From an offensive perspective, the Houston Rockets are arguably the hardest team to watch and enjoy this season.
Despite the amount of offensive talent they possess, it hasn’t coalesced together to form even a somewhat cohesive picture. Said offensive talent can also be described as extremely young talent; young talent without much veteran guidance (poor Eric Gordon can only do so much by his lonesome) can easily be led astray.
Much has been said about the conflicting skill sets and questionable fit of their young backcourt. Jalen Green has upped his raw scoring averages (from 17.3 points during his rookie year to 21.9 this season) but has taken hits to both his shooting and overall scoring efficiency marks – a natural consequence of a second-year scoring guard who has upped his usage rate.
Kevin Porter Jr. has also upped his scoring average to a career-high 19.2 points, all while scoring at his most efficient mark (55.1 TS%). He’s just behind Green in usage rate but is dishing out assists at a higher rate — a natural consequence of which has been a turnover rate that is 17th in the league among qualifying players.
Despite the natural offensive talents of Green and Porter Jr., it hasn’t quite translated to efficient offense. Structural problems have been prevalent. Eliminating garbage time from the equation, the Rockets are scoring 109.7 points per 100 possessions overall and 89.9 points per 100 half-court possessions — both of which are dead last in the league.
Team shooting and scoring efficiency marks have been in the gutter. It’s tough to generate advantages and create open shots especially when only three players on the roster are technically above-league-average three-point shooters.
It’s also extremely difficult to create shots for others when your top two players in terms of usage (Green and Porter Jr.) have been primarily score-first and pass-second. Most actions die a painful death due to the lack of progressions, second options, and viable Plan Bs. When initial sets fail to generate anything, most possessions turn into your-turn-my-turn contests between the team’s two most prominent perimeter shot creators, most of which fail to consistently generate advantages.
The third-ranked player on the team in terms of usage has been second-year player Alperen Şengün, who himself has seen an uptick in several of his raw and advanced numbers: scoring average (from 9.6 points to 15.1 points), shooting efficiency (from 50.2 eFG% to 57.5 eFG%), and scoring efficiency (from 55.2 TS% to 61.7 TS%).
The rate he’s been dishing out assists (18.0%) has been similar to last season, but he’s been turning the ball over at a significantly lower rate (from 18.8 TOV% last season to 15.8 TOV%). It’s also quite important to note that his usage rate hasn’t changed at all compared to last season, which further compounds the importance of his rise as a central playmaking hub.
But again, structural problems still exist. To be a central playmaking hub and fulcrum of an offense, one must not only be able to thrive in an offense that is built for such a skill set; they must be intentionally featured within that offense for them to get enough touches to self-create and use the threat of self-creation to generate shots for his teammates.
Şengün is only third on the team in terms of touches (50.4). As you’d expect, Porter Jr. (79.5) and Green (65.0) have gotten the lion’s share of touches on the team. Şengün’s time of possession (1.9) is fifth. In terms of seconds per touch, Şengün (2.24) is even further down the list at ninth.
As presently constructed, the Rockets simply haven’t been featuring Şengün enough as the focal point of their half-court offense. During the rare times that they do run their offense through him, these possessions have been quite prevalent:
This is a little concerning. Alperen Sengun gets a post up, but doesn’t like what he creates and doesn’t want to force up a bad shot.— V̷a̷t̷o̷r̷ (@Vator_H_Town) January 17, 2023
Picks the ball up, looks to pass it…NOBODY moves pic.twitter.com/UvI7m2G0vX
Şengün’s nature as a willing big-man passer looking to create out of the low-post, elbows, and at the top of the key can’t be fully leveraged if his teammates are standing still and aren’t looking to create viable passing angles. It’s quite telling that the Rockets have been among the worst teams in terms of assists per game (22.1, 30th), assist rate (55.9%, 27th), and points created from assists (57.4, 30th).
If the Rockets are to eventually realize that Şengün is and has been the key to unlocking the potential of their offense, they must also be willing to improve in terms of ball movement, personnel movement, cutting into space (18th in cut frequency, 30th in points per cut), and other aspects that will help Şengün develop into a franchise cornerstone.
Şengün is a burgeoning threat as a low-post scorer. He employs a variety of post moves buoyed by balletic footwork, deft ambidextrous touch, and an arsenal of fakes and counters that often leave defenders in the dust.
He’s 11th in post-up frequency (19.1%) while scoring 0.98 points per post-up possession — 64th percentile among qualifying players, per Synergy. Defenses are seeing the threat he’s turning into as a low-post banger who uses a combination of physicality (putting his wide frame to good use) and finesse to develop a knack for one-man advantage creation.
Şengün’s already been drawing multiple bodies in the form of doubles and help from the weak side (as well as the occasional strong-side overhelp). He’s been showing off the passing chops to punish such aggressive measures:
Şengün is flashing the classic hallmarks of an elite passer: quick decision making, excellent floor mapping, and precision placement of passes, whether it be toward shooting pockets or space about to be occupied by cutters and lob targets:
Nothing has been more telling of Şengün’s value than one important all-in-one metric: estimated plus-minus (EPM), widely accepted as the closest to capturing one’s true impact.
Şengün leads the Rockets in EPM (plus-2.1) and is the only one on the team to have an EPM value greater than plus-one. Other than him, only two Rockets have positive EPM values: Porter Jr. (plus-0.2) and Tari Eason (plus-0.1).
The Rockets are 10-35 — the worst record in the entire league. They’re deep into the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes and are a couple of years away from being a couple of years away. The makeup of this roster could very well change and is highly dependent on their rate of improvement.
Their pathway toward building a winning culture seems rather murky and limited for as long as there is little-to-no structure and function behind their offense — and while players are primarily looking out for themselves rather than looking out for each other.
It may be too bold of a statement to describe Şengün as the Rockets’ light at the end of the tunnel, but in a season that has been chaotic and without direction, he has shown things that have lit the proverbial eureka lightbulb above several people’s heads.
For the sake of their future success, one can only hope that the Rockets brain trust has seen the lightbulb above their own.