That Stat You Found Isn't Coming To Save The Rockets
If you are a perpetually online Houston Rockets fan, which if you’re reading this you probably are, you will come across posts which question whether the Rockets have been unlucky with their league-worst 1-16 record, and especially their league-worst offensive rating. This will be a greatly depressing blog post because the answer is no. But I don’t want to be critical of anyone seeking to entertain this idea, which is clearly aimed at showing a certain level of support for head coach Stephen Silas. Parsing through the noise and figuring out whether the leader of a poorly assembled roster, with a bunch of 19-year-olds (albeit some not playing minutes – but let’s put a pin in that for now) is actually a good or bad or neutral head coach himself is difficult. There are signs beyond the win/loss record that can help us. But unfortunately, people are looking in the wrong places. So, it’s debunking time.
The Rockets lead the league in pace
As anyone who watched the Mike D’Antoni 65-win Rockets team should know, playing slow can be an incredibly effective strategy. And as anyone who watched the following year’s Mike D’Antoni 53-win Rockets team may also know, sometimes it feels like it can hold back your team. (I initially wrote ‘hamstring your team’ here but took it out for my own mental health). The lesson is that pace, like so much of basketball, is dependent on your players. That the 2021-22 Houston Rockets lead the league in pace tells me absolutely nothing about their offense. When I hear a coach in the summer talking about how they want to play faster, I largely ignore it. On its own, it’s a meaningless platitude.
Over the previous decade, and including this year, there has been no correlation between pace and good offense. If we look at the distribution of the top-10 ranked teams in pace every year, and disperse them into the top third, middle third, and bottom third of offensive rating, here is how it pans out: 3.6 are top 10 offense, 3.5 are bottom 10 offense, and the remaining 2.9 rank in the middle 10. This is a pretty even distribution. You are just as likely to be bad as you are good. But, maybe this is because pace is not an offensive stat after all…
The way we look at ‘pace’ is fundamentally flawed. Your average ‘pace’ advanced stat is not a measurement of offense. It accounts for the number of possessions you play on offense and defense. For Houston, having a high pace has been a symptom of their awful turnover numbers. The Rockets have the worst turnover percentage in 15 years. Per numbers from cleaningtheglass, the gap between them and 2nd this season is larger than the gap between 2nd and 14th. This is historically - impressively - bad. And what this means is the other team is constantly grabbing the ball and running. Opposition teams are only taking 6.1 seconds per possession after Houston turns it over, which is the fastest against any team in the league. Their sloppiness with the ball is killing them on both ends. But we’re talking about offense purely here, and the key takeaway is that ‘pace’ stats don’t quantify this.
If you purely look at offensive pace – how quickly a team gets a shot up – Houston is distinctively average at 14th in the NBA. They push off turnovers, where they are 6th fastest, but after defensive rebounds they are walking it up at a leisurely 21st ranked speed, and after a made field goal they are 13th. When somebody tells you that Houston are the fastest team in the league, you should know that the only reason this is true is because teams are scoring on them quicker than any other defense in the league. This isn’t just a random, non-correlating stat, this is objectively a bad thing.
While we are on the subject, if we look at pure offensive pace, this still has little connection to offensive rating on its own anyway. If we distribute the top 10 fastest offenses over the last year, 3.5 are in the top 10 for offensive rating, 3.4 in the bottom, and 3.1 in the middle. While I was looking at these stats, there were many teams who were tanking who came out in that bottom tier. Just like Houston, these teams pushed the pace and had an awful offense and defense. It’s a common strategy when you are aiming for high draft picks. More possessions means less randomness, which means you are less likely to pick up wins as the underdog. This is good when the front office is trying to lose. From a less Machiavellian view, bad teams usually have young players, and coaches want young players to play fast. If you took away these tanking teams, it might be the case that competing teams do rank better in offense the faster they play – because they have the experienced players to do it without throwing the ball away all the time – but this is a hypothesis I will come to another time. Perhaps whenever Houston are good enough for it to be relevant.
The Rockets take the most shots in the league at the rim
I fell for this myself earlier in the year. It does make logical sense that a team that takes so many shots at the rim should surely expect to reap their dividends. Even the worst finishing teams in the league will convert at a 57-62% rate at the rim, which at 1.14-1.24 points per possession is still deadly. Any time Houston gets to the rim, regardless of whether or not they convert, you can count that as a good possession. Unfortunately, this is not a plug and play strategy that you can just rely on to produce good offense, and in fact year-by-year frequency at the rim doesn’t correlate to efficient offense. I went back over the last 5 years and a couple of years there was a weak positive correlation, a couple of years there was actually a negative correlation.
Houston leads the league at shots at the rim, with a 41% frequency, but this is still only a small section of the offense. This number is a percentage of shots taken, not possessions. Yes, a large portion of Houston’s shots come at the rim, that is good. But despite leading the league in pace, Houston takes the third fewest shots per game in the NBA. Do you know how difficult that is to do? When you turn the ball over at such a historically high rate, it really doesn’t matter what you do on the possessions you actually finish. Per 100 possessions, Houston is dead last in shot attempts. It really is that simple. In basketball, you have to put the ball through the hoop. If the other team gets more shots at doing that, throw the pace and the location expected eFG and the points in the paint and any other measurement you want right out of the window. Take more shots, you’re gonna score more points. The one saving grace here is that Houston leads the league in free throw attempts, so a shooting foul that isn't a made basket doesn't count as a field goal attempt. However, this only partially explains the discrepancy. The rest is explained by their 23rd ranked offensive rebounding rate and lowest ranked turnover rate.
The Rockets get a lot of open 3s
Yes, Houston is in the top 10 per NBA tracking of ‘open’ 3pt shots (4-6 feet nearest defender) and middle of the pack on ‘wide open’ 3pt shots (6+ feet nearest defender). Houston shoots 31.9% on these shots. That’s horrible. That’s 0.96 points per shot. Generally speaking, any time Houston takes a wide open 3, it’s terrible offense. That Houston can generate a good deal of open shots is not a symptom of a good offense. Do not expect this conversion rate to improve significantly. This is not coming to save Stephen Silas any time soon. Take a look at these shots below that I’ve taken recently (excuse the quality). Ask yourself why Houston gets wide open shots.
Stephen Silas continues to insist on playing these spacing killing two big lineups, with Jae’Sean Tate and Daniel Theis both on the court. Neither can shoot, and both turn down open shots frequently. When Daniel Theis is playing, Houston’s team-wide 3pt accuracy nosedives by 6.6% - that puts him in the 7th percentile. Conversely, when Alperen Sengun is on the court – even though he isn’t much of a shooter yet himself – the team shoots 7.7% better. That’s 97th percentile. Alperen Sengun is Houston’s best player. Turns out they should play him more.
Houston leads the league in free throw attempts
This is the only one that is objectively, in all contexts, a good thing. Again, free throw rate can be misleading because it is measured as a portion of shots taken, rather than possessions, and we've already seen how few shots Houston actually takes. That being said, Houston leads the league in free throw attempts per game, per 100 possessions, per 100 plays, whichever way you slice it. They also have the 2nd worst FT%, at 68.7%. This is the only thing that is unequivocally out of Stephen Silas's hands. However, I've seen it suggested that Houston would have 4-5 more wins if they shot a league average rate from the line. This isn't true. The only games that are within a small enough margin of loss that Houston could have made up for it with just average free throw shooting was against the Lakers and Denver. That would put their record 3-14. And even then, Houston got lucky in many ways to even be close in those games. Denver shot 9-40 from 3, the Lakers shot 6-25. If either of these teams had lost, they could just as easily rue unlucky shooting nights. But if we're being charitable and Houston should be 3-14, that's still awful. In general, if they shot league average at the charity stripe they would add 2 points per 100 possessions, which lifts their offensive rating from a league-worst 97.3 to a league-worst 99.3
The Rockets are the worst team in the league and they have the worst offense in the league. It's getting worse week by week, and it's nearing 76ers process era bad. Stats such as location eFG, points in the paint, and shots at the rim, have no correlation with efficient offense. That the Rockets rank well in these stats tells us nothing, so don't expect any turnaround based on these alone. If Houston wants to get better offensively, they need to stop playing Daniel Theis, Jae'Sean Tate, and Christian Wood on the floor together. They need Kevin Porter Jr to stop turning the ball over so incredibly often. They might need to actually push the pace on offense, not just when they're getting scored on defensively. They need to find better shooters and play them. They need to play Alperen Sengun starter-level minutes. Most of all, they probably need to find a new head coach.