It's firmly the start of a new era for the Houston Rockets, and thankfully in the aftermath of the James Harden trade we are still going to be treated to some competitive, quality basketball as the Rockets added Victor Oladipo to their backcourt. At a later date we can talk about Oladipo's free agency, what his market may look like at the trade deadline, and whether it makes sense for Houston to hang onto him or accelerate the rebuild. For now though, let's take a deep dive into Oladipo's game. On top of older film, we'll be breaking down all of his game action for the Pacers so far this season, as he comes back from injury troubles. Here's everything you need to know about Victor Oladipo.
Pick n Roll
Oladipo will have to build chemistry with Christian Wood quickly. Wood has shown an ability to score from all over the court, but has also been feeding on a steady diet of lob passes from James Harden. Oladipo hasn’t played with that kind of super long, above the rim center before. The closest was some spot minutes for a younger Dwayne Dedmon in Orlando. In OKC he built a good partnership with Steven Adams, but it was on low usage as Oladipo was side-lined next to Russell Westbrook in his MVP season. Oladipo only shared the court with Steven Adams with Westbrook off for 87 minutes that season. Fast forward to Indiana, and Oladipo was again paired with Sabonis as well as Myles Turner – both guys who like to catch bounce passes in the lane before scoring around the rim, as well as popping for a jumper. Since the 17-18 season when Oladipo joined, Sabonis and Tuner have 28 alleyoop shot attempts combined, that’s in 435 combined games. So far, Christian Wood has 22 alleyoop shot attempts. In 10 games. All this cumulates in a pretty outstanding statistical quirk – Oladipo has only made 5 lob assists in his career (not including his rookie season, which isn’t available on NBA tracking). Can Oladipo develop that part of his game? Is it already there, waiting to be unleashed? That’s something we won’t know until we see him in the Rockets system. It’s not a given that good guard + good center = good pick n roll partnership. While Harden and Capela had the ball on a string most games, their other hall of fame point guards Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook had a strange lack of connection with Capela. Oladipo can find Wood when he pops to the 3-point line, no problem. He can make the pocket pass while he’s rolling through the lane, and Wood has the hands to catch and finish in stride. Taking their partnership to that triple threat level will mean Oladipo adding a passing element he’s never had in his game before.
But to be sure, Oladipo can make great passes and reads, and his pocket passes are excellent.
And Rockets fans are used to seeing a certain bearded one do this plenty of times over the years.
He’s really smart in this play, taking the extra time and hesitation dribble to draw the extra defender out, allowing Sabonis to roll and hitting him between the defenders.
For whatever reason, Oladipo and Sabonis have not been able to continue their success in the pick n roll, looking like complete strangers out there at times this season. It’s been a spacing nightmare, with Sabonis setting the screen and either not being able to keep up with the play, or simply standing next to Oladipo in the lane clogging it up. He’s not fading to the 3-point line, and he’s not getting in a position to catch a pocket pass on the move and take that one or two steps and finish at the basket. Sometimes he’s trailing, which allows Oladipo to get space in the midrange and attack downhill, but in these clips he’s either getting caught up on a screen, or moving inside and literally standing next to Oladipo in the middle.
To be sure, defenses are targeting this play and looking to blow it up. That happens and it’s up to the offense to adjust. We saw the Lakers make a concerted effort early to blow up Harden and Wood’s pick n roll game by abandoning perimeter shooters, to great success. With Sabonis putting up all-NBA numbers and fast becoming the Pacers first option on offense, the opposing team is sending strong help, so the space to roll through the lane for the pocket pass just isn’t there anymore. Watch below how the other team is now quick to send a third defender to tag Sabonis as the roller. For his part, Oladipo has been pretty good at hitting the open man for the 3, or getting his own shot off, although he does throw up some contested middies too.
When the defense doesn’t send help, or it’s late or weak, Oladipo is patient and smart enough to put the screen defender on his back and wait for Sabonis to get to the rim.
He can also spot when a lane opens up to get to the rim himself.
Especially throughout the first 6 games or so, Oladipo was operating in the pick n roll exclusively with Sabonis. Their poor fit this season is why Oladipo is averaging just 0.78 points per possession as the pick n roll ball handler. In his last fully healthy season, 2017-18, this was 0.93. That's closer to James Harden numbers, who usually operates in the high .90s (although this was clearly Oladipo's best season in his career). Given time, I’m betting on Oladipo and Wood figuring it out and working well together. It might even work seamlessly from game one. But if it does start slow, the Houston front office doesn’t have much time to see if it can develop, due to Oladipo’s looming free agency. Vic has thrown 5 lob assists in his entire career, and now he's playing with a guy who wants more like 5 a game. ‘How many lobs does he throw?’ may not seem an urgent question in the grand scheme of things, but if Houston is going to pay a guard and commit to him long term, they need to know he pairs well with their all-star calibre center.
2. Getting to the basket
Oladipo isn’t breaking down his defender with a variety of handles, and he’s probably not got as quick a first step as he did at his athletic peak. Giving him the ball at the top of the perimeter in isolation isn’t going to be a frequent winning strategy, which isn’t the worst thing in the world since Stephen Silas clearly wants to cut that out of the playbook anyway. But breaking down defenses by penetrating is a vital skill for perimeter play that isn't going anywhere soon. Oladipo simply isn't good enough consistently in this area, at least when we are comparing him to other high-level, if not elite guards. He runs into traffic, and despite his speed he has been struggling to round the corner on defenders so far this year. He's not reliably getting separation, and it doesn't take a stopper to stick in front of him. With John Wall, as well as Eric Gordon's improved driving play, and maybe a sprinkling of Jae'Sean Tate, he can absolutely be part of a slice 'em and dice 'em drive and kick offense. Coach Silas has already said that with his addition, he expects the Rockets to get downhill. But Oladipo has never been a super dangerous one on one player, and he's going to cough up the rock if he tries to be one.
But open up the court and give him a lane, and Oladipo can charge through it. The Pacers had Oladipo start in the corner offball, curling around pin down screens and attacking the basket.
Oladipo is also at his best in early offense, going end to end in transition and attacking the defense early in the shot clock before it's set. This is something Coach Silas will look to unleash even more. The Pacers are 15th in pace this season, they were 22nd, 25th and 21st the three years prior. Houston is currently 16th in pace, which doesn’t jump off the page, but Coach Silas has spoken about how he wants to play faster. With the departure of James Harden and the new backcourt of Wall and Oladipo, the Rockets are sure to push the pace and attack early.
As you can see, Oladipo isn’t always finishing when he gets to the cup. Despite being a fairly prolific driver, his accuracy is league average – at best. This has always been a weak point of Oladipo’s game, and it’s disappointing when you consider the physical tools he has. He isn’t as explosive as someone like Russell Westbrook, and he can’t make the crazy circus shots that John Wall can. He’s not afraid of contact and getting into the rim protector’s body, but it all culminates into a particularly unimpressive fg%. H's only converting 53% of his shots at the rim this season, placing him in the 22nd percentile among guards. For his career he is usually between 55-58% shooting, more around or a tick above league average.
This is the reason why Oladipo isn’t a max player, and why he’s only cracked 20 points per game once in his career. With his two-way ability and his shooting skills, if he was a better finisher he’d absolutely be put into the category as one of the game’s truly elite guards, although he probably also lacks the great vision and passing. You just have to live with it, if he had these skills it would have cost Houston a few of those Brooklyn picks to get him, not just Caris LeVert. The good news is that Oladipo is at least getting to the rim at his highest frequency since his sophomore season in Orlando, and he’s only getting better. Even if you aren’t a strong finisher, being able to get a high amount of 52-55% shots is good for your offense. I noticed that around the New Orleans Pelicans game, 6 games in, he started to look improved on drives, which isn’t surprising as he works his way back into rhythm and game shape after his injuries. The stats back the eye test. Before that game he was 37th in the league in shots per game within 5 feet - at just 4.4. Which sounds bad, but it’s even worse when I tell you that was 37th among guards (although admittedly NBA.com has just over half the league listed as guards). In the 4 games since, he’s 3rd in the league at 8.0 per game.
What I like about his game is that if he can’t beat his man, he doesn’t just pass out and give up on the play, backing up to halfcourt. He can hit a tough shot. He can run into traffic and at the last second find the cutter. He can bring the ball back out and turn it into a handoff and run the two-man game with the big man.
Oladipo has developed into a very reliable scorer on catch and shoot opportunities from deep. He started his career below average, hitting 34.3% off the catch in Orlando. This improved in his pit-stop in Oklahoma, rising to 36.5%. In Indiana, he has shot 38.8%. There are all sorts of ways of playing with statistics like these to help find the number you want, but his overall average is dragged down quite a bit by the 19 games he played last season after coming back from injury with absolutely zero rhythm. For that spell he shot 11 of 40. This season he is 13 of 30, good for 43%. And with form like this – I’d say it’s a safer bet to mark him down as 40%+.
As is the case with most players, Oladipo’s pull up numbers have lagged behind his catch and shoot ones all of his career, to the tune of 32.7%. Sharing the backcourt with Wall means Houston now has two guards who are fine catch and shoot players, but have historically struggled pulling up. You can gameplan around that, and both can hit big shots in the clutch – which we will get to – but it’s something to be aware of. The days of James Harden drilling contested stepbacks are over. I didn’t look back at some of the older film for Oladipo for this, but this season he is shooting a pretty miserable 30.8% on pullups. And most of them look like this, coming off a snug screen from Sabonis right at the perimeter.
He’s leaning in off balance all the time, and sometimes he’s just looking for a foul when the defender is overplaying – which is a call he has gotten a couple of times this season already. But when he gets his feet set, that consistent form we saw from the catch and shoot clips comes back. This is an open shot off the two-man handoff game with Sabonis, and it’s counted as a pullup, except he gets a proper look at the basket this time from a set position. It's a bucket.
And here he is running it up in transition and stopping on a dime for the pullup. Again, the jumper just looks so smooth whenever he’s able to get into his proper shooting motion, rather than the ugly shots off the tight screens he often hoists.
Like John Wall, Oladipo is gonna get after it on defense. We’re in small sample size theatre, but Oladipo is allowing a whopping 1.42 points per possession as the pick n roll ball defender this season per NBA’s imperfect tracking data. This is generally an area where Oladipo shines numbers wise, allowing just 0.72 in 17-18, then 0.76 and 0.59 in his shortened 18-19 and 19-20 seasons. I’m not worried about Oladipo’s capabilities at the point of attack. Watching the compilation below, he is still an excellent screen defender, forcing the ball handler to reject the screen often, as part of the Pacers ‘ICE’ coverage. He's also able to stick with them and recover when he has to fight over screens.
Oladipo can flat out stay infront of guys. He shuffles his feet well, and can rock back and forth as the ballhandler is dribbling, trying to him one way or another. He’s not the biggest guard, but has enough strength to ride drivers as they are forcing contact, and he’s always scrappy.
Houston can put out a lineup of Oladipo, Wall, Tate, Tucker and Wood - they are remaking their team to have dogs up and down the roster who get after it. They are gonna fight and pester players all over the court. This should help Wood read the game a bit better from the back line and alleviate some pressure on him as a rim protector, a skill he is going to have to develop rapidly. Although on the flip side, Houston’s pressure defenders will have to make sure they don’t over commit and allow blowbys. This is only one part of NBA defense, smart rotations and help are just as vital.
Thankfully, Oladipo is one of the best closeout guys in the league. He is often used as a help defender at the nail, using a ‘gap’ defense to sag off the other guard and block the middle for the ballhandler. And he’s quick enough and determined enough to scamper back to contest the shot if they kick out to the open shooter. In the first clip here he’s even able to help off of JJ Reddick, one of the league’s deadliest shooters. His speed allows him to shoot back in time to put up a decent contest. And throughout the rest of the clips, it’s not just the initial closeout, he’s making multiple efforts and chasing several shooters.
Earlier this season Oladipo showcased the full range of his defensive abilities when he was matched up with Zach LaVine. LaVine, who is averaging 27 points per game and blossoming as an all-world offensive star, was kept to his quietest game of the season against the Pacers, with just 17 points on 13 shots. Watch the compilation below as Oladipo is able to hound him all game, chasing around screens, sticking with him through Iverson cuts, closing out hard and defending one on one.
What Oladipo also brings generally is incredible hustle, which combined with his speed will boost Houston’s transition defense greatly. Oladipo was placed in the corner a fair bit in Indiana, which will continue to be the case in Houston as he shares the perimeter with John Wall and Christian Wood in the 5-out offense. Houston has trouble getting back, especially when they have PJ Tucker in the corner, who will always try, but is not beating many people down court in a dead sprint.
Watch Oladipo in this sequence. He starts off in the corner on offense, runs back in transition to collapse on the driver and then closes out hard on LaVine. Off the missed shot he gets back up the court and fills the corner, but TJ Warren turns the ball over and once again he’s having to sprint back to stick with LaVine, shutting off the kick ahead opportunity on the leak out. It’s another turnover and Oladipo runs with Sabonis and follows up for a layup. That’s four transition possessions in a row where he’s right where he needs to be and making multiple efforts on defense. And they were already up by 25!
And for a bonus, here’s another couple of clips I cut of Oladipo absolutely flying down the court to stop the fast break. The Rockets are 27th in the NBA in transition defense. It takes 5 players committing to that side of the ball to improve, but Oladipo will be a huge part of that.
Houston also has another serious problem so far this season, and that’s rebounding. On offense, they are 23rd, tied with 2 other teams. Which wouldn’t be a problem if it were a stylistic choice, but their torrid transition defense makes this unforgivable. And on the defensive side Houston’s effort has been embarrassing. Ranked dead last, their putrid work on the defensive glass is allowing oppositions to rebound 29.2% of their own misses. To put that into context, that’s nearly as bad as the 30.4% they gave up in the second half of last season when they went to smallball. Despite having Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins, Houston is just as bad as they were when they were playing without a center at all. Oladipo again will help. His DREB rate is at 18.6% this season, which would be good for a power forward, never mind a combo guard. He can fly out of nowhere to grab the ball out of the air, and if he’s in the paint he’s going to find a body to box out. Watch the compilation below as he’s putting his back on centers and keeping them off the boards, including several boxouts on Steven Adams.
Oladipo fills the hustle stats sheet. He’s always been willing to put his body on the line and take charges, although it’s the timing and positioning which also makes him so proficient. Per 36, he’s first in charges drawn this year. Look at any other year, and he’s probably near the top too.
Constantly active, Oladipo is also 6th in deflections per 36 among players who have played over 150 minutes and 8th in steals. Again, part of this is effort, but it’s also anticipation and having a nose for the ball.
Oladipo is also CLUTCH. You can define this a bunch of different ways per NBA tracking. My personal favourite - real, absolute clutch plays – is within 3 points with 2 minutes left. I always feel sorta different once that 2 minute warning is shouted out. That oh shit realisation as your point guard is bringing it up the court, knowing you might only get 2 or 3 more shots the whole game. This shot has to go in. And being within one possession speaks for itself. Last season Oladipo was thrust into this situation an unusual amount of times in his limited play, and he was 2-11 from the field and 1-6 from deep. Anyone who was watching him knows he was extremely poor and clearly not ready to be playing NBA basketball, at least for a team trying to win. If you take away that sample, he’s 29-50 from the field in a Pacers jersey – a ridiculous 58%. Somehow, he’s even better from deep – 63%. Below is a 5 minute collection of all the clutch buckets Oladipo has hit in a Pacers jersey.
Oladipo isn’t an elite, top 20-25 player in the league. He’s made an all-star once, and in guard heavy, scoring league he’s only cracked 20 ppg in a season once. Now, John Wall has only done that twice (three times if you round up from a 19.9 season), but he was also throwing in 10 dimes a game for years. How well Houston’s backcourt can operate will be something we have to see over the course of the season, if they make it that long. Stephen Silas took the job with plan for a Harden/Westbrook tandem, then adapted for the John Wall trade, and must now adapt again for an entirely new team. That might take time. Or, it might fit right away, as the team unburdens itself from the shackles Harden and his trade request had them in. One player who I’m quite sure will benefit is John Wall, whose on court partnership with James Harden was estranged from day one. Something that jumps out to me is how Wall’s assist numbers have plummeted. For his career he averages 9.2 per game, but that’s just 5.1 this season. Sharing the ball with a disinterested, pouting star has not helped. When Harden was on the court, Wall’s AST% was 23.2%. When Harden was off the court, that spikes to 33.5% - still way below his career average of 42.2%, but a sizeable increase nonetheless. Oladipo is comfortable sharing the backcourt with a playmaker and will be a much better fit than the mentally and physically checked out James Harden we were seeing this season. As a catch and shoot threat, secondary playmaker and off-ball screener and cutter, Wall will be sharing the ball with a more willing partner. When you look at their shot charts, they also both like shooting more from opposite wings, which will help when dividing up the backcourt.
In order of minutes, Wall has shared the court the most with PJ Tucker, James Harden and Eric Gordon. We know Harden wasn’t getting any assisted buckets, and Gordon’s terrible catch and shoot numbers continue to mean most of his points are generated from his thankfully improving drive game. Tuck is an incredibly low usage player on offense at this point. It’s easy to see how Wall’s assist numbers could shoot back up by playing alongside not only Oladipo, but also more minutes for guys like Jae’Sean Tate and Ben McLemore. I like the fit for Houston's new backcourt a lot. It's time to get them both healthy, and let them get at the rest of the league.