Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
West Coast basketball used to be more beautiful than all other flavors, with high-octane offense ruling the day. It's back, thanks largely to the Rockets.
The Houston Rockets don't always win. In fact, they didn't win on Wednesday, falling to a superior Miami Heat squad that has LeBron James in peak form 114-108. But man, even in losses, Houston racks up the points. The Rockets have scored at least 100 points in seven straight games and in 34 of 51 games overall. Houston's the only team in the NBA to score more than 130 in a regulation twice or more this season. (They dropped 140 on the Warriors on Tuesday and 131 on the Knicks back in November.)
Part of this is pace: the Rockets squeeze in more possessions than anyone else in the NBA at 96 per game. This is traditionally a West Coast thing: remember Don Nelson's Mavericks and Warriors, Mike D'Antoni's Suns, Rick Adelman's Kings, some of George Karl's Nuggets, even back to the Showtime Lakers? A high pace allows relentless offense, and no matter the quality of the attack, getting more possessions will mean more gross points. So part of the equation in Houston's gaudy scoring numbers is that they are packing in the possessions.
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But don't overlook how effective the offense has been. Houston ranks No. 4 in offensive efficiency -- points per possession -- and No. 4 in effective field goal percentage. The Rockets don't just get a lot of shots, they hit them at a better clip than all but three other squads. That's a deadly combination. It's no wonder why the Rockets can pile up massive point totals so regularly. When a team is coming at you relentlessly and scoring efficiently, it's easy to fall into a hole, get exhausted trying to stop it and start taking bad shots at the other end ... which only fuels the Houston attack even more.
There are certainly weaknesses in the Rockets' offense; particularly, those turnovers are a problem. Houston gives up a higher percentage of turnovers than any other team. When you consider that the Rockets run more possessions than anyone, you see the problem. The Rocket give up an average of eight live ball turnovers per game, making up 8.6 percent of the team's possessions. Only the Mavericks have allowed more opponent steals this season. Transition possessions are typically more likely to succeed than halfcourt set-ups. So when you're loose with the ball and you allow a live ball turnover, chances are you're going to get scored on. And made baskets do a lot to kill transition opportunities at the other end. There's a residual effect to steals we don't typically account for: they result in no points for the offending team (one possession), they boost the scoring chances of the thieves due to often resulting in transition (two possessions), and if that team does score, that harms the initial team's ability to get out in transition (three possessions). That's obviously not a hard and fast rule, but pay attention the next time an up-tempo team like Houston plays. A live ball turnover can stretch the hurt beyond the missed opportunity.
... especially for a team that has trouble stopping anybody. The dirty, totally well-known secret of the West Coast basketball is that defense is optional. The Suns were usually league average or slightly worse in defense under D'Antoni. The Kings were actually quite good at times, but never as good defensively as they were offensively. Karl's Nuggets were and are bizarre: when Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith were in town, Denver's defense was more likely to be better than its offense. Nellie's teams famously had defensive problems. Kevin McHale's Rockets fit that mold: the team is No. 20 in defensive efficiency, and have the No. 24 shooting defense in the league. Part of that could be related to the easy chances all those turnovers create, but frankly, Houston's bad in the halfcourt as well. In James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, the Rockets have three perimeter starters who are much better offensively than defensively. Omer Asik, the starting center, is the opposite, but one can only do so much.
In the long run to improve defensively and rise up the standings, McHale may have to replace Lin or Parsons in the most-used lineups with a defender. Or he'll just have to find a way to get those guys to sacrifice a bit of offensive energy to try to slow down opponents. Those Kings teams that excelled in both areas had a perimeter stopper (Doug Christie) and a defensive big (Vlade Divac). The Suns had individual defenders (Shawn Marion, Raja Bell, Kurt Thomas) but two of the biggest sieves of in history (Steve Nash, post-microfracture Amar'e Stoudemire).
The Rockets aren't alone in bringing back the West Coast style of fast, effective offense at the expense of stout defense. The Warriors under Mark Jackson and Mike Malone are similar, though they are neither as beautiful offensively or as poor defensively. The Clippers are too slow to count -- Chris Paul loves being a halfcourt surgeon, and who could blame him? The Lakers are a mess unto themselves. The Nuggets, focused on taking nothing but lay-ups and three-pointers, are the closest thing to the Rockets right now; Denver is No. 2 in pace, and No. 7 in offensive efficiency. One wonders whether these teams can survive the usual malarky-infused catcalls about defense winning championship to entertain us for a few more season. Because even though they are sitting down in the No. 8 spot, it's fun as heck to watch the Rockets rack up points.