By Patrick Harrel
When the Rockets acquired James Harden three days before Opening night, they completed a whirlwind of a summer that saw them trade or release 8 of their 10 rotation players from the previous year, including all five opening day starters from 2011. The longest tenured member on the team? Patrick Patterson, a third year player who would take over the starting power forward spot despite only having started seven games.
And the most experienced starter? Chandler Parsons, a second round pick from the previous season who had taken over the starting spot from Chase Budinger early in the 2011-12 campaign yet averaged just 9.5 points per game over the season.
With five rookies on the roster, just one player over the age of 26 (Carlos Delfino), and a combined 98 games started between the starting lineup, not much was expected of the Rockets. The team was, after all, by far the youngest in the league with just a 23.6 average age, and young teams do not have a vast history of success in the NBA.
However, after a 4-7 start, the team has vastly outperformed expectations, winning 12 out of 17 and 6 of their last 7 in order to move to 16-12 and into the sixth seed in the Western Conference. In these last seven games, they won five games against playoff teams from last year, including a three game streak of both scoring 120 and winning by over 20, matching an NBA record. They also broke both Memphis and Chicago’s defenses down badly, beating both team’s season high in points allowed on their way to blowout victories.
Now, they stand #1 in points scored per game and #8 in offensive efficiency, a remarkable feat for a squad that young.
The only question is how are they doing this? The duo of Asik and the Patterson projected to be somewhere between awful and god-awful this season, with Asik having more career foul-outs (2) than double-doubles (1), and Patterson shooting a cool 44% from the field as a power forward in 2011-12. Chandler Parsons started most of the season but rarely cracked into double figures in scoring.
Going into the year, it seemed like the team would be forced to ride James Harden and a still-injured Jeremy Lin extremely hard if they wanted to scrape out any modicum of respectability on the offensive side of the ball, but now they have a case to make as one of the most dynamic offenses in the league. What gives?
Turns out, it’s pretty basic: Just by outracing teams down the court on the break, the Rockets have improved their efficiency and gotten by despite a consistent half court attack. However, getting out on the break has not always been a path to success.
Since Synergy has begun charting games (the last three seasons), none of the league’s fastest teams have made the playoffs. However, unlike the past leaders in league pace, the Rockets not only get out on the break, they convert their looks.
Over the past three seasons, the league’s fastest teams have ranked 16th in the league in points per possession (PPP) in transition, with last year’s Sacramento Kings the only one to be above average in a year. The Rockets, on the other hand, are 9th in efficiency in transition, getting 1.18 PPP. To see how they’re exploiting their athleticism on the break, we’ll break down a couple of plays from the last week. Here’s one example from Saturday’s game against Memphis:
After a Marcus Morris block, Carlos Delfino collects the ball and four Rockets turn and run up the court.
As Carlos Delfino gets to the top of the three point arc, it’s a four on three situation. Gasol is good position under the basket to stop any cutters, but the Grizzlies are still dealing with a major mismatch.
Because Gasol is forced to stick to Omer Asik, who has run the court and gotten under the basket and Rudy Gay and Mike Conley were on the ball side, all Carlos Delfino has to do is throw a simple crosscourt pass and hit a wide open James Harden, who converts on the three pointer. As you can see here, the fact that Omer Asik gets up the court so quickly makes this play possible because he prevents Gasol from going out and helping on the shooter. One can only imagine that with last year’s roster, Marcus Camby would not have been up the floor in such a hurry.
However, the transition offense does not only come off of turnovers, blocks, and long rebounds. Sometimes, as you see here, the Rockets can make you pay after a make:
After a Rudy Gay basket, you can already see three Rockets rushing up the court and the Grizzlies racing to try and catch up.
Chandler Parsons beat everyone down the floor and after a well-placed pass from Jeremy Lin he gets the open layup.
There are countless other examples of cases like these, but you get the point. With James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons on the wings, and Omer Asik becoming an elite outlet passer, the Rockets are taking advantage of their speed and finishing ability and punishing older teams.
Comparing the present offense to that of last year’s team gives a pretty clear image of how the Rockets have improved. The 2011-12 Rockets were 12th in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency at 102.8 (per ESPN), and this team is 8th at 105.2 in the early going.
A lot of this improvements has to do with the fact that this year’s squad has both increased the efficiency and the rate of transition opportunities. The efficiency has improved marginally from 1.16 to 1.18 PPP, but by using 16.4% of their possessions in transition instead of just 12.8% as last year’s team did, the team has maximized the most efficient shots in basketball.
There are other reasons to the Rockets’ offensive success like a tremendous pick and roll attack, but none are more noticeable than the transition attack. They aren’t going to be contending for a title this season, but if they find themselves facing up against an older team in the first round of the playoffs and they could make for a very dangerous matchup.
At the very least, Daryl Morey has turned an aging, mediocre roster into a dynamic and exciting one in just a few months. After a summer in which he was constantly second-guessed, that is deserving of some recognition.