How are the Rockets scoring? A film study of their season opener
So far Houston has started the season with a 119.6 offensive rating with James Harden on the court. We're seeing signs of what can happen when you combine the co-ordinator of the best offense in league history with the game's premier scorer. I wanted to break down some small things I had noticed on how Houston is scoring, or at least how their starters are scoring - and we'll be looking at footage from their season opener against the Portland TrailBlazers to do so.
PJ TUCKER: DOING THE LITTLE THINGS
PJ Tucker is known as an extremely limited offensive player, exclusively held to a stationary corner shooter. However, his role in Houston's offense has always been more diverse than that, as their best screen setter and handoff guy. This continued against Portland, look at these perfectly placed and timed screens Tucker sets to get James Harden wide open 3-point attempts.
Tucker isn't the ideal screener, because he can't roll to the rim and when he pops defenders aren't worried about him as an above the break shooter. He often looks uncomfortable and for good reason, he's only shot 31.5% there in his Houston career. Watch here as his man abandons him to double Harden after the screen, and Tuck is unable to convert the open shot.
For the most part however, this doesn't really matter, because Harden is able to use these screens to get downhill, either for a layup or kicking out for a shooter. It doesn't matter if Tucker's defender leaves him to chase Harden if he is always behind the play.
Even with Wood on the court, Tucker is often Harden's preferred screen setter - but that doesn't mean Wood doesn't get involved with the play. In the first clip here Tucker sets the high screen over halfcourt, and Wood cuts as a secondary roller, taking advantage of the gravity of Harden and Tucker's two-man action. In the second play, another Tucker screen gets Harden going downhill, and last year this would be a situation where 3 other players were stood on the perimeter, but now Houston has Wood in the dunkers spot, giving Harden a real outlet. It's an easy lob and dunk finish.
ATTACKING THE BASKET IN TRANSITION
In transition, Harden is entrusting his teammates to make plays for themselves. He has some elite transition players around him. Below are the on/off numbers for Danuel House in transition - he was in the 79th percentile last season for points added per 100 possessions in transition:
And this is David Nwaba for his career:
And lastly Christian Wood:
Houston is getting to the basket in transition, so far two-thirds of their shots in transition are 2s, and they are hitting 80% on those. They have the best eFG% in the league in transition. A lot of it is through plays like these, either through insane kick-ahead passes from Harden or a player taking it coast to coast himself.
Even after made baskets, Harden's amazing outlet passes (often missed because of camera cutaways) and the ability of guys like Jae'Sean Tate and House to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim in the open court means quick baskets for Houston.
And in the play below watch how Christian Wood is switched onto Damian Lillard on the perimeter on defense, meaning Wood needs only to jog up the court and Harden finds him for the catch and layup with Lillard and McCollum the only guards on him in the paint.
Houston is only 23rd in pace, although that will presumable increase with John Wall's return to the court. Stephen Silas mentioned himself after the Denver game that he wants the team to play faster, so these plays aren't representative of how the team has been running as a whole. However, we're seeing flashes of the skill that the Rockets are hoping to employ 1 through 5. Having multiple players who can attack the basket in the open court will be a boon to Houston's transition offense.
THE HARD-WOOD CONNECTION
Of course, we have to finish today's blog post by raving about Harden and Christian Wood. We've seen the offensive versatility of Wood, being a beast in the pick n roll with Harden as well as being able to beat defenders such as Nurkic in isolation and from the post. What I want to focus on here is how Harden utilises Wood to beat traps. Last year we heard both Daryl Morey and Mike D'Antoni talk about how when Harden brought a screener over it invited a double-team, and late in the game against Portland this happened almost every possession. With Wood though, Houston has someone taller who can set a screen and allow Harden to throw a simple pass over the top of the two defenders. His 9'3 standing reach gives a vertical outlet for Harden to pass out of the trap. Think back to last year's smallball team, how many times did we see Harden throw a behind the back pass or risky bounce pass through the two defenders? This is so much more simple - and Wood, unlike Clint Capela, is a threat when he catches the ball in the short roll.
Instead of waiting for the doubles to arrive as the minutes ticked down and Harden was hitting bomb after bomb, Harden started calling for Wood screens as he crossed halfcourt, inviting the trap and hitting him in the short roll. Having that sort of trap buster will make late-game situations far easier and open up the offense, as long as the two continue to develop their connection.
Wood still needs to improve his vision as a playmaker, and I've pulled up some clips here from the Denver game to contrast the ones above. Wood has been making some tough shots through contact, and floaters have been dropping that may not throughout the season. Watching below, Wood misses wide open shooters in the corners, an area I will be keeping an eye on. Wood has the opportunity to have nights with 5 or 6 assists, but he will need to have his head up and be ready to kick the ball out. I'm not saying he should have done that in every possession here, and I don't blame him for being aggressive - he's averaging 27 points on 60% eFG. It's just something to monitor going forward as an area of improvement.
These are just some small areas I picked up on watching Houston's early season offense, and until we see several games with the team at full strength, it's still far too early to take much from it. But so far Houston's offense seems a lot more fluid under Coach Silas. James Harden is isolating way less, pick n rolls are way up, and even if a possession ends in a Harden stepback 3, it might start with House curling around a screen into a Tucker handoff, then performing a second handoff to Harden for the mismatch. More players are getting involved in the earlier stages of the offense, which is hopefully bringing the fun factor back for the veteran players. As the Rockets begin a two-game stretch against the Kings tonight with their barbershop quartet back in action, here's hoping by the next blog post some much needed wins will be on the board and we can delve deeper into Silas's offense. And who knows, maybe they will have decided to start playing defense too.