Most of the success has been because of James Harden, who is having a historically great season. He’s averaging 28.5 points, 12.8 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game. And he’s been doing that with an impressive 62.4 true shooting percentage.
There's another number that is eye-popping but probably too much so: Harden has the ball in his hands 9.3 minutes per game, nearly a full minute more than anyone this season—or, for that matter, since NBA.com started providing tracking information for the 2013-14 campaign.
To put that into perspective, the Rockets have the ball a total of 18.2 minutes per game. That means it's in Harden's hands 51.1 percent of the time Houston has the rock—and that includes when he's on the bench.
While Harden is doing incredible things, he needs a little more from his teammates, particularly when it comes to generating offense.
There are essentially three ways to create points: unassisted field goals (provided by the individual shooting dashboards at NBA.com), passing to open teammates, or drawing fouls and getting free throws. The graphic below shows how many points each of the Rockets has created from each type (hovering over a player will show all the details, and clicking/tapping on full screen will enlarge the graphic):
However, if these three players can step up and do just a little bit more, the Rox can get some separation and secure home-court advantage in the NBA playoffs.
Trevor Ariza is shooting well, knocking down 38.6 percent of his threes, but that’s almost all he’s doing. He has just four unassisted field goals this season.
He wasn't ever dribbling the ball around and manufacturing shots off the bounce, but last year, he created 85 buckets for himself in 81 games. That's almost two more points he carved out for himself per game. So where did they go?
In previous years, he didn’t hesitate to attack an overly aggressive closeout. He’d put the ball on the floor and get to the rim and finish in one or two bounces. Last season, he made 0.6 field goals from drives per game.
This year, he has made a total of one.
When he’s catching the ball, he’s either instantly shooting it (which is good) or passing it (which is usually good), but he rarely pump-fakes to draw the defender off his feet or get him in the air. Thus, easy points that could come at the rim or stripe aren’t there.
A little specific aggressiveness in that area could add one or two points to the Rockets' score per game.
One of the main goals in inking Eric Gordon to a four-year, $53 million contract was so he could help take the burden off Harden’s shoulders. With 177 points created (see infographic), he’s second on Clutch City, and so to a point, he is doing that.
Where the Rockets need him the most, though, is when Harden is resting.
The offense has been abysmal for the last three years every time the Beard takes a blow, and the plan was for Gordon to resolve that. However, the Rockets are still horrible without their star, posting an offensive rating of 87.9 when he’s on the bench.
Patrick Beverley’s injury threw a wrench in those works, so Gordon has been starting. But after the former made his season debut on Thursday, the latter can hopefully find a rhythm with the second unit.
There’s a bit of "good" and "bad" with Gordon when he’s navigating the offense sans Harden. His scoring goes up from 17.8 points to 20.1 per 36 minutes, but his assists go down from 2.7 to 2.2, and his turnovers climb from 1.1 to 4.7.
His advanced stats show similar trends. His usage percentage leaps from 19.6 to 29.7, but his assist percentage (the percentage of his teammates’ field goals he assists on) stays the same at 11.5, and his assist ratio (assists per 100 possessions) drops from 14.3 to 8.3. Also, his true shooting percentage nosedives from 58.7 to 51.1.
All of this confirms what the eyes tell you: Gordon is forcing both the action and the shot rather than reading the defense and flowing into what it gives him. Some of those missed shots could have been assists if he saw the court better.
And it’s not that his teammates are missing shots, either. When his fellow bench players shoot off his passes, they’re making 50 percent of their field goals overall and 50 percent of their threes. The problem is he’s only setting them up for 2.4 such attempts per game.
Gordon could learn a lot from Harden regarding how to direct an offense and seeing the play before it develops. Turning one or two of those misses per game into dimes could add another three to four points to the Rockets’ end of the scoreboard.
Ryan Anderson was brought on board to help Harden, and there is no question that chemistry has been working. When the two are on the court together, the Space Ships have an 114.6 offensive rating. Anderson is shooting 47.1 percent from deep off Harden’s passes. That part is working.
What’s problematic is Anderson becomes useless when Harden sits. He’s shooting just 25.0 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from deep without the Houston star.
So what can he do to make that better?
Let's start with posting up. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Anderson's scored six points on 15 post-up plays this season. That places him in the 0 percentile—which means he’s last among the 81 qualifying (10-plus possessions) players.
He has been too passive when he gets the ball, not backing defenders down and trying to hammer them down low. It would be one thing if he couldn’t do it, but he has demonstrated the ability, averaging 1.005 points per possession last year and scoring 196 points in 66 games on post-up plays. That was good enough for the 88th percentile.
With or without the Rockets' MVP candidate on the court, a little more aggressiveness from Anderson could add another bucket or two to Houston’s point total.
None of these things in isolation makes a massive difference, but two points here and three there adds up. Having players who can do a little more to contribute down the stretch can help, too.
The Rockets are 27th in scoring differential in the fourth quarter this year at minus-2.8.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni addressed that, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: "There's no reason why for 43 minutes our offense is really good then the last five minutes it isn't. It's not like we have a last five-minutes package we need to change. We just need to get better at it."
But maybe there is a reason: When defenses lock down at the end of the game and know what’s coming, they can stop it. Having a few different options to throw at opponents could make things a little less predictable.
Those extra points can be the difference between L's and W's, or between a No. 4 seed and a No. 8 seed. And they might take some of the weight off of Harden before it crushes him.
Statistics courtesy of NBA.com/Stats unless otherwise noted.