By Rob Mahoney
As the Rockets cling to the West's eighth and final playoff spot, it's worth remembering that this team was never supposed to be in such a promising position. Even after Daryl Morey scrapped together the assets to pluck James Harden away from the tax-conscious Thunder, few regarded Houston's immediate prospects with any seriousness. After all, acquiring a star player was only the first step in Morey's publicly communicated master plan; from there the idea was to build around a defined talent, a process that almost invariably demands time and patience.
The Rockets had both of those luxuries, but haven't really needed them. A transitional season has instead become an introduction to a new era for basketball in Houston, ushered in primarily by Harden, Jeremy Lin and a coach in Kevin McHale who has empowered his players to pursue the most efficient offense possible. It's not at all uncommon for an NBA team to adopt some qualities associated with its best player, but the degree to which the Rockets have become an extension of Harden is uncanny. This simple machine ranks fifth in the league in points scored per possession on the basis of chasing the highest-value shots on the court -- an aim that clearly mimics the aggressive scoring style of the player at its functional center.
To put this relationship in a visual context, here is the Rockets' shot distribution for this season, charted solely on the location of their attempts (as opposed to shooting accuracy):
And, for comparison's sake, here is Harden's individual shot distribution:
Some observers might be so inclined as to describe Houston's offense as fast and loose, in that Rockets players regularly shoot early in the shot clock, hoist up threes in transition and violate other tenets of conventional basketball wisdom. But these kinds of shooting trends indicate a more thoughtful offensive approach -- one validated by Houston's efficient gunning and its place in the top 10 in pace-adjusted point differential. An uptempo style shouldn't be confused with a lack of order or discipline, particularly when the entire roster has bought into the offense so wholeheartedly.
That aspect of Houston's approach is often overlooked when we view this team as James and the Hardenaires. The Rockets' entire offensive enterprise was transformed by Harden's arrival, but such an approach is only possible because the personnel just so happened to provide a fantastic conceptual fit. Houston has the speed and young legs to get up the court quickly, the positional flexibility to go small and get away with it, the specialists that make the system go and a depth of shooters that space the floor for their bread-and-butter plays. When Harden looks to execute a high pick-and-roll, the attention of fans and opponents alike is fixed on his workings with the ball. He's earned that focus with deadly drives and accurate shooting. Yet out on the periphery are a crew of complementary parts that make it all possible -- spacing the floor, moving without the ball and doggedly adhering to the plan in place.
Some of that foundation comes in the form of three-point shooting, an area in which the Rockets are the most prolific team in the league by way of raw attempts. Yet what really sets Houston apart in its three-point chucking approach is the depth of shooters available; rather than rely on a few perimeter specialists to snipe from the outside, the Rockets have eight players averaging over two three-point attempts per game. Six of those players are converting at an above-average clip, with Lin (31.6) and Patrick Beverley (33.3) being the only exceptions. Having so many shooters at his disposal has allowed McHale to create a spacing nirvana for Harden and Lin to do work off the dribble and offered the floor balance necessary to properly execute a spread pick-and-roll offense.
Just as important to Houston's execution are two creative off-ball players capable of knocking down threes, evading a closeout and creating in a pinch. Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino could hardly be more different in terms of their playing sensibilities, but they nevertheless offer similar value as offensive catalysts. As much as we credit players like Harden and Lin for the shots they're able to create for their teammates, it's the play of these kinds of role players that actualize the potential of the spread pick-and-roll. Ideally, those spotting up in the corners aren't just waiting to toss up a shot, but to make a play. There's a natural economic inclination to surround skilled pick-and-roll practitioners with cheap-shooting specialists, but the offense blooms when players like Parsons and Delfino are able to fully survey the options available. Sometimes the best read is to hoist up a three-point attempt, as intended. In other cases, it may be prudent to use an escape dribble and explore the paint while the defense is stilted. The progression goes on and the possibilities are many, but only because these release valve shooters are able to counter so comprehensively.
And of course those efforts are aided by having bigs who can vacate the lane while remaining a threat to score. Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris may not be the most revered stretch forwards in the NBA, but their joint ability to fill gaps on offense and manage cross-matching on defense has made them a strong fit for a team this flexible. Both have had stints as successful members of Houston's starting lineup, but Morris' evolution has been particularly important for a team that already manages the presence of a limited offensive big man in Omer Asik. With a stretchy game and tweener athleticism, Morris has rebounded beautifully from his woeful rookie season to become a meaningful -- if inconsistent -- contributor. That's huge for a team so short on proven bigs, particularly when his staggered minutes with Patterson (and the spacious offensive orientation that results) allows the Rockets the room to wheel through pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll.
Yet Asik does more than his share as a frontcourt counterpart to Patterson and Morris, in part because he excels in providing a very different set of skills. He's overworked in terms of anchoring Houston's defensive system (though the perimeter defenders are fine, the scheme does him no favors), but Asik is a hard screen-setter and a fantastic rebounder -- two of the most crucial attributes of a lead rolling big in a spread, four-out system. It's an unglamorous existence, but the technique of creating a successful screening angle shouldn't at all be overlooked. Beyond even that, Asik has learned to manage his offensive skillset rather well through movement and positioning, to the point where he may be one of the NBA's most successful bigs when it comes to being in the area (for screening or rebounding purposes) without being in the way.
Even beyond that core of role players, those at the edges of Houston's rotation have stumbled into seemingly perfect roles. Toney Douglas was in over his head in New York, but has turned out to be a decent offensive caretaker for a team that can rely on off-guard playmaking. Beverley has been a really useful sparkplug off the bench, despite failing to make the NBA cut until midseason. Even the D-League-assigned Greg Smith worked effectively as a finisher at the rim, the one offensive quality that's otherwise lacking among an Asik-Patterson-Morris frontline.
This roster, fun and flawed, just makes sense in ways that initially seemed impossible. Houston isn't destined for an upset or good enough to do anything save vie for a playoff spot, but there's an almost serendipitous quality to the way the offensive pieces have fallen into place for a team that's otherwise a work in progress. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com