When you visit NBA.com’s statistics page and sort teams by three-point percentage, you have to pass 22 franchises before reaching the Houston Rockets. It’s jarring to see the Rockets that far down the list of anything related to shooting, but there they are, right below the Utah Jazz and above the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Rockets have made 34.2 percent of three-point attempts this season, and while many early season statistics are plagued with small sample sizes, that one isn’t far off. For one, it’s about in line with last season — the Rockets shot 35.7 percent as a team during the 2016-17 campaign.
For two, it’s a larger sample size than anyone else.
Houston’s killer three-point shooting boom is born from volume, not sparkling efficiency — something they learned last year. They’re on pace to re-set the records they set last year in both makes (15.4 per game this season) and attempts (44.9). Before the 2016-17 season, there were only eight instances of a team shooting 45 times or more from behind the arc in a single game. Houston might average that.
And their coach wants them to shoot more.
“We can definitely average more than we did last year,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said before the season. “I don’t think we averaged 50. We could average 50 this year.”
It’s working. The Rockets have the second-best offense in the league (109.9 offensive rating) and a top-10 defensive rating, too. Clint Capela has been excellent, and this is why the Rockets signed P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in the offseason, two excellent defensive wings who have been subpar career shooters. The two are a combined 32-of-95 (33.7 percent) shooting so far in Houston, which is good enough.
Houston’s starting five is unstoppable
James Harden might finally win an MVP this season. If his early season numbers hold, it would be hard to see him fail. He’s averaging 30.2 points and 10.2 assists, and he’s turning the ball over one fewer time per game. His 61.5 percent True Shooting Percentage would be his second-best since coming to Houston.
If you play man defense on Harden, you lose. He’ll cook in isolation if he must, but Harden’s preference is the pick-and-roll. Early in the game, he’ll run it with Ryan Anderson. Indiana chose to trap Harden on Sunday, but Anderson spots up too deep for a defender to recover.
Myles Turner saw that. He couldn’t let it happen twice. That’s OK with Harden.
These are simple actions. D’Antoni is not recreating basketball by running staggered double picks with a transcendent ball handler. That doesn’t make it any easier to stop, as demonstrated by the lineup’s 126.6 offensive rating and +25.7 net rating in 151 minutes.
All five players are returning ones — Capela, Anderson, Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza. We knew what this lineup could do. But there are new looks in Houston that are proving even more fascinating.
Tucker and Mbah a Moute allow more versatile looks
The team’s most successful lineup (more than 10 minutes played) has been one involving both new additions. It’s Harden and Gordon in the backcourt, Capela at center, and Tucker and Mbah a Moute on the wings. Through 17 minutes across four different games, that lineup outscores opponents with a whopping +59 net rating.
That’s a cartoonish number, and it will worsen with repeated use. It’s interesting how the Rockets have been successful with that five, though. They only allows 62.8 points per 100 possessions on average. If they were to play 48 minutes together, they would only average 28 shots from distance. With one non-shooter and two weaker ones, the lineup doesn’t force threes and instead generates much of its scoring from harrying defense.
On the flip side: the starting five, but Tucker instead of Capela. While Tucker may only be 6’6, at 245 pounds and in today’s modern NBA, he’s a fine power forward. Occasionally, Houston will throw him out as a nominal center.
That lineup, per 48 minutes, is average 82 three-point attempts per 48 minutes. A five-out offense coached by D’Antoni is what closeout defenders have nightmares about.
Where does Chris Paul fit in?
Tucker and Mbah a Moute alone create interesting new looks. Houston, though, has Paul sitting on the bench. He’s been out injured since the opening game, but his return is coming soon.
As impressive as the Rockets have been, they need Paul. We saw them bottom out of last year’s playoffs in six games. They’re not on Golden State’s level and Paul might not get them there, but they have to try.
Paul, at worst, is an elite spot-up shooter who can spell Harden as the primary ball handler and shot creator. The Rockets are worst with Eric Gordon off the court (minus-3.6), not Harden, because Gordon’s a glue that helps bring lineups together. Paul can duplicate his game more than any other Rocket, to an extent.
The Rockets desire for the Paul and Harden pairing to be more, of course. They envision a 1A and 1B situation, not just the current structure that has Paul fitting in where he can find space. We saw Paul and Harden playing off each other in the preseason. We’ll likely see more — some things that work, some things that don’t — once Paul returns.
Houston’s floor is high, a top-three seed and the second round of the playoffs, barring disaster. This isn’t a floor that can be broken through by Playboi Carti’s “What.” Their ceiling, though, depends on Paul, and how well he and Harden come together in Houston.