As the NBA season approaches the halfway point, it’s getting hard to deny the Houston Rockets are the league’s most disappointing team. Western Conference finalists last year, they are 17-19 and struggling to hold on to the No. 7 seed against other underachieving competition.
“Houston, we have a problem” jokes here are not only overdone, they’re also insufficient. Houston has a lot more than a problem.
If Apollo 13 had this many issues, the movie would have had a much sadder ending, and if the Rockets don’t get theirs fixed soon, so will their season.
It’s hard not to start with the biggest and most glaring problem: the Rockets defense—and I use that word loosely to mean what they are doing when they watch the other team score.
The following chart shows all 30 teams, their offensive and defensive ratings from last year to this year and the change in their net rating. Scroll over any team to highlight them in all three graphs.
As you can see from the bottom chart, only the Milwaukee Bucks have seen their net rating decline more than Houston's. If you mouse over the Rockets logo, you’ll see that while they were among the elite defenses (further to the left) last year, they are one of the worst (closer to the top) this year. Offensively, they haven’t changed much.
So why does the defense, which was once stellar, suddenly look more like they’re offering a welcoming hug than trying to deter opposing offenses?
The Rockets are giving up an effective field-goal percentage of 51.7 this year compared with 48.6 percent last year. In a somewhat “no duh” observation, their problems boil down to their opponents making more shots.
But why? That's where things require a little more digging.
The first inclination is to blame it on Ty Lawson because he's the new addition and not a noteworthy defender. But he’s defended 239 of the 3,080 shots taken against Houston, and opponents are only shooting a 51.4 effective field-goal percentage against him, so it’s not his fault. That’s not great, but it’s about the same as the team as a whole.
NBA.com’s tracking stats give us an indication of what is happening. Combining stats from four to six feet with six feet out, we get some pretty telling numbers.
The Rockets have given up 1,519 uncontested shots. That accounts for 49.3 percent of the total shots taken against them. Opponents have an effective field-goal percentage of 54.2 on those attempts.
In 2014-15, only 45.9 percent of their opponents' 6,893 shots were uncontested, and their opponents only shot 33.3 percent on those attempts. Furthermore, 48.4 percent of those uncontested shots were threes last year compared to 50.6 percent this year. The enemy made 33.2 percent of their open threes last season; this year it’s 37.9 percent.
What all this suggests (and the eye test confirms) is that the Rockets are not closing out on shots or rotating the way they did last year. Lazy closeouts mean more open shots. The better field-goal percentage reflects those open shots are less rushed.
Sometimes the easy take is to say that the problem on defense is a lack of effort. With the Rockets this year, that's probably the case. If they didn't try any harder, they wouldn't be trying at all.
The easy person to blame is James Harden, who has obviously regressed to his 2013-14 play, and he deserves some criticism. But it’s not just Harden.
There are too many miscues, failed closeouts, lethargic switches and “oh wells” to count. They're coming from everyone. Outside of Trevor Ariza and Montrezl Harrell (in his limited minutes), it’s hard to find any consistent defense from anyone. And yes, that includes Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley.
We’re not talking about fixing a problem by sticking your finger in a dike here. We’re talking about the entire dam being reduced to rubble.
The Rockets defense is a disaster, but beginning to fix it comes down to showing effort. Until that is applied, it’s almost impossible to start fine-tuning the larger problems.
The other side of the ball is not nearly as bad. In fact, the Rockets are ranked 10th in offensive rating this year. For all his woes on defense, James Harden is still an incredible scoring weapon who averages 27.4 points per game on a 60.5 true shooting percentage.
After a cold start, Harden’s shooting has come around. If he gets his true shooting (currently at 58.2 percent) back over 60 percent where it’s been the last three years, he’ll join LeBron James and Michael Jordan as the only players to have four seasons averaging 25 points and five assists with a true shooting percentage over 60.
So please, don’t take this as a scathing indictment of Harden. But the problem is that he has become a ball-stopper. That’s not all on him. Some of it is the offense that’s being run. Some of it is the limited options for him to work with.
The Rockets are running way too much isolation. Harden's run 282 such plays this season, which is 33.6 percent more than any other player in the league. In fact, there are 14 teams that haven’t run that many isos.
Harden ranks in the 64.7th percentile on isolation plays, notching .91 points per play, which is good, but not great. It’s down from last year’s 1.01 mark.
What invariably happens is that Harden will stand up at the top of the three-point line, hold onto the ball for half the shot clock and then put the ball on the floor where one of five things will happen:
- He’ll drive the lane and get the shot.
- He’ll drive the lane and draw a foul.
- He’ll start to drive, then try a step-back jumper, usually for a three-point attempt.
- He’ll drive the lane and kick out to a shooter.
- He’ll drive the lane and turn the ball over.
The rest of the team stands around admiring Harden’s beard or wondering what they want from McDonalds after the game—and I'm being only partly facetious.
There is so little off-ball movement that it’s most notable for its absence. There’s no weaving, cutting, screening or anything else. You can see more player movement in a still photograph of the Golden State Warriors.
The tracking stats at NBA.com show dribbles per touch and seconds per touch. If we look at “dribbles per second” (dribbles per touch/seconds per touch), then we can infer a few things.
Seeing as how the actual time frame of the bounce is unlikely to vary much, we can deduce that players with more dribbles per second are active with the ball and not holding it. Those who have fewer dribbles per second are holding it for a moment before and/or after they put the ball on the floor.
Here are the players who have possessed the ball 200 minutes and how many dribbles per second they average:
See how Harden isn’t just the lowest, he’s in a different tier altogether.
The tracking stats also monitor passes made and passes received. Harden has had the ball passed to him 630 times more than he’s given it up; that’s the most of any player in the league. (Warriors forward Draymond Green is on the other end of the spectrum at minus-394. However, Green has 17 more assists.) Here are the top 10 in differential:
|NBA Leaders in Pass Differential (Passes Made-Passed Received)|
|Player||Team||Passes Made||Passes Received||Pass Diff.||AST|
Notice how large a gap (over 10 percent) there is between him and anyone else.
Houston has an offense that doesn’t just go through Harden, it goes almost exclusively through Harden. Again, that’s an observation, not a judgment.
What that means is that it's incredibly predictable, and that leads to a lot of turnovers. A gifted possession is a blown opportunity to score, and it gives the opponent an easy chance to do so.
Only the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings turn the ball over more than Houston, and not surprisingly, only those two teams give up more points off turnovers than the Rockets’ 19.3. That doesn’t show up in Clutch City’s offensive rating, but it hurts jut the same.
The Rockets need to work out a way to get more inventive when they have the ball. Either Harden is trying to do everything himself, they’re asking him to too much or both. Who’s at fault is moot. They need to fix it, and for that to happen, the offense needs to move more.
And that brings us back to the underlying problem on defense. Whether it’s scoring or stopping the other team from scoring, the biggest and most pervasive problem with the Rockets seems to be a lack of effort. When you’re standing around on both ends of the court, it’s hard to win basketball games.
It’s not rocket science.