Rockets Among Best Teams in NBA in More Than Just Their Record

For years, I resisted. With evidence to the contrary staring me in the face and with Rockets GM Daryl Morey telling me otherwise, a little part of me would still look at a Rockets shot chart and wonder, "Can this really be a title-worthy strategy?" This barrage of three pointers, layups and free throws that dominate play at the Toyota Center still seemed straight out of science fiction to a longtime NBA fan, something akin to how you play a video game, but not applicable to actual humans. I was certainly not alone in this thinking.

But, then I realized that the guys who agreed with me were people like Charles Barkley, who seem to think we are still living in 1995.

This season's shot chart from the Rockets has large messes of dots around the three point arc and a dense cluster right near the basket. Looking at it, you'd think the space in between was a demilitarized zone, as if the league had made it illegal to take a shot between 15 and 23 feet. Go back 20 years and the reverse was true. The NBA game was, for decades, predicated on good midrange shooting. A shot from 16-18 feet, or so the theory went, was better than one from 23 because it was more reliable, the higher percentage shot.

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Guys like Rockets Coach Mike D'Antoni, with his pace and space offense in Phoenix, were anomalies. Their choices were passing fads. There was little chance they could win a title firing shots from all over the place and running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Why? For three main reasons:

1. The more shots you take, the more your opponent takes. The result is a better chance for another team to make up ground and a greater possibility of turnovers in an up tempo game.

2. Three pointers were low percentage shots that often resulted in long rebounds and easy baskets for the other team.

3. The wear and tear of an 82-game season plus the playoffs necessitated teams slow down, at least some, or they would burn out or get injured.

Take a look around at today's NBA, however, and things have changed... a lot. It's not just the Rockets embracing that change. Everyday fans and doubters like me (maybe not Sir Charles... yet) have come to see the flaws in our logic. Now, I find myself shaking my head at someone taking a 19-foot jump shot. "Stupid," I muse to my wife who stares at me blankly, "If he takes two step back, that's a three. Missing a shot like that is idiotic." She goes back to her book and I don't even stop to consider how much my thinking process has changed.

But, I'm well behind the curve. What began with D'Antoni in Phoenix in the early 2000 has now consumed the entire league with the Rockets at the forefront thanks to Morey's next-level nerd wizardry and the return of D'Antoni and his offense, now in full bloom and with zero hesitation. But, it begs the question: Why do the above rules no longer apply?

1. True, teams do give up leads, but they can also bury opponents in basketball's version of shock and awe. A close game one minute can be a 30-point blowout a couple minutes later. Even in today's game, that is tough to come back from.

2. Take enough threes and even a decent percentage makes up for the misses because of the extra point you get on makes. Also, take shots from closer range — corner threes in particular — and the percentage improves markedly. The Rocket are the best corner three-point-shooting team in the NBA.

3. A steady stream of offense makes for bigger margins of victory which translates to longer stretches of rest. Additionally, if your team is stocked with good shooters, they can withstand the best players resting on the bench.

Then there are the rule changes the league enacted to benefit perimeter players and de-emphasize post play that led to the extremely low scoring '90s. The end result is a shot-happy league with three point shooters and slashers running the show once dominated by burly big men with their backs to the basket.

James Harden with a rare jump shot inside the three point arc.
James Harden with a rare jump shot inside the three point arc.
Marco Torres

The Rockets, maybe more than any other team, are all in. They didn't trade for Lou Williams to improve their defense and admitted as much at the time. Despite concerns their game won't translate to playoff wins they doubled down and it has paid off. They have the third-best record in the NBA and just went 4-2 in one of the toughest six-game stretches of the season. But more than that, they are not alone. In fact, they are in very good company.

When you look at some of the league's advanced stats, it is easy to see the Rockets are among the best in the league in key statistical categories, and the teams who join them share their offensive vision. The Warriors have nearly perfected it. Here are some ultra-nerdy stats as proof.

Net Rating

This is essentially a combination of offensive and defensive rating, stats that help explain which teams are the most efficient on offense (how often a team scores versus, say, has the ball or turns it over) and best at keeping opponents from doing the same.

Top 5: Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Utah, Toronto
Bottom 5: Phoenix, Philadelphia, Orlando, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn

Effective Field Goal Percentage

This adjusts standard field goal percentage to include the fact that three pointers are worth 50 percent more than other shots.

Top 5: Golden State, Houston, Cleveland, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee
Bottom 5: New Orleans, Phoenix, Memphis, Orlando, Chicago

True Shooting Percentage

Perhaps the best measure of field goal percentage, this adds free throws to the mix of scoring percentages.

Top 5: Golden State, Houston, Cleveland, San Antonio, Milwaukee
Bottom 5: Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Orlando

Plus/Minus Rating

This non-advanced stat shows the average margin of victory for teams and is one of the best metric for measuring the quality of teams. It also helps to demonstrate that it can be tough to stay with teams that score in bunches.

Top 5: Golden State, San Antonio, Utah, Cleveland, Houston
Bottom 5: Phoenix, Philadelphia, Orlando, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn

Note that all of the best teams in the league also rank near the top in most traditional offensive categories. There's a reason. They are all focused on a similar style of play wrapped around a better grasp of statistical analysis forwarded by guys like Morey and rule changes that favor those choices.

If the Rockets were alone in their style of play, it would be easy to call them foolhardy and question how long they can hold out as the playoffs loom, but this is more than a fad. It's a trend that has captured the last half decade of play in the NBA. It's not going anywhere and, it would appear, neither are the Rockets.

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