The Rockets came out flat yet again last night as the warts in their gameplan and roster were laid bare in front of the same defense that stifled them in the playoffs. Before the game we heard lots from coach Stephen Silas about "adjustments" but it only took a few possessions to realise that it was same old same old for the Rockets.
The first few possessions of the game saw Houston trying to establish their pick n roll threat with Christian Wood. This was completely shut down by the Lakers aggressive help defense. Watch as the defenders leave their perimeter shooters over and over again here, particularly LeBron, who has no respect for David Nwaba and his 24% 3-point shooting this season.
Houston is currently 9th in 3-pointers attempted per game and 24th in 3-point percentage, which is exactly where they were last year in terms of conversion. The Rockets front office continues to do a shameful job of putting shooters on the roster, when year after year they have set forth the edict to smash records over and over again for 3s launched. For years role players have been brought in who you could only dream about hitting league average from deep - Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi, KJ McDaniels, Sam Dekker, Ty Lawson, Marcus Thornton, Michael Beasley, Lou Williams, Luc Mbah a Moute, Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, Austin Rivers, Iman Shumpert, Thabo Sefolosha, DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Green David Nwaba, Jae'Sean Tate...year after year and it's a procession of guys that have you crossing your fingers they can reach the lofty heights of 35%. This will continue to be a problem all year for Houston. Coach Silas helped spearhead the NBA's most efficient offense in history last season by surrounding Luka Doncic with elite shooters. Seth Curry was 45% from downtown, Tim Hardaway Jr 40%, Finney-Smith and Kleber were 38% and 37% respectively. They had help for a couple of dozen games from guys like Courtney Lee who shot 45%, and Ryan Broekhoff who shot 39%. So far outside of Ben McLemore, who has played just 32 minutes, the rest of Houston's shooters have come out miserable.
Of course, Houston did miss some shots they had to hit, and this is where there is some truth to the old mantra Coach Silas pulled out post-game: 'we got the shots we wanted'. Ben McLemore was 2-6 after his 5-5 season debut in the previous game, and Sterling Brown missed some wide-open corner 3s - he's a career 45% corner shooter.
Houston also needs their spacing big man to hit his shots, and Christian Wood struggled again, going 1-5 from downtown. The pick n pop is a vital element to the 5-out basketball Coach Silas is equipping, but with so many players throwing up bricks, 5-out is really becoming a misnomer.
A counter Houston ran later in the game was having Christian Wood in the dunkers spot, whether at the start of the possession or after cutting, giving the driver a dump-off option. The floor is better spaced in the first clip below as Eric Gordon sets a guard-to-guard screen for Wall, and Ben McLemore is on the weakside. Montrezl Harrell has to leave Wood to help on Wall's drive, meaning he's free for the tip-in. On the second clip it's PJ setting the screen and it's high enough for Wall to get downhill with some separation.
Harden and Wall were seeing walls (pardon the pun) at the nail, and their perimeter outlets just aren't reliable enough to hit the open shots. Having Wood in the dunkers spot, even though it's bringing in another body, can free up space by forcing the defender to guard him. If you leave David Nwaba in the corner, he's probably going to miss. Leave Christian Wood in the dunker spot, and he's getting...well... a dunk. The margins are tighter, but you're also setting up a rebound opportunity.
Houston should continue to place Wood in different positions and use PJ Tucker as a screener, he's the best on the team at this underrated skill. Even though he's a complete non-entity as an above the break shooter, his screens are so strong they get separation for the ball handler even when the screen defender doesn't care about guarding the slip or pop for a 3. In this clip he gets Wall downhill, attacking AD at the basket.
And here he gets James Harden open for a rare clean look from 3, with Davis not being able to hedge high enough because of the empty strong side alignment - there's nobody in the corner if Harden rounds him going to the basket.
We're still going to see lots of Harden and Wood pick n roll, but until Christian Wood finds his shot again, the pick n pop isn't going to work. I'm not worried about it, because it's early in the season. But we don't really know if Wood is a good enough shooter yet. He just hasn't had enough games and enough shots in his career to see that play out. What we do know is that Boogie Cousins can shoot it. He's a career 37.1% shooter from the top of the perimeter - the league average that time was 34.4%. He's looked confident so far draining the 3-ball, he just needs to stay on the court.
So how else can Houston force more spacing? Well one thought would be to have James Harden more offball and allow John Wall to run more pick n roll. Harden is the three-time scoring champ, he's going to space the floor automatically, right? Well...not quite. Smarter defenders might be wondering why they have to stay tight to a player who looks this disinterested when he doesn't have the ball, who stands stationary with his hands glued to his sides. Look at this screengrab, Caruso is helping off of James Harden because he recognises that there is a difference between standing on the perimeter and being ready on the perimeter. There's 11 seconds on the shotclock, Wall is walled off from penetrating and Harden isn't even facing the right way, he's already started walking backwards.
Or here, where Alex Caruso is pretty much doubling Eric Gordon, because somehow a defender has become so confident that he can leave the dude who averages 35 points a game - and he's right. He can leave him, because he's so disengaged.
A defender should never feel comfortable leaving James Harden to this degree, or even at all. They should be constantly concerned about the threat the world's best scorer poses. But smarter defenders are getting wise to the idea that the guy who year after year takes one catch and shoot 3 per game, is just not that dangerous in this position. Spacing works because defenders stay close to a shooter, opening driving lanes. Last night, the defenders didn't feel the need to stay close to James Harden. That's a problem. Period.
A more realistic counter than Harden deciding to contribute offball would be to encourage Harden and Wall to be more patient in the pick n roll. Watch the play below as Wall runs into trouble as the defense collapses, but then he retreats back to the perimeter as he has Marc Gasol switched onto him. From there it's an easy second drive to the rim.
With John Wall and Eric Gordon questionable for tomorrow night's rematch and Danuel House once again out, it will take an incredible amount of improvement from the rest of the team for Houston to be competitive. More likely, the team will fall to a dismal 3-6 start, although the schedule really opens up after that. The Rockets have a lot of work to do, or else they will be fighting for a playoff seed rather than for conference final contention. There aren't quick fixes (barring rosters moves) for some of the spacing issues, but there are counters that can be equipped. Ben McLemore shot 45% in 2020 and was 5-5 in his first game this season, but played 4 minutes in the first half last night. With most of the rest of the team struggling to break out of the 20s, Houston needs their best shooter. They need Harden to take more shots - the 58 he has taken over the last 4 games is the fewest he has taken in a 4 game span in nearly 5 years. And this is just the offense. Houston's effort in transition and on the boards so far this season has been piss poor. They rank 2nd to last in transition defense per cleaning the glass, and they are dead last in defensive rebounding. They go into every game 15-0 down before tip off due to the amount of points they automatically concede through a lack of effort. They throw away leads, they dig themselves into early holes and they can only muster faint comebacks that ultimately fizzle out for a few minutes at a time, but can never sustain the effort for 48 minutes. It's an alarming state of affairs. The Rockets need to pick up some wins. Fast.