Lineup: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
Minutes Played: 180
Offensive Rating: 114.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.8 points per 100 possessions
How it works offensively For years, the Rockets worked toward a day when they could employ elite talent to create an offense around basketball’s most efficient shots. With the acquisition of Dwight Howard, that day has arrived in Houston.
The numbers are outrageous: 53 percent of the starting unit’s shot attempts have been taken in the basket area, and another 26.3 percent of them come from beyond the arc. That means nearly four out of every five shots for this unit originate from one of the sweetest spots on the floor -- almost unheard of. Per 48 minutes, this lineup has scored 14.7 points more than its opponents just at the rim, coming into Thursday night.
James Harden, Howard & Co. generate these premium shots by adhering to two basic objectives: Don't let the defense get set, and find the quickest, best shot off the first action. There's an assumption that the Rockets' starters have appropriated the offense of Howard’s Orlando Magic teams from a few years back: “Surround Howard with shooters, and go from there.”
Yes and no.
Howard’s Orlando teams launched from long range, but those shots were products of more deliberate half-court sets. The Rockets are a little less orderly, though the starters are hardly their most frenzied unit.
All five guys can do positive things in transition. They also initiate a lot of possessions with early drag screens on a controlled break, with the intention of maintaining that break long enough for the ball to find an open guy. Unlike the Magic, with their four proficient outside shooters fanned out in spatial perfection around Howard, his Houston quartet is involved in a more jagged, improvisational production.
A good number of these early screens are built around Harden, who lords over the chaos. He loves to attack a defense that’s still getting organized, barreling into contact, maneuvering his way to the rim, stepping back for a jumper or generally creating mischief. He manufactures these points at will. If the defense sinks, he’ll kick the ball out -- often with the intention of getting it back.
Cameron Browne/NBAE/Getty ImagesJames Harden thrives in the chaos created by the Rockets' offense.
Lately, defenses have been giving Harden a bit more cushion to shoot. One coach recently privately conceded that given Harden’s knack for drawing fouls, and his middling numbers from long range, yielding a little space to Harden isn't the worst strategy.
But Harden isn't the only option early. On the weak side, Terrence Jones might make a basket cut, or Chandler Parsons will trail, pick up the ball on the move or catch a pass in stride before stepping into a 3-pointer. Parsons has exceptional court vision, so he can move the Rockets into their next action if the shot isn't there. Patrick Beverley isn't much of a spot-up threat but isn't a bad place to have the ball early because that allows Harden to get on the move against a discombobulated defense.
This unit's slower half-court stuff isn't all that systematic, much of it designed around post feeds for Howard. He has more vision down low than we give him credit for, and gathers information as he backs a guy in. When Howard is on the left block with the ball, he spins low and finishes with his left if he doesn’t see help coming along the baseline. If he does, he turns middle and moves into his running hook. This isn’t anywhere close to the Rockets’ most efficient offense, but if Howard on the block is the gristle on the steak, the team is in good shape.
Naturally, Harden gets plenty of opportunities to isolate when the game slows down. He knows where the vacant spots and empty lanes are on the floor. Harden makes a handful of bad decisions per night, but the volume of creativity more than compensates for it. The aesthetics leave something to be desired -- the constant head-jerks and flailing are like bad miming -- but it’s hard to argue with the production.
The Rockets now have increasing faith in Beverley to get them into a half-court possession, but his first two imperatives are still to get the ball into the hands of Harden (off a pin-down, curl, etc.) and Howard (simple entry pass). Beverley is the weak link offensively but doesn't cost this unit a lot. He’s just passable enough from 3 to require some monitoring, and he’s not a bad distributor even if he doesn’t rise to the level of playmaker. All in all, Beverley plays a smart game. In parts of two seasons now with Houston, he’s put up some of the team’s best overall on-off ratings.
Kevin McHale has some old-school sensibilities and likes to hunt for a specific matchup advantage and call that number. Against the Warriors recently, Terrence Jones got a bunch of opportunities to work one-on-one opposite David Lee, and torched him. Two nights later, the Rockets looked for Howard against Glen Davis, with Howard raising his hand on the block like a guy trying to get a server’s attention.
This extends beyond individual matchups. The Houston starters are quick to recognize when they have a tactical edge. Up against the paint-packing Spurs in that nutty game a couple of weeks back, they drove at sagging defenders then looked outside and generated a couple dozen good looks from long distance. Against an interior-minded defense, they’ll also run a dribble handoff with Howard and either Parsons or Harden way, way up top. If the small defender can’t get over Howard, the shot is going up without hesitation.
That might be the defining characteristic of this unit -- decisiveness. The ball doesn't always pop around the half court, not with Harden and Howard taking their fair shares of touches for one-on-one situations. But even those possessions are characterized by a clear purpose.
How it works defensively With Howard situated in the middle of the defense, the Rockets are implementing the inverted principles that guide their offense -- denying opponents good shots at close range and open looks from behind the 3-point line.
Remember that stat up top that highlighted the Rockets taking four out of every five shots either at the immediate basket area or from beyond the arc? For the starters' opponents, that combined number is a paltry 55.6 percent. That’s the equivalent of facing a Doug Collins-coached offense every single night.
The starters take full advantage of the luxury that accompanies a center like Howard underneath. Howard is a patient, mobile rim defender who might have lost some bounce over the past couple of seasons but has cultivated a veteran big man’s nose for sniffing out schemes.
At first blush, it might appear as if Howard is less aggressive, but there’s clearly a defensive mandate to hang back, guard the rim and avoid triggering a rotation. Against pick-and-rolls, Howard isn't a Duncan-esque extremist when it’s time to drop, though he’s certainly inclined to maintain interior control. He commits very early to the driver, and weakside defenders are on alert early.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwight Howard isn't as spry as he once was, but he still must be reckoned with on defense.
Jones usually follows the same tack as a pick-and-roll defender, immediately corralling the ball handler, arms extended. But if Jones' counterpart at the 4 is a threat, the Rockets will switch up the coverage. Jones might jump out hard on the pick then scamper back or have Howard tag his man.
Against lethal scorers and playmakers, there are instances when the Rockets will launch a blitz and double the ball -- and not just against a high screen. Playing small against Golden State, Beverley and Jones trapped Stephen Curry deep in the backcourt as soon as the ball crossed the time line. And even with Howard underneath, the Rockets will send another body at an opposing big man working on the block, as they did Thursday night in spots against LaMarcus Aldridge.
One of the better barometers for a defense is how well it responds when it has to improvise. The Rockets adapt well, aided in large part by Howard’s strong ability to buy time for Beverley or Harden and Jones’ flexibility as a guy who can hold his own against most bigs and wings. Howard will rove more than most goalie-centers, but he’s become a bit more selective as a helper and weakside menace. He no longer feels the need to contest anyone and anything in his field of vision and doesn’t enjoy defensive commutes as much as he once did.
The Rockets have found something in Beverley, who gives them a capable on-ball defender who has the wherewithal to monitor what’s going on behind him, how much time Howard can buy him on a given action and when not to gamble. He isn’t an easy guy to beat off the dribble, and when an opposing player dumps the ball off then simply tries to clear through, Beverley loves to bump him off course.
Harden doesn't contribute much defensively. He's not a guy who closes out with any effectiveness, and help from Harden generally means an idle stab at the ball while the driver zooms past. It’s impossible to know for sure since Harden has never been a motivated defender, but the presence of Howard seems to serve as yet another crutch for Harden’s when-the-feeling-strikes brand of defense.
Parsons is an average defender and Jones is a bit undersized in the half court, but as a tandem they’re insanely athletic, which comes in handy when the game turns into a track meet. Both forwards lend the defense a degree of versatility, because both can hold their own on the perimeter and in the post against most competition. With Beverley pressuring the ball up top and Howard guarding the paint down low, it’s a defense that can check just about every box.
AP Photo/Don RyanAfter years of uncertainty and chess moves, the Rockets finally have their superstar core in place.
It’s early November of 2012. An unfamiliar buzz flows through Toyota Center; the stands are dotted with makeshift beards. Eyes are fixed upon the oversize HD screen hanging at center court. When the camera focuses on James Harden, who is warming up, the crowd becomes delirious. There is, once again, a star in Houston.
It’s October 2013. Dwight Howard stands at the corner locker in Houston’s expensively renovated locker room. An LCD monitor hangs above him -- there’s one above every locker -- detailing some unconventional stats. The big man seems content, quietly joking with reporters nearby. About an hour has passed since Howard pulled down a career high-tying 26 rebounds in his Rockets regular-season debut. Like the billboards with his image that can be seen on the drive into the arena, Howard at this moment stands taller than his listed 6-foot-10. He is the fruit of an almost two-year-long pursuit.
Long after Yao Ming’s body could take no more and Tracy McGrady had already been shipped away, the quest for a fresh foundation had begun. With the two forlorn superstars off the books, everything in Houston revolved around finding the franchise’s next centerpieces. Management took gambles on lottery busts and let several free agents walk for nothing. It traded Kyle Lowry and amnestied Luis Scola in the name of flexibility.
The mission in Houston was “asset arbitrage,” creating value where it didn’t exist. The goal was not so much to fill a lineup but rather to short on players while value continuously accrued, waiting for the moment to completely cash in on one prized stock; in some ways, that revolving door of acquired lottery busts represented Daryl Morey’s idea of diversifying his odds.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Rockets struggled to find their way after the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady era officially ended.
Some decried the constant, seemingly directionless dealing. Morey didn’t understand basketball, they said. He didn’t value chemistry and longevity, bedrock elements in sports success. “You can’t manage a roster like a stock portfolio. How will a team ever grow?”
But now, with Harden and Howard in tow and Morey’s methods validated, for the first time in years on 1510 Polk St., the rumblings are not about cap space and asset accumulation. The debate does not center upon the high-end free agency market but rather defensive rotations. For the first time during the Morey era, basketball matters most.
The transition began last year, when Morey applied his ideology to the game action, designing a system that pushed the pace and eschewed midrange jump shots. The strategy led to a playoff berth and precious experience for foundational pieces like Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin -- experience that can be seen as more valuable than the acquisition of yet another low lottery pick. In the following months, still distraught from the bitter defeat, players approached offseason regimens with added emphasis. That extra attention has paid off for Lin and Parsons in particular.
Yet for all of the individual progress, for the sum of the parts, the results have been mixed. Anointed by many as contenders, the Rockets have underperformed by most people’s expectations, entering Wednesday’s matchup with Dallas at 8-4 and in fifth place in the Western Conference. On Nov. 7, the Los Angeles Lakers torched Houston with a 3-point barrage, a few nights after the Clippers had carved up its perimeter defense. Those L.A. affairs raised concerns about the team’s ability and willingness to defend, things serious observers wouldn’t have cared about even a year before. Blown leads in consecutive games against the Clippers, Raptors and Sixers raised other red flags about focus and late-game strategy, which again would have been ancillary matters in the past.
On the streets and inside the locker room, our TrueCities series brings the mood and soul of the NBA city to you.
Before an early-November home game, Omer Asik peeks out from the corridor -- near the showers where press is not allowed -- into the Rockets locker room. Seeing a few reporters awaiting pre-game availability, he retreats back into safety around the wall. A week earlier, already clad in blue jeans and a green sweater, Asik is stopped by Rockets staffers on behalf of the media as he attempts to dart toward the exit elevators. This was the same night that Howard was introduced over the PA as the starter at power forward for the first time since 2004. “This is the only time we’ve gotten to speak to him in two years,” someone quips of the shy big man. Asik is asked his thoughts on starting next to Howard, an experiment to which the Rockets -- at the time -- were committed. He responds in expected generalities.
But any hope for that frontcourt marriage has ended. With the thinking being that Asik was too valuable to just give up, Kevin McHale tried in vain to pair his two centers together for 12 minutes per game. The results were disastrous and the plug has been pulled. Now Asik has yet again asked out and will inevitably be dealt.
But while that matter is of a transactional nature, the on-court implications are of paramount concern. In previous years, the focus in these situations was placed upon greatest value return (or whatever star was available, for that matter). Now the key words now are “stretch 4” and “rim protection.” The Rockets have a set manner in which they play and a set foundation, and whomever they acquire for Asik must fit neatly into that master scheme. We care now about floor spacing and the interior defense when Howard is not on the court; we’re no longer only counting dollars under the cap.
Prior to yet another Houston home affair, Chandler Parsons walks into the Houston locker room following warm-ups, sweating lightly but hair still immaculately sculpted. With a smile and a wink, Parsons pushes the rap music sounding overhead to deafening levels before sprinting away, rendering Patrick Beverley -- speaking to the media about his replacement of Lin in the starting lineup -- barely audible. Parsons is in some ways the team’s leader, its longest tenured member. And the upcoming decision regarding his status might perhaps be the greatest sign of an evolving ethos in Houston. The club can either make the swingman a restricted free agent in 2014 or allow him to become unrestricted the following year. Either way, judging by the dollars commanded by comparable players such as Nicolas Batum, Parsons is due a hefty payday.
The Morey Model that we've come to know would point toward an obvious route: selling high on Parsons and plugging in a cheaper replacement. That familiar paradigm would likely say that Parsons, not a true star, probably wasn’t worth what he’ll command on the market. But these are different days in Houston, when the games are played on the court rather than strictly on spreadsheets.
We've reached that point where “cashing out” is no longer an option. Cutting ties with Parsons would mean relinquishing the longest tenured Rocket, the team’s “glue guy.” It would disrupt the chemistry and stability. And as some have said, these things matter. And with Howard and Harden now in the fold, the Rockets are in position to take heed, to embrace the intangibles that quantitative analysis might miss.
We've reached the point where Morey no longer has to -- or needs to -- play Moreyball.
Goran Dragic | Courtney Lee | Chandler Parsons | Luis Scola | Samuel Dalembert Minutes Played: 157
Offensive Rating: 112.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 96.4 points per 100 possessions
How it works offensively Very well, thank you.
The biggest challenge is finding court time together now that Kyle Lowry has returned to action after suffering a bacterial infection. Now that Lowry is back, this unit hasn't seen any time together over the past couple of games, even though it's largely responsible for Houston's success during Lowry's prolonged absence.
It's important to offer a disclaimer on Lowry. He's a unique talent at the point, an incredibly efficient fireplug who has led the Rockets in adjusted plus-minus over the past two seasons. His presence at the top of the floor has often saved the Rockets' defense from calamity, and the success of any lineup sans Lowry should in no way be regarded as a denigration of his skills.
Goran Dragic is a different sort, a whirling dervish of a point guard whose hunger to pressure the defense is perfectly suited to the Rockets' offensive imperatives.
Dragic is always on the attack, and most of the action in the half court plays off his dribble penetration. Here's where Dragic is so dangerous: Trap him and he's likely to create a 4-on-3 game. And once he gets free off the dribble, he'll instantly identify where the help is coming from. Houston invites or, at the very least, tempts the defenses with high screens from Dalembert. This drags Dalembert's defender up top, usually in the right slot. If, rather than blitzing, teams feel compelled to fight over these screens, Dragic's quickness can leave defenders trailing him, biting his ankles as he zips through the lane.
Once Dragic finds daylight, teams often help off Dalembert, but if that big defender steps up, Dragic will guide Dalembert to the rim with a bounce pass for the easy flush. If the defense leaves Chandler Parsons open, he will lift to a spot on the perimeter, where Dragic will find him with a kickout for an open shot. Parsons isn't a knockdown shooter, at least not yet, but give him a wide open look from beyond the arc, and the Rockets can live with that.
In addition, much of the secondary action off Dragic's initial attack is designed to get Luis Scola open along the baseline for a midrange jumper, often via a two-man game with Courtney Lee, an underrated shooter and creator who doesn't make a lot of mistakes and can do a little bit of everything. Scola will also see his fair share of entry passes off the mid-post right from the outset.
Don't you dare help off Scola along the baseline! Dragic will find him, even in traffic. Much of the offense is focused on setting Scola up just off the right block and putting the defense in a position where it has to make an impossible choice. Dragic will drive right, forcing Scola's man to slide over to collapse on a driving Dragic. When that happens, Scola is left open for an uncontested baseline jumper on the right side, a shot Scola has nearly perfected.
And that's the thing about playing with a speed demon who has a tight handle. You can be an obscure second-rounder, or unathletic, or a not terribly skilled center. In many ways, Scola is the closest thing this lineup has to a complete player. As long as you can read the action and move to a spot on the floor where you know you can do some damage, the offense will profit, because Dragic will make the defense pay.
How it works defensively Comme ci, comme ša.
Houston runs more of an ad-hoc defense than a systematic one, and for the personnel in this unit, that's not a terrible thing. Coverages on pick-and-rolls, whether they occur up top, at an angle or on the side, tend to be situational. This unit will gamble as a group (e.g., aggressively double bigs from the top side). They trap most side pick-and-rolls, knowing they can entrust Dalembert to provide a strong last line of resistance at the rim if the defenders get split.
Dragic isn't big, but he seems to take high picks personally and will try to fight mightily over every last one. This is a good thing, because Scola needs time to get back into a play, and can afford to wait around all night for his guard to bust through a screen. This defensive unit isn't always ferocious at the point of attack on high ball-screens, but the three guys behind the action know where to be when action is initiated. Each is smart and aware. The wings know when to collapse and when to protect the perimeter and let Dalembert do his thing. As a side note, did you know Dalembert occasionally likes to eat goat before a game when he needs a little boost? Says it gives him strength.
Even though this quintet doesn't have any overwhelming strengths as a unit (aside from Dalembert's shot-blocking), it performs almost every defensive task as a marginally above-average level relative to the rest of the league. They protect the glass and avoid fouling. Opponents shoot well, but not exceptionally. Most shots are contested because the rotations are prompt and this group makes a point to chase shooters off the arc.
Parsons has a lot of versatility as an isolation defender, and any 6-foot-9 forward who can match up against perimeter scorers comes in extremely handy. He uses his lateral movements to wall off the paint against even the most lethal wings in the league, and concerns himself with guarding the space in front of his man as he does bodying up. His height affords him the luxury of rarely falling for a ball fake and, off the ball, he'll lock onto his assignment. The Rockets will often cross-match Parsons and Lee, if the opponent's 2-guard is the most dynamic threat on the floor. This will occasionally leave Lee vulnerable to bigger guys who are hungry to post him up.
In many respects, the defense operates under the same general premise of the offense. Apart from Dalembert, everyone knows his role, which isn't all that explicit. That role is simply to not make mistakes and to be mindful of where the defense might be exposed. If you can't address it one-on-one, make sure you know where Dalembert is stationed.
It doesn't matter if it bends, just so long as it doesn't break.