at.
Any appraisal of coach Kevin McHale is somewhat clouded by the influence Morey has over the team. To what extent is McHale being forced to coach his team this way? This is not entirely clear to fans and pundits.
The progression of team leader James Harden’s game is perhaps a better symbol than any for the Rockets’ growth. Formerly a very diverse sixth man for the Thunder, Harden has had to transform as Houston’s main man. He’s done admirably, becoming one of the greatest scorers in all of the league.
But a new sort of reputation has started to form around Harden. A recent piece by ESPN’s David Thorpe wondered whether Harden had become the new “premiere ball-stopper” in the league, akin to Carmelo Anthony. Harden has become one of the higher-usage players in basketball, and his efficiency and overall skills have taken a bit of a hit as his shot attempts have skyrocketed. He needs to reintegrate the defense, passing and intangibles that he exhibited with the Thunder.
The rest of his team, too, needs to get to developing more than just their relentless scoring affront.
With more time, it’s a sure thing that this much talent will chisel itself into a more complex unit, capable of mystifying teams in the half court, and getting stops in it too. They shouldn’t have to rely on overpowering teams in the open court.
Especially not when they’ve got the best center in their conference in Dwight Howard on the roster. With Howard, it only makes sense to spread their action around more democratically.
It’s time for Houston to end their offensive experiment, and use more of the floor. Being at the edge of the frontier into a more three-happy league has made for good research, but if the Rockets are to be serious about winning seven-game series come springtime, they’ll have to put more energy into the rest of their game.
Developing more post-up sets for Howard is just one thing on the list. They also need their pick-and-roll to be more of an entry into their offense—not an end result. They need to start choreographing their extra passes, because it’s often the fourth, fifth or even sixth option in a possession that does in playoff defenses.
In Harden, Howard, Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones the Rockets have a core that can fine-tune these sorts of wrinkles to terrifying potency in the years to come.
The question on a lot of Houston fans' minds is why they haven’t already started.