Houston Rockets: A fusion of contrasting styles is showing benefits
Do you remember the NBA fifteen years ago? Back when isolation play ruled the day? Back when there was a dearth of big man talent, so guards compromised with excessive dribbling? Back when Iverson rules the roost, yet the Iverson-wannabes immediately ruined it a bit? Back when Steve Francis embodied the Isolation-era style of basketball with ridiculous handles that never really got him very far, a desire to shoot on every touch and a need to dribble on every possession, and an innately selfish style of play that featured 10-second backcourt violations caused by him walking it up so slowly, on account of that fact that all he wanted was a screen and an isolation anyway so why rush?
Hopefully not, because it was pretty awful. Try and wipe it from your mind.
The NBA of the Now is rolling around gleefully in a new era of basketball. This is the era of Pace and Space, where 126-112 final scores are far, far more normal. Where big men are allowed to dribble and shoot, rather than having coaches automatically try and put them in the low post on account of their height, no matter how little core strength they have or what their skill set best suited. Where the talent level is remarkably high, higher than it has been at least in a generation, if not ever.
Where athleticism, tempo, defence and outside shooting are far more the order of the day. Where it is once again truly a team game, and where isolation play has taken a permanent back seat to a greatly enhanced understanding of efficiency. With this in mind, the case of the Houston Rockets is a curious one.
Last season, the Houston Rockets had a markedly difficult campaign. Culminating in a limp 4-1 playoff loss to the dominant Golden State Warriors, Houston endured a coaching change, a lack of chemistry and not much in the way of good stuff on its way to a moribund, wasted season, one which lacked for identity, cohesion, and results.
This summer thus called for some change. Unable to find the right kind of point guard to play alongside him, the Rockets decided this summer to stop trying and to just make James Harden the actual, official point guard. At 6’6 and kind of loafy (although let that not disguise the fact there’s some serious athleticism in there once he’s gotten a step), Harden would not be considered a point guard because of his physical profile; instead, it is due to his skills, his passing vision and willingness, his tremendous handle, and his sheer effectiveness with the ball in his hands. Harden has responded to the change with giant season averages thus far of 28.7 points, 11.9 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game – he is the sublime to Russell Westbrook’s ridiculous.
In moving Harden to the full-time offensive point guard, the Rockets tried to find a shooting guard to play alongside him instead, someone who could score plenty of points without requiring too much of the ball handling to do it, and at least match up for size and speed on either guard spot on the other end. That someone was Eric Gordon, and the pairing has been working. Gordon is averaging 16 points per game, doing so mostly from three, shooting 7.9 of those per game with a 38.7% shooting efficiency. He and Harden have accounted for 6.2 made three points per game, and they aren’t points that can readily be stopped.
With Pat Beverley now back from injury, Gordon slides into the sixth man role ideally suited for one of his explosive, hybridised nature – with Nene, Corey Brewer, a rejuvenated Sam Dekker and (perhaps soon) Donatas Motiejunas also to come off of the bench, the Rockets of this year have plenty of firepower.
Spearheading it all, above Harden, Mike D’Antoni was brought in as head coach. And when the man who made former Atlanta Hawks point guard Boris Diaw into the starting Phoenix Suns center comes into the fold, convention be damned - anything can be attempted. D’Antoni had no qualms about the Harden move; indeed, he lauded it, and called for Harden to double his overall number of assists from the previous season. And while this was dismissed as a laughable goal – this would have meant 14 assists per game, a number rivalling only a young John Stockton in his prime – the aforementioned fantastic start for Harden has pretty much proven D’Antoni right.
He and Harden are doing this in a very distinct style. Put simply, the ball is Harden’s, and everyone else on his team must either get open or get out of the way. Much as we are (thankfully) removed from the iso-heavy era of yesteryear personified by Francis, Iverson et al, there are still a handful of players in the current NBA who can run an isolation on most half court plays against set defences, and still thrive. Westbrook is one of those few, Harden is another, and it matters not if the defence knows what is coming.
Give Harden a pick, a step on the defender and a yard of space, and he’s off, either getting to the rim for a layup or foul (or both) of his own, or kicking to either corner to shooters. Play him for the drive and he’ll hit the pull-up with such regularity that this is a weapon that has to be guarded against as well. Do neither, and he’ll just rise up and hit the three in your face. Unless he turns it over, Harden is close to unstoppable in isolation play, and his efficient shooting from three-point range, his ability and willingness to find teammates made open from his drives, and his unrivalled ability to get to the foul line, counteract any of the efficiency questions this style of play would normally bring about.
However, this all relies on a lot of one man running the show. This is exactly what we’ve been taught to avoid. D’Antoni’s consistent willingness to sacrifice size for shooting (and Daryl Morey’s willingness to accommodate that with moves such as the signing of Ryan Anderson) speaks to an understanding of the impact of quality small ball play and the value of efficient outside shooting, the things we already knew D’Antoni to have embraced (see also, for better or worse, his marginalisation of Pau Gasol on the Lakers). But to embrace isolation and an extremely ball-dominant player like Harden at a time that everyone else has finally learned not to is, at the least, a very interesting experiment.
The Rockets, then, are playing something of a fusion of styles. They are combining an older-school isolation mentality with the newer-school sensibilities of pacing and spacing. Indeed, they are doing it so comprehensively that it feels like somewhat of a pastiche, a parody, a post-ironic revisiting of history. And in a way, it is that. They isolate every trip, yet they also keep the floor incredibly well spaced (first in the league in three-pointers attempted, joint first in makes, fifth in percentage), while also crashing the rebounding glass en masse (despite being an undersized team, their rebounding percentage of .522% is third best in the league, as is their offensive rebounding percentage of .272%).
It is Isoball meets the Four Factors, or two of them at least. This style of play is not altogether hugely different from the Steve Nash-era Suns, also of D’Antoni’s creation – the aesthetics are merely different because of how diametrically opposed Nash and Harden look when they do it. It is, however, forming a different part of the overall league narrative at the time. Whereas those Suns were the only team to be doing something no one else was, now the D’Antoni/Harden Rockets are one of the few teams to not be doing what everyone else is.
It can be a bit uglier watching Harden doing it than watching Nash do it. Whereas Nash kept the ball moving a lot more, Harden is more predictable – like the mountain of a first baseman who eithers walks, strikes out or hits a home run, Harden will either get fouled, hit the pull-up, find the shooter, lob it for Clint Capela (who is thriving through getting so many paint touches opened up by the spaced floor) or turn it over. It is often more bullish than artistic.
Nevertheless, those aesthetics matter only in the eye of the beholder. D’Antoni, Harden and Morey seek only to make the Houston Rockets as good as can be. On the offensive end, this pro-Harden stance, fuelled with a good overall effort level and D’Antoni establishing his rotation right from the off, has done that.
However, the usual problem with D’Antoni-coached teams persists. Despite being fifth in offensive rating, the Rockets are 22nd in defensive rating, as once again a Mike D’Antoni team struggles to prove itself defensively. The argument that he has not the right defensive players to build a good defensive units holds some water, just as it did in all his previous stops – however, to have a roster full of players designed to fill his offensive system to an elite standard while also playing decent to elite defence means to have a pretty much perfect roster, which is quite the ask.
D’Antoni has never been an effective defensive coach when viewed through the fairly solid measure that is Defensive Rating: his Suns teams (24th in his first year, then 17 th, 16 th, 13th and 16th) were actually better defensively than any of his other teams (23rd, 27th and 22nd in his three full season with the New York Knicks, 20th and 28th in his two Los Angeles Lakers seasons, and stone cold last with the 1998/99 Denver Nuggets.)
This current Rockets team do not force many turnovers – Pat Beverley’s ball pressure is sadly not what it was – and all players miss rotations and get caught looking. It’s not a good defensive unit, and while one man can carry an offensive unit, this is not so defensively. (And even if they could, Houston doesn’t have that player.) This will need to be fixed for the offensive leap to matter.
The shift in world basketball that D’Antoni helped to shuffle in, only to be decried as gimmicky and now flawed, has gone mainstream. Ever the inventive one, though, D’Antoni has now found a way to make it more gimmicky. The system has flaws, not least of which is the fact that Harden commits far too many turnovers (his relentless aggression at the basket will always mean a lot of turnovers, yet surely not 5.5 per game, as he is doing now.)
But in tailoring the system to the talents of his best player, thereby turning him from ‘Stat Fiend With Less Impact Than It Looks Like He Should Have’ into ‘Genuine Offensive Juggernaut Who Even Tries On Defence A Bit More Now’, D’Antoni has found the way to make an unconventional and largely unintended assortment of new parts into a 11-7 team.
It might work beyond that, too, if they can find that second star who can co-exist with Harden’s style, score efficiently and defend elitely. It might work if they can find the next Draymond Green. Whenever the Donatas Motiejunas saga gets resolved, that will help, but it’s not enough to contendership.
Something more is needed. It has been in the entire Harden era. And it is especially needed defensively. As of right now, though, this live experiment with its mixture of old and new school sensibilities is enough to be pretty good.