Most Startling Statistics of Houston Rockets' Season So Far
The Houston Rockets are off to a 9-2 start, and to some that in and of itself might be a startling statistic. After all the Rockets weren’t expected to be this good this year.
There are numbers behind that record, though. And while some will explain it, others raise major red flags that could indicate the Rockets may have survived liftoff but could suffer a malfunction before they leave the atmosphere.
They are listed here in order of significance. Some are good. Some are bad. And the first is just downright interesting.
8. Clutch Minutes: 10
One of the bizarre anomalies of the Rockets' season is that virtually every game is a blowout in one direction or another.
The Rockets have had just two close games so far this season: the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 16 and the next night on Nov. 17 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. They've played a total of only 10 clutch minutes, second fewest in the league, per NBA.com.
While the Thunder game didn't get a slide because it was just one game, it’s worth mentioning that, per Basketball-Reference.com, it marked just the 11th time since the shot clock was introduced that the winning team failed to reach 70 points.
Score one for defense, I guess. And in game like that, you take whatever kind of scoring you can get.
7. James Harden’s Flip-Flop: Minus-3.0 Percent and 37.2 Percent Shooting
But, if we’re going to decimate him for his failures, we need to celebrate his efforts in correcting them. Perhaps most tellingly, his opponents are shooting 7.0 percent below their averages from deep. He’s giving up just 26.8 percent from there.
That’s particularly striking because it’s an indication of effort. You just don’t get those kind of results without closing out, and Harden’s numbers suggest that he’s doing that hard.
The problem is that his gains on defense are offset by uncharacteristically poor offense. Harden is shooting 37.2 percent from the field and 27.4 percent from deep, both career lows by a considerable margin. As a result his true shooting percentage has fallen from 61.8 percent last year to 54.5 percent this year.
Few teams depend on one player for their offense as much as Houston does on Harden, so if the Rockets are going to make noise this season, they’ll need him to have a progression to the mean.
6. Points-in-the-Paint Differential: Minus-4.7
The Rockets are losing the battle of the points in the paint, particularly given the emphasis on "MoreyBall." Per NBA.com, Houston is scoring 39.1 points per game and giving up 43.8.
MoreyBall is a reference to the Rockets’ emphasis on the high-efficiency areas inside the restricted area and from behind the three-point line. Ergo, one would think an emphasis on such play would result in advantage. Yet not all points in the paint are from inside the restricted area.
Dwight Howard is arguably the best big man in basketball in both defending the paint and scoring in it. It’s surprising with him playing as well as he is that Houston isn’t doing better here.
5. Assist-to-Turnover Ratio: 1.04
The Houston Rockets have turned the ball over 197 times and assisted on only 216 field goals. That assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.04 is only ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers.
It’s also the worst ratio they’ve had since at least 1985 (as far back as Basketball-Reference.com's play index goes). If you’re turning the ball over almost as much you’re knocking down shots off passes, there is a problem with your offensive continuity.
The problem is on both sides of that ratio too. The Rockets are 23rd in assists per game and 28th in turnovers.
And, it’s getting worse. During the three games on Nov. 14 (Philadelphia 76ers), 16 (Thunder) and 17 (Memphis Grizzlies), they turned the ball over 56 times and assisted on 51 field goals.
They’ll need to turn that around to turn around their offense. Part of the problem is that the only facilitator on the team is Harden. It’s one reason that getting a new point guard with that Jeremy Lin trade exception is not a bad idea.
4. Offensive Rebound Percentage: 30.1
The Rockets' field-goal percentage is 42.6, which is 26th in the NBA. The nice thing about missing a high volume of shots is it gives you a chance to get second-chance points. The Rockets are snaring 12.4 of their missed per game, which ranks fifth. As a result they’re sixth in second-chance points. That accounts for 15.7 percent of the Rockets offense.
The adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” seems to be a good one for the Rockets. But if they “did it right the first time” they’d probably have a more efficient offense.
The good news is their 30.1 offensive rebound percentage is second in the NBA, and that bodes well because it’s not dependent on missing lots of shots.
Recycled points are better than none at all. But if the Rockets want to see their offensive problems continue, they’ll need to miss less. And then they can have a high offensive rebound percentage to haul in a reasonable number of misses.
3. Percentage of Total Points by Big Three: 56.7
The Houston Rockets are leaning dangerously hard on their Big Three of Howard, Harden and Trevor Ariza. Through their first 11 games, 610 of their 1,076 points were scored by the threesome.
That comes to a total of 56.7 percent of the Rockets offense. That’s not on par with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Big Three of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving who account for 62.5 percent of the offense. It is too high, though.
Based on personal research, since at least the merger in 1978-79, only the 2011-12 Miami Heat have won the NBA championship with a heavier reliance on the team's three biggest scorers: LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who accounted for 58.3 percent of the offense.
It’s a star’s league, but depth matters. If the Rockets want to get far in the postseason, they need to get more scoring from the role players.
2. Long-2 Field-Goal Percentage: 30.41
Long twos are bad. As Seth Partnow points out on Twitter, shots from eight feet to just inside the three-point line are all worth about the same amount—around .7 points per shot, though that varies a bit from team to team. The Houston Rockets are last in the league in attempts from that range at 194.
Only 16.2 percent of Houston’s made field goals are from there, easily the lowest in the league. The 76ers are next with 22.3 percent, and third goes to Cleveland with 26.4 percent.
So, for emphasis, only one team is even within 10 percent of the Rockets, and that happens to be the worst offense in basketball.
That’s because Houston not only takes the fewest attempts, which account for just 18.5 percent of their shots—they make them at the lowest rate: 30.4 percent.
The problem with this is that that it dismisses such a shot can have value. Sometimes a mid-range shot might be the best shot available. A wide-open catch-and-shoot shot from 15 feet might be better than a pull-up three from above the break or trying to force a shot past Roy Hibbert at the rim.
You don’t want to depend on a mid-range game, but you want to be able to have it in your arsenal. And the Rockets don’t. If teams know they don’t have to defend most of the court, they won’t.
That seemed to be the case over the consecutive games against the Sixers, Thunder and Grizzlies. Over that stretch the Rockets were 36.4 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from three. And 103 of their 236 attempts were from deep.
Since those shots aren’t falling, teams can pack the paint and close down the rim, which is what they’re doing. Sometimes the best way to stretch the court and open up a defense is hit the mid-range shots and force opponents to guard the whole court. Jason Terry could help with that.
The Rockets don’t need to go all Kobe Bryant and abuse the mid-range area, but at least making opponents defend from there wouldn’t hurt.
1. Defensive Rating: 94.3
During the offseason, the biggest point of emphasis was improving on defense, and the Houston Rockets have done that in a major way. In fact, they’ve become the best defense in the NBA. The last time they led the league in defensive rating was 1989-90.
They’re giving up just 94.3 points per 100 possessions, which is a phenomenally low number. There are a combination of factors for the improvement, primarily the resurgence of Howard, the acquisition of Ariza and the commitment of Harden.
Based on data from NBAWowy.com, the Rockets are giving up .946 points per play when both are on the court. They’re giving up .919 when Howard is on the court without Ariza and .965 when Ariza is on the court without Howard.
When neither is on the court, the Rockets yield a whopping 1.176 points per possession.
The nice thing about a great defense is it can keep you in games when the offense isn’t there. Witness the win over the Thunder. That’s going to help the Rockets stick around until Harden’s shooting slump ends.