What on earth went wrong with the Houston Rockets?

Breaking down how a team fell so far

What a disappointing season it’s been for the Houston Rockets. Last year, the Rockets won the South-“bestern” division where literally every single team made the playoffs. They were second seed in the West with Dwight Howard only playing 41 games. They made the Western Conference Finals, the furthest they had ever gone since the Hakeem era. James Harden was the runner-up MVP and the second leading scorer in the league. He even played defense!

After bringing back basically the same team and also adding one of the league’s top playmakers in Ty Lawson during the offseason, the Rockets entered 2015-16 with high expectations. Things were looking up in H-town.

Then the season started, and the Rockets lost their first three games each by 20 points. Kevin McHale was fired after a 4-7 start. Ty Lawson was benched and eventually boughtout. Harden lifted the Kardashian curse . . . but it didn’t help. Effort and consistency have been issues all season long. Currently, the Rockets sit at 38-41, three games under .500, one game out of even making the playoffs with three to go. Is it even worth it to sneak in? If Rockets made 8th seed, they would just get humiliated by the Warriors and surrender their 2016 1st rounder to the Denver Nuggets. The Rockets have unquestionably been one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA this year. They were 53-26 at this point last season, a whopping 15 game difference. Rockets fans around the world can only scratch their heads and wonder “where did it all go wrong this year??”

Let’s take a deeper look into the numbers.

Overall Comparison to 2014-2015

The first thing that struck me was how similar the basic stats are for this year’s Rockets and last year’s Rockets.

From watching the games, I felt that this year’s Rockets couldn’t hit 3s and turned the ball over too much compared to last year. But aside from Win percentage, there is no noticeable drop off in any other category. In fact, this year’s Rockets score two more points despite shooting 2% worse from the free throw line and 0.4% worse from 3. They even turn the ball over slightly less despite James Harden breaking the NBA record for most turnovers in a season. However, as Rockets fans all know, their Achilles heel all season has not been the offense, but the defense.

These are the Rockets’ advanced stats from last year and this year.

Again, very similar numbers overall, but look at that difference in DefRtg. Defensive (Offensive) Rating tells us how many points a team gives up (scores) per 100 possessions. The 2014-15 Rockets scored 104.2 and gave up 100.5 points per 100 possessions (6th best in the league), a Net Rating of 104.2 – 100.5 = 3.7. This year’s Rockets score 105 points per 100, but give up 106.1 (21st in the league!), a net rating of -1.1. For reference, the Spurs currently have a NetRtg of 12.3. So, while the ’15-16 Rockets score at the same pace, their defense has plummeted (kind of like D’Angelo Russell’s Teammate Grade).

Defensive Breakdown

Here is a how opponents are scoring on the Rockets as compared to last year. When I first looked at this, I didn’t notice any big change in the numbers – until I saw 3PT%. Opponents are shooting 36.2% from 3 against the Rockets, up from 32.2% last year. That’s a HUGE 4% increase! Huge. Add 4% to J.J. Barea’ 3PT% and he goes from 31st to 5th best 3PT shooter in the league. A 4% increase in 3PT% translates to 4% * 3 = .12 more points per 3PT shot. The average team takes 24 3PT attempts per game. That means an increase of 4% in 3PT% for the average NBA team results in 24 *.12 = 2.88 more points per game. An extra 2.88 PPG takes an average NBA offense and moves it to the top 80th percentile of the league. Most importantly, this increase in offense comes at no cost defensively. In fact, making more 3s means less long rebounds and fast break opportunities for the opponent. So yes, that 4% 3PT increase the Rockets are allowing is a pretty big deal.

Looking at the film, you can see why opponents enjoy a higher 3PT% this year. The communication, effort, and discipline crucial to any good NBA defense are just not there on a consistent basis for the Rockets, leading to some embarrassing defensive breakdowns. These clips are all from games in the past month.

Breakdown #1

For some reason, Corey Brewer leaves a 37.8% 3PT shooter in Joe Ingles wide open to drop in the paint when Howard and Capela are right there. All it takes is one pass and Ingles ruins an otherwise good Rockets defensive possession. Shot clock-beating 3s are a morale killer for every defense.

Breakdown #2

Rockets do a good job initially of getting back in transition, but there is a mismatch with Dwight Howard on the 39.7% 3PT shooter Marvin Williams near the corner. Not ideal for him to be there, but D-Mo is a capable paint defender. A simple pick and roll is all it takes to get Dwight to panic. Nobody communicates and D-Mo is left out to dry.

Breakdown #3

Another mismatch in semi-transition where Beard ends up on Cody Zeller and Howard is again on Williams. He pushes D-Mo to contest Batum, but stands there while Williams shoots a wide-open 3. Rockets get lucky when it rims out.

There are many reasons why this team, so good at defending the 3 last season, became so bad at it this year. Effort was a big reason early in the season, but the breakdowns shown above are more than an effort problem. Dwight Howard can no longer shut down the paint by himself and isn’t used to guarding bigs who can shoot 3s. James Harden daydreams on defense. However, I think the biggest reason though is because the Rockets are trying to play more small ball and it’s simply not working.

Small Ball

The NBA is a copycat league. Many coaches and GMs around the league saw the Lebron James Heat and small ball Warriors win and tried to copy their formula.

“The success of Golden State has propelled coaches to play more small ball than maybe they even wanted to. More teams will push the envelope” – Wizards coach Randy Wittman

But it’s not that simple. You can’t just take a SF, move him to PF and call that small ball (I’m looking at you Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers).

Offensively, small ball only works if everyone on the floor can shoot 3s well and playmake to some extent. That includes the ability to drive, pass, and run the fast break. Defensively, you need have quick, versatile defenders who can switch any screen and be trusted 1-on-1. Guys have to constantly communicate and rebounding must be a collective effort. You don’t need to get blocks; you just need to force opponents into taking contested long-range shots which lead to long rebounds and fast break opportunities.

The Rockets were NOT a small ball team last year and that was perfectly fine. Throughout last season including the playoffs, the Rockets always played a natural PF whether that was Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejūnas, or Josh Smith. They even started Joey Dorsey when Dwight was out. Who is Joey Dorsey you might be thinking? He kind of looks like Dwight Howard if you squint your eyes and stand really far away.

Joey Dorsey Dwight Howard lookalike
Basically Dwight Howard

It worked though, driven in large part by Harden’s individual brilliance, D-Mo’s drastic offensive and defensive improvement, and Harden’s individual brilliance. Beard was really, really good.

Rockets 14-15 advanced stats
Always a true PF in there

Unfortunately, D-Mo was injured for the first half of this season. The Rockets started Terrence Jones at PF instead, but he was so bad defensively that Rockets had to resort to a twin towers lineup with Howard and Clint Capela (who has played well this year) after a 5-10 start. Seriously, Terrence Jones has been that bad.

Terrence Jones Defense
DFG% is how opponents shoot when defended by him

The twin towers lineup actually did decently well, but it wasn’t sustainable for an 82-game season, especially when Dwight would inevitably need to take off games for rest and other teams figured out how to attack it. The Rockets needed another solution at PF, but rookie Montrezl Harrell was the only pure PF they had left after T-Jones. Kind of ironic given how the Rockets drafted 10 forwards in the last six years. After seeing McHale fired only 11 games in, the Rockets coaching staff wasn’t about to bet their jobs on starting a rookie. Thus, Trevor Ariza moved to PF and Corey Brewer started at SF.

It hasn’t been pretty. Small ball relies on spacing the court and Corey Brewer’s 27.6% 3PT% is simply not good enough to compensate for the rebounding and defensive costs that come with starting him. He is an okay defender, but teams simply did not respect his shot and would often play off of him to crowd Harden. He’s also been pretty terrible overall this year. Trevor Ariza is a great 3PT shooter, but defenses can close out hard on him knowing he can’t drive and create. Same with Patrick Beverley. But surround James Harden with four Tony Allens and you’ll still have an okay offense – that’s just how good Beard is.

Again, the problem for these Rockets has been defense. These are the top 3 lineups the Rockets have used this season in terms of minutes played. Find the ones with a negative NetRtg (hint, look for Corey Brewer).Advanced Stats Rockets 2015-16

Things got so bad to the point where Rockets fans were hoping Josh Smith would be their savior. Yes, Josh Smith. Sadly, this Josh Smith is not the same person who shot 38% from 3PT in the playoffs and carried the Rockets to their most important win in over a decade.

This Josh Smith shoots 32.7% as a PF, 25% from 3PT ,and gives away high-school level turnovers. Both Smith and Jones have barely played in the last 15+ games.

After a strange failed trade saga, D-Mo finally returned the starting lineup, but it’s clear he hasn’t recovered 100% from his back injury. The Rockets start him, but still play a lot of small ball except recently with CBA MVP Michael Beasley. While Beasley has been a surprisingly good option at the 4, he isn’t a knock down 3PT shooter and doesn’t solve the core defensive issue that the Rockets face: defending the 3PT line while playing small. This a natural part of the growing pains of learning a new system. Very simple questions suddenly become hard to figure out, especially with no communication.

What scheme are we playing?

A simple Butler/Gasol pick and roll. Trevor Ariza thinks it’s a switch, but Howard is thinking show. Both run back at Butler and Harden wanders into the party. Beasley has the right idea picking up Gasol, which means Dwight should be running at Mirotic. He doesn’t, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

Who do I pick up in transition?

Mike Scott is playing PF and Tim Hardaway is playing SF. Ariza glances at Tim Hardaway in semi-transition and thinks Beasley has him. Beasley kind of just stands there instead. Maybe he thinks he’s on Mike Scott? Either way, the Hawks get an easy, wide open Tim Hardaway 3PT.

When and where do I rotate?

Michael Beasley is just lost on this possession. He first rotates to the paint when two Rockets are already helping on Favors, then doesn’t recover to Raul Neto when Terry takes his man. He’s playing PF, so maybe he thinks he should be in the paint? Maybe he’s used to CBA shooters? Another shot-clock beating 3PT.

Not every team has to go small like the Warriors. The Rockets were never designed to be a small ball team, but an injury to their starting PF gave them no good alternatives to start the season. They have struggled all season to learn small ball, especially on the defensive end. Even now, there are constant miscommunications on defense because nobody has played this system before and guys frankly don’t seem to like each other anyway. Dwight is still a great defender, but this is his first year ever playing without a true PF next to him and you can tell he’s not used to it. Just playing with pride has also been an issue as these Rockets have looked complacent all year. After this nightmare season is over, Rockets have to decide whether they want to commit to going small or stick with a traditional PF/C combo. You can win with either, but you need to choose and commit to the right personnel. It’s just too hard to win trying to do both.

Thoughts on James Harden

Some people will complain that James Harden turns the ball over too much, but they forget that Harden is basically the entire Houston Rockets offense. However, I will admit that I’ve seen more of these kinds of careless passes this year than last year…

…and these

…and this kind of lazy ball handling

Sigh. Turnovers aside, 28.7 PPG, 6.2 REB, 7.5 AST per game, 59.7% True Shooting%, 25.07 PER, 38.2 MPG, and 32.3 Usage% on the 5th highest scoring offense in the league. He hasn’t even been getting as many calls this year. You can’t carry harder than that offensively. 

Defensively, we have seen more of the bad James Harden this year, the one who ends up on funny vines like this.

Quantifying defense is an imperfect science because it depends so much on who else is on the court. Put Andrea Bargnani on a team with Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kyle Lowry, and Tony Allen, and the stats will say he is an All-NBA defender. However, there are some metrics besides those hilarious look-at-him-not-play-defense vines that show James Harden’s regression defensively this year.

Despite his Shaqtin’ level defense and … other things, Harden is too gifted an offensive player to even consider trading. He is the most valuable commodity in the NBA: an efficient superstar who can score anytime but also makes his teammates better. And he’s getting paid less than Enes Kanter! Yes, Harden’s defensive apathy is one of the many reasons why the Rockets have struggled, but without him, his team would be relying on Dwight Howard post-ups and Michael Beasley isolations for points.

Thoughts on Dwight Howard

Based on my vast friend circle of NBA players </joke>, I believe you won’t find a nicer guy in the NBA than Dwight Howard.

I’ve been to a few of his games and after every game he throws his shooting sleeves, jersey, and shoes into the crowd. He is interacting with fans before other players arrive and long after other players leave.

Howard closeup
Pics or it didn’t happen

Sadly, Howard gets ridiculed as “soft” because he chose to leave LA and go somewhere where he could be happier professionally. The guy is in a tough situation; his natural decline with age just happens to coincide with small ball killing off the center position. He spent so much time working on post moves, but he doesn’t get post touches anymore. His type, a lumbering center who dominates the paint but can’t do anything outside of it, is slowly being replaced by 6-6’ Draymond Greens. Guards today struggle to even throw post entry passes; his talents are just not as useful anymore. If the guy wasn’t making $22 million a year, I’d almost feel bad for him.

During his prime years in Orlando, Howard never seemed to understand that Stan Van Gundy didn’t give him the ball at the end of close games because he would just be fouled and miss the free throws. The Rockets don’t ask for that much from their center. No need to shoot from mid range or 3, no need to read the defense and make the next pass, no need to have post moves – just rebound your area, be solid on defense, set hard screens, catch Harden lobs, and hit your free throws. That last one is particularly important. Every time a team hacks-a-Dwight or hacks-a-Capela, that is one less possession where the ball is in Harden’s hands. Hacking slows the game down when the Rockets want to push the pace. Hacking gives you a max of two points when you could potentially get three. Hacking essentially neutralizes Harden’s offensive talent. Hacking means that James Harden is only on the floor to play defense.
*Side note: I will never understand why NBA players can’t hit free throws.

Yes, Dwight Howard will most likely leave this summer, but is that really that bad for the Rockets? Howard is only getting older while the promising 21-year old Capela has shown he is a capable starting center who doesn’t need to miss 30+ games every season (though he must improve his FT%). Dwight leaving also gives Daryl Morey cap space to work with, perhaps to finally find a long-term answer at the PF spot. Kevin Durant to Houston is more a fantasy than anything, but In Morey We Trust.

Daryl Morey
This guy

Takeaways (TL;DR)

  • Last year’s squad won by playing great defense and complementing Harden’s brilliance with just enough 3PT shooting.
  • Rockets are fine on offense this year (thanks Harden!), but they have dropped off a cliff defensively mostly because they can no longer defend the 3PT line.
  • A persistent struggle has been effort and urgency, but also trying to play small ball. Guys are confused where to go on defense and there’s not enough communication
  • Rockets only went small ball because D-Mo was injured, Terrence Jones is a statue on defense, Josh Smith can’t hit shots, and Montrezl Harrell is an unproven rookie. Small ball can work, but the Rockets were unprepared to get it right.
  • Corey Brewer shooting 27.6% from 3PT doesn’t help matters. Some playmaking from anyone without a Beard would also be nice.
  • Harden has regressed on defense this year, but continues to be among the best players in the world offensively. There’s no way the Rockets can trade him.
  • Dwight Howard’s days in Houston are numbered – which is not necessarily a bad thing for Daryl Morey and the Rockets.
  • Even if the Rockets sneak into the playoffs this year, they aren’t going anywhere. Management this summer has big decisions to make on the future direction of this team.

Author: Jasper Wu

Jasper is a consultant in New York City and founder of BallAndOne.com and Wu Advisory. He graduated from Cornell University.

One thought on “What on earth went wrong with the Houston Rockets?”

Leave a Reply