Playoff Capsule: Houston Rockets

There’s nothing remarkably complex about Houston’s offense, mainly because, as scholars such as Zach Lowe have noted, Houston’s youth necessitated a simplified offense. Yet, while the offense may not be as intricate as, say, the triangle,  it is undeniably effective, not to mention efficient, as their 6th-best Offensive Rating of 106.9 points per 100 possessions (107.6 post-All-Star) indicates.

The pillars of the Rockets offense are simple: pace, space, ball movement and getting the most efficient shot possible.

Pace: Houston takes advantage of their youth and speed by playing at the league’s fastest pace, 98.75 possessions per game, per NBA.com. They run after everything, from a blocked shot to an opponent made basket. James Harden and Jeremy Lin are both stellar transition players, constant threats to either score or kick out to open shooters.

Space: With Harden and Lin, Houston wants to spread the floor as much as possible, giving those two ample room to operate. Knowing and emphasizing the value of the corner three, Houston will often have two shooters planted in the corners, usually Carlos Delfino and Chandler Parsons, awaiting a kick-out from the guards. An additional wrinkle in this spacing is, when Lin and Harden are both on the court, whomever isn’t penetrating will frequently retreat to the strong side of the ball above the arc, making the extra pass easier for the man in the corner if his defender is able to close out in time.

Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 2.17.32 PM Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 2.18.04 PM

Ball movement: Lin, Harden, Parsons, even Asik are all above-average to exceptional passers. Though they do look for the open three or to the rim in transition, and while Harden has the ultimate green light, the Rockets prefer move the ball from side to side, whipping it around the perimeter until they get a wide-open shot.

Efficient shots: Look at the distribution of Houston’s shots this year:
Houston Shot distribution

Houston’s mathketball (h/t @AminESPN) offense is comprised nearly entirely of three-pointers and shots at the rim; the two most efficient shots in the game. McHale may have watered down his offense in terms of set plays, but he’s preached the value of efficiency to his players, and they have responded by cutting down on mid-range shots.

The video below shows how all of these elements come together and result in an easy basket for the Rockets.


It may not have been a traditional transition basket, but the Rockets were able to initiate their offense before all of the Sixers got back on defense. The crisp, quick passing from side to side further befuddles a defense that’s already out of position. Further, Notice how many players touch the ball before Asik slams it home. That unselfishness has been a huge factor in the creation of Houston’s prolific offense.

Houston on offense

The pick and roll is a staple of most NBA offenses, but for Houston, it is the foundation upon which the entirety of their offense is built.  Be it a high pick and roll, a side pick and roll, an elbow pick and roll or a semi-transition pick and roll, any Houston game is sure to feature a nearly countless number of pick and rolls. The penetration Houston gets as a result of these plays undoubtedly contributes to their ludicrous free throw rate, which ranks 4th in the league.

Helping Houston’s execution in the pick and roll are the triumvirate of James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons.  Harden’s bearded mastery of the pick and roll is well documented.

Harden, first and foremost, is a spectacular scorer out of the pick and roll. According to mySynergySports, Harden scores 1 point per play out of the pick and roll as the ball handler, which ranks him 6th overall. He shoots 46% in these situations and draws a foul 12.5% of the time. However, his scoring aside, Harden is also an extremely gifted and exciting passer; he’s excellent at reading the defense and creating for himself or others based off what he sees. Moreover, the creativity he displays in his scoring carries over into his passing, which, when combined with his court vision, allows for some spectacular passes.


Lin is also quite adept at running the pick and roll. Interestingly enough, Lin actually has more assists leading to close shots or dunks than Harden, according to 82games. Usually not one to pull up off the screen, Lin drives hard to the rim, looking to either draw contact or dump it off to a waiting big man, a role usually filled by Omer Asik. Mostly known as a defensive savant, Asik has been very good on offense in Houston. He may not be a scoring threat outside of 8 feet, but he has terrific awareness, and more often than not puts himself in perfect position to receive a dump-off for an easy dunk.

While Lin and Harden garner most of the spotlight as the primary playmakers for Houston, Chandler Parsons’ versatility also makes Houston’s do-it-all forward well suited to a playmaking role as well. Parsons gets out in transition, initiates the side pick and rolls as a secondary ball handler, works for back door cuts, and stretches the defense with his shooting.

As seen in the videos above, Houston will often initiate their pick and rolls directly out of transition. It’s a sort of quick-hitting pick and roll that takes advantage of a jumbled defense that has yet to completely get back and get into good position.

Houston on defense

Defense, unfortunately, is where Houston struggles the most.  Houston ranks 17th in Defensive Rating, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions.  Harden, for all of his offensive talents, continues to be a defensive liability. Parsons is a capable defender, though his somewhat slight frame by stronger opponents, especially when the Rockets go small and Chandler matches up against an opposing four. Lin is able to match up against most point guards, but does struggle against quicker guards such as Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook. The lone defensive stalwart for the Rockets is Omer Asik. While not a prolific shot blocker, Asik’s brand of defense is one of smothering and suffocation, all but taking his opponent out of the play, or when his opponent has the ball, forcing a bad shot. Asik’s contract drew the ire of many this summer, but he’s proven to be well worth the money. Per NBA.com,  With Asik on the court, the Rockets allow 101.4 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the bench, that number skyrockets to 107 points per 100 possessions. That’s the difference between Atlanta’s 9th ranked Defensive Rating and Portland’s 26th ranked defense. Opponents score five points more per 48 minutes with Asik on the bench and shoot nearly 3% better in the restricted area when Asik isn’t roaming the paint. All season, the Rockets’ defense has been their offense, but it will be interesting to see if that trend continues in the slower-paced playoffs.

Nary a preseason forecast had the Rockets making the playoffs. Even when they acquired James Harden, few had hopes of a postseason game in the Toyota Center. Yet here they are, the youngest and perhaps most exciting team in the league.  Harden, Delfino and Asik all have playoff experience, and Jeremy Lin is certainly no stranger to the spotlight, so while a first-round upset isn’t likely, don’t expect this team, despite their youth, to be star-crossed at the opening tip.

Statistical and video support provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports Technology.

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