How Ime Udoka is Transforming the Rockets
Over the last three years, little changed in Houston. They rostered bad role players, raw prospects who were left to sink or swim, doing too much of the former, and were watched on by a head coach who sleepwalked into his ultimate dismissal. Despite the entire NBA world having little issue diagnosing some of the problems with the way the Rockets played, little ever changed. While Stephen Silas’s hands were tied with the clear goal of tanking, this did not give him zero flexibility to showcase his coaching skills, and while many opposition coaches spoke positively of him in public as one of the nicest people in the league, I have heard that privately they were shocked to the extent the Rockets seemed so ill-prepared for their matchups.
Now we enter this season, and the rate of change under Ime Udoka is startling. He has particularly shone in his ability to diagnose his players’ strengths and weakness, and his motivation to make adjustments accordingly. In a league where coaches often make plans in pre-season and stubbornly refuse to adjust until 20 games in, it is refreshing to see someone tinkering around the edges to such success. As fans we lust for adjustments, in ways that are understandable, but often vague. I wanted to track what I think Udoka has changed so far. And this is my attempt to do so.
Jabari Smith – You Are a Perimeter Defender
How do you help Alperen Sengun defensively? Well, after last year's draft the Rockets were gifted a 6’11 forward in Jabari Smith who was entering the league with future All-Defense prospects. There were two ways Stephen Silas aimed to use Jabari to help protect the rim. The first, was as a weakside shot blocker. Recent developments in the NBA with the flourishing of fantastic defenders such as Rob Williams and Jaren Jackson Jr have placed greater emphasis not so much on the center himself, but on the roaming, weakside low man arriving to help. This, then, was Jabari Smith’s role. The problem was, looking into the Auburn tape, the lack of explosion and leaping ability that made him such a poor finisher was always going to limit his help at the rim.
And limit him it did. This is by no means a perfect way to illustrate the point, but last season when Jabari Smith was playing PF next to Alperen Sengun, the Rockets had a 122.0 DRTG (7th percentile). When Tari Eason, however, was at PF next to Sengun, that DRTG was 109.8 (92nd percentile).
In general, the Rockets are now switching a lot more actions. Who helps at the rim is subject to change. Sometimes it is Jabari Smith, sometimes it's Dillon Brooks, or Jalen Green. Last year, Stephen Silas believed Jabari Smith could help protect the rim, so made it more of a priority to station him there. This year, Ime believes it is more of a priority to stop players getting to the rim in the first place. This is of course easier to do with defenders like Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, but it is a smart plan, nonetheless.
The second way Silas wanted Jabari to protect the rim was to play him at center. So far, Udoka has not fallen for the lure of Jabari as the lone big. Any time he is listed at playing center he is sharing a front court with Jeff Green, who is the real smallball 5. The most infuriating thing about Jabari at the center last year was the insistence from the head coach that he play in drop. The results were disastrous, and yet perplexingly this was often the defense Silas opted for late in games during crunch-time, with Sengun mired on the bench. See for yourself the results.
Thankfully, Ime has not had Jabari suffering in similar vein. Now, when Jabari as the nominal ‘5’ is put into a pick n roll, he simply switches.
Last year, Jabari was defending the big man 48% of the time in pick n roll, compared to just 35% this year. He is staying out on the perimeter more, utilising his length offball at the nail and in passing lanes, navigating screens, and working on his ability to stay in front of guys 1v1. I will continue to be sceptical about his potential future as a rim protector, although at his size the idea will always be tantalizing, especially if the 3pt shot comes around opening up 5out possibilities offensively. They will try it again, and maybe more offseason yoga will help. But for now, Udoka is keeping him to his strengths. He has plenty to work on there and he can help the team while doing so.
Whoever Gets the Rebound Doesn’t Get to Do Whatever They Want
Under Silas, the Rockets had a laissez-faire approach to transition offense. Whoever grabbed the rebound was allowed to bring it up. For some teams, with 4 or 5 skilled ballhandlers on the floor, this can work. Theoretically you can push the tempo and exploit mismatches and cross-switches. When it doesn't work, is when you don't have the players who can do it. I enclose below a little cut of Christian Wood bringing the ball up in transition. Viewer discretion is advised.
I will admit a mea culpa here. When the Rockets were first targeting Wood in free agency I was very excited. His ability to bring the ball up was something I coveted. The highlights are there, and it is certainly alluring to see someone his size being able to put the ball on the floor and take it coast to coast. However, I quickly came to the realisation that it is all relative. Yes, Christian Wood is one of the best 7 footers in the NBA at bringing the ball up. But that isn’t the aim. The aim is to be one of the best players in the NBA at bringing the ball up. It doesn’t matter if you are impressive at it for your size. Just be good at it. And compared to all the guards and wings who usually get given the task, Wood was not. I figured this out early and changed my thinking. Quite why he and others continued to have the green light to adlib, despite the obvious shortcomings, I do not know. Wood averaged 0.82 points per possession as the ballhandler in transition, compared to a league average transition ppp of 1.26. The dropoff is staggering.
This year, Sengun is averaging 0.67 transition ballhandler possessions a game, compared to 0.96 possession for Wood. And in the possessions where Sengun is bringing the ball up, it is often because of a longer rebound where he is ahead of the play and gets to drive on his defender 1v1 and get deep into the paint by doing so. As a head coach, it's about guiding players to pick advantageous opportunities. Not standing passively on the sideline and letting players do what they want.
Jae’Sean Tate – Know Your Role
The Rockets had a severe playmaking deficit over the last couple of years, so it is hardly Stephen Silas’s fault that he was looking everywhere to find help. Often, he gave the ball to Jae’Sean Tate. Tate certainly has some onball chops, he can self-create, has nice footwork, and can make decent passing reads out of drives. Over the last two seasons he was in the 87th percentile among forwards in assist percentage. However, he was also in the 10th percentile in turnover percentage. The Rockets lived by the Jae’Sean Tate PG minutes, and they died by them too. Over the first three seasons of his career, Tate had a 1.7 assist to turnover ratio. This season so far, this has jumped to a 5 to 1 ratio. And most significantly, he has 0 turnovers in the 6-game winning streak, where it seemed Udoka continued to reduce his role on offense. His TOV% of 3.9% is currently the lowest in the NBA. His assist rate has declined significantly too, of course, which is part of the drawback, but with Fred VanVleet and Alperen Sengun, Houston no longer needs to call on Tate to play make. This may seem obvious, why should Udoka get any credit at all? Well, Houston’s bench has been struggling, certainly early on in the season. There was a huge playmaking drop off as VanVleet and Sengun went to the bench, two players Udoka wants to tether for defensive reasons. In the first 2-3 games he gave the ball to Tate to help run the 2nd unit. This failed. That’s ok, he tried it out, and it didn’t work. Since then, Udoka has introduced more staggering, has put Aaron Holiday into the rotation, and kept Tate more offball. So while the options were easier for Udoka, it was still a quick adjustment to a failed experiment.
Last year Tate averaged 3.52 seconds per touch. This year, that is down to 2.66. Tate is making quicker reads and being more aggressive. He’s taking the open shot and knocking it down. If he isn’t shooting he's driving. If he isn’t doing either of those things, he is moving the ball. This is the quick decision making that Udoka wants to instil in all his players.
Going Mismatch Hunting
We know the story by now. Dillon Brooks has been a revelation - he’s taking fewer shots, playing more in control, and as a result his efficiency has shot up. This is true. It is also true that he is shooting 53% from 3, a number that will come down significantly. That does not mean it will regress all the way back to the lowly numbers of his last couple of seasons, however. He seems to be picking his shots better, and the amount of pullups he is taking per game has reduced from 2.1 to 1.1. Udoka has likely had a hand in Brooks’ acceptance of his role, but I am also sure a lot of it is down to the player himself, and the circumstances of his departure from Memphis. One thing I will give Udoka a lot of credit for however, is the mismatch hunting.
Dillon Brooks is huge, he has huge shoulders, a large torso, and if he is being guarded by the other team’s worst player there is a mismatch to hunt. This does not mean launching threes, but getting to the rim. We have seen Houston run plays for Dillon to curl around screens, generate momentum, and drive to the rim.
What we have also seen are postups. Last year, just 1.5% of Brooks’ possessions were postups. This year it has jumped significantly to 8.4%, and I imagine it will rise further, since he is scoring 1.44 points per possession on it. Sometimes this is as a result of improvised offense, with Dillon sensing a 1v1 opportunity against a smaller defender. But the Rockets also have a designed Brooks postup play. Watch the two clips below. Sengun has the ball on the wing, faking a handoff to the ballhandler. While this is happening, Brooks comes in from the weakside corner and occupies the FT line, getting good post position and so far, easy buckets.
Now compare this to a possession from the dark days. Of course, it's a little harsh to just pull one screengrab, but I believe it is indicative of what plagued the Houston offense for so long. Below, we see Christian Wood asking for a postup. On the weakside, Alperen Sengun is stood watching, not involved, but 'spacing' the floor with Jae'Sean Tate. Under Stephen Silas, the team's best postup player, who couldn't shoot, was hanging out at the three-point line while the team's best shooter, who couldn't postup, was posting up. This was not mismatch hunting, or taking advantage of your players' skills. It was playing into their weaknesses, making life more difficult for everyone involved.
To Switch or Not to Switch
Elsewhere defensively, Udoka has given his players the mandate to switch offball. The best NBA teams will go into their actions on the strong side, but have players moving around and exchanging on the weakside to give the help defenders something to think about. My preferred base strategy, and clearly one Udoka believes in too, is just to switch offball. That's not to say they will switch everything. The Rockets identify matchups that they want to keep a player on, and you will still see Dillon Brooks and Jalen Green chasing offball. Even Sengun was fighting through screens to stay on Jokic in the game against Denver. But in general, there is a directive to switch offball actions. Early in the season, this was causing frequent issues. Players were confused as to whether to switch or stay with their man, allowing frequent backdoor cuts and open shooters. I had collected some evidence of this for my earlier blog post on Jabari Smith, so he is the main culprit below, but this was not a problem exclusive to him.
There have been marked improvements already this season, a testament to the work the players and coaching staff are doing to tighten up the edges, with help from an early season schedule with plenty of practice days. But at game speed, with relentless cutting teams like the Kings, knowing when to switch can be difficult. Watch the possession below. Malik Monk makes a 45 cut from the wing into the lane. The Houston players do not switch and his defender, Jae’Sean Tate, stays with him. This is good. The reason for not switching was the vast space between all the players.
Now watch a similar action. This time Davion Mitchell cuts on the weakside wing, but he moves less diagonally and more parallel across Harrison Barnes in the corner. Holiday and Tate are able to come together and Holiday just touches Mitchell as he moves into Tate’s space, a process called ‘handing off’ the switch. This is the key to knowing when to switch, when the window here is tight enough the two players can come together and pass their man onto the other. It’s well executed.
However, let's continue with the play. Tate is following Mitchell under the basket, who now moves towards Malik Monk on the strongside wing. Brooks is guarding Monk, who cuts diagonally into the lane. We saw earlier this move signals to Brooks that he should not switch. However,Tate and Mitchell are behind the play, they aren’t in the corner, and Tate gets held up by the screen. Brooks has to recover late back to Mitchell who has sprung up to the perimeter and gets a decent look at the 3. There was no 'hand off' opportunity, and things broke down accordingly.
Switching. It’s more difficult than it sounds. And life was especially difficult for Houston against Denver, who have made cutting offball an art form. The steps taken so far are mightily impressive, but keep watching the offball switching. Following their improvement is part of the fun. This is still a young team, after all.
Sit Back, and Enjoy
Ime Udoka has been the Rockets head coach for 9 games. It was important not to get too low when the Rockets started 0-3, and it is similarly important not to get too high now they are 6-0 since. Houston is currently the beneficiary of shooting luck on both ends of the court, which will, as much as the toughening schedule, see them slip down the rankings. Despite all that the early returns are incredibly bright. I hope this blog, with its stats, film, and my general ramblings, show that clearly. The Rockets have a coach who will not just hold players accountable in the film room, but has skills beyond motivational. Udoka and his staff have a clear eye for detail, and a capacity to implement changes to fix errors game-to-game. For a team that is still full of young players with enormous potential, that is something very precious.