Daryl Morey, famed analytic genius and general manager of the Houston Rockets couldn’t help but hide his giddiness:
— Daryl MorΞy 🗽🏀 (@dmorey) February 14, 2018
That tweet was sent out on Valentine’s Day (how romantic) and as of Friday, March 2nd, 2018, his team still has the best offensive rating in NBA history.
Rockets’ coach, Mike D’Antoni has been instrumental in his fair share of historic offensive teams. Two of the seasons he coached the Phoenix Suns the team had the equal 14th best offensive rating ever (2004-05, 114.5), and another at 22nd (2006-07, 113.9).
Those teams were also prolific scorers, averaging over 110 points per game in each season.
The impact of D’Antoni can’t be understated in the effect he has on the team’s offensive schemes. He revolutionized the Phoenix Suns with his star point guard, Steve Nash, instilling a system predicated on pace and space, one that is synonymous with the league today.
Since D’Antoni found his Yoda in Daryl Morey, he's taken his system to dizzying new heights. The confidence instilled in him has given D’Antoni a new life in the modern NBA, as he referenced when talking to The Ringer:
“The big ‘but’ in the Phoenix teams was they didn’t think you could win with the style that everybody’s playing right now. They’d go, ‘Yeah, but they’ll slow down in the playoffs. And they can’t shoot 3s. And they’re shooting too many.’ You don’t hear that anymore.”
While the Rockets pace has been slowed compared to his previous teams they’re setting new records with the way they’re shooting the ball.
Last year they set an all-time league record for three-pointers attempted per game (40.32) and they’re on track to break their own record. They’ve literally been living and dying by the three, with the team taking an astonishing 52.7% of their shots from the perimeter; 10% more than their nearest rival. Unsurprisingly, MVP favorite, James Harden has made the most threes in the league (219), 20 more than Stephen Curry, shooting them at a rate of 38.3%. What is surprising is that they don’t have a player shooting above 40%, with Trevor Ariza their most accurate shooter from deep at 39.1%.
Most of their key rotation players all have the ability to shoot from the perimeter, although former Sixth Man of the Year and Three-Point Contest winner, Eric Gordon, is having one of his poorest seasons from the arc. In fact it’s his worst shooting performance in that category since 2012-13 when he was apart of the then New Orleans Hornets. If Gordon can somehow bring out more performances like this, then the Rockets offense can kick into an even higher gear.
Despite the number of shots from deep Houston are taking, the accuracy at which they hit them isn’t anything to write home about (36.8%, 11th in the league). The length at which they’re taking some of those shots is more astounding. They currently have three players in the top ten for field goals made between 28 and 43 feet: Ryan Anderson (3rd), Eric Gordon (4th) and James Harden (7th). However, only one of them is shooting above 30% from that range (Ryan Anderson: 30.3%). Anderson commented on the team’s shooting range to The Ringer:
“It is weird when you play some of these teams and guys are just completely taking you out of the game, but you’re standing so far away that it’s like, ‘This is the best thing I can do for the team.’”
The team’s increased range from deep has also allowed them to get into the lane at a solid rate. They’re second in the league in free throw attempts per game at 25.8, namely due to James Harden taking over ten shots from the charity stripe per game. Another reason they get to the line so frequently is their league-best isolation frequency. Over 14% of the Rockets plays are in isolation, 3.1% greater than the team second in that category, the Oklahoma City Thunder. With the obvious talent Harden and Chris Paul display in iso, it’s no wonder they run such plays so heavily. Per the Washington Post:
“Harden has found himself in isolation a third of the time this season (33 percent, league high), scoring 1.25 points per possession with an effective field goal rate of 57 percent. Paul is second in frequency (30 percent) and efficiency (1.2 PPP) among 30 players with at least 100 iso possessions in 2017-18. Overall, the team scores 1.15 points per iso possession, the highest since the NBA began tracking this in 2014-15.”
Coach D’Antoni referenced the team’s increasing use of isolation to CBS Sports as well:
“We've got two of the best iso players in the league. If it wasn't working, we would try more passes. But it's been pretty effective for us.”
The ways in which Houston can score is both varied and deadly. They’ll get you with their individual brilliance, they’ll force you to defend from the perimeter, opening up the lane for some easy shots that are the team’s bread and butter. This again from the Washington Post:
“The Rockets increased iso-heavy, three-point driven play also means the team rarely passes the ball. They’re 29th in the league in passes made per game, (ahead of only the Thunder) and 23rd in assist percentage at 55.7%. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the capabilities to improve that if the situation calls for it. Chris Paul (8.2) and Harden (8.9) are both top four in assists per game and are two of the craftiest passers in the league over the past half-decade.”
Houston’s offensive dominance is further evidenced in how much they’re dominating teams around the league. Their average margin of victory is 8.9 points, with a lot of the damage already done in the first three quarters, it allows them to rest their key players and let their backups feast on the reserves. Furthermore, they have two of the top three point guards, Harden and Paul, in ESPN’s offensive real-plus-minus. ESPN’s Hollinger team statistics, which takes into account a number of offensive areas, has them as the second-best team in offensive efficiency, marginally behind the Golden State Warriors. Which begs the question, are the Warriors actually a better offensive team?
Objectively speaking, in all of the major categories above bar one, the Warriors are a better offensive team. They’re better at shooting and passing which has created an offensive juggernaut the likes of which we’ve never seen (except for Golden State themselves over the past few seasons since Coach Steve Kerr took over). The individual talents of James Harden and Chris Paul combined with the offensive scheme introduced by Morey and D’Antoni is what makes the Rockets so offensively gifted. On the other hand, the Warriors have been collectively great even before Kevin Durant arrived in Oakland. Like Houston their spacing and ball movement system has generated an offensive system so beautiful to watch that we as fans often take it for granted.
The Rockets may not have the best offense in NBA history if you take into account more than one area from Basketball-Reference, but they are still a truly outstanding offensive squad. They’re going to need to need all their offensive talents and then some to beat a historically great franchise in the Warriors come the playoffs.