Are the Rockets Overachieving?

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Being an overachiever is bad. This may sound ridiculous, but in the parlance of the NBA, it’s true. Everyone loves to see their favorite teams win more games than expected, but few like the unexpected crash that comes after this sugar rush. The Houston Rockets themselves fell victim to this boom-and-bust cycle over the last two seasons, but they weren’t the first and certainly won’t be the last (just ask Portland about it). The question, then, is whether or not this Rockets team is dooming themselves with success. The answer is that they are not. Here’s why.



The first point to clear up is why overachieving is bad. In everyday life, getting a good grade on a test or closing more sales than normal is a bonus. Why, then, would it be bad in sports? The secret is that it’s actually not particularly good in everyday life. Consider the salesperson who has a hot couple of months and doubles their expected number of sales. This can raise income expectations, leading to taking on bills which become unsustainable when their sales inevitably normalize. This can lead to inflated expectations by their manager, and a hasty demotion once reality reasserts itself. The same is true of an NBA team. An overperforming team will tend to misjudge how realistic a title contention is, which can derail years of sound decision-making.

This season’s Portland Trail Blazers and last year’s Houston Rockets are the primary exhibits in this museum. Two seasons ago, the Rockets outplayed their margin and gritted past injuries to win 56 games and make it to the Western Conference championship round of the playoffs. The following season, the Portland Trail Blazers exceeded every defensive expectation, shot the lights out for a few weeks, and lucked into a first round victory in the playoffs. The Rockets chose to largely stand pat and met disaster. The Blazers chose to press their advantage and are meeting their own disaster this season. Overachieving is dangerous.

Well, what does “overachieving” even mean, you may be asking, excited for the chance to get into semantics. Aren’t the Rockets winning games like their “overachieving” year? Yup, they sure are. But you can separate achievement and overachievement. The difference is sustainability. The Golden State Warriors have been an unstoppable juggernaut for years. They won a championship and very narrowly lost a second. Their success has sustained the test of time. The first month of the Chicago Bulls’ season was the exact opposite. They shot better than they had any business doing and their record turned out to be complete fools’ gold (also known as pyrite).

Is this Rockets team winning sustainably? If so, this unexpected 23-9 record is just a sign of quality, and not a sign of warning. There are a number of ways to measure team quality, and most of them rely on net points. The more reliable metrics adjust for pace and include information about the strength of opposing teams. Even the most rudimentary, like margin of victory (which is simply points scored per game minus points given up per game), give us decent predictors of success. This is as good a starting point as any.

The Rockets are hovering just south of 7 by most of these metrics. They actually play a fairly average number of possessions per game, and their difficulty of opponent has been just a little under average so far, making most of these numbers come out at about the same place. Their margin is 7.1 so far, which is excellent, and so are the 6.6 to 6.9 type numbers this turns into when adjusted various ways. Bear in mind that the 2014-2015 Houston Rockets boasted numbers in the 3.5 range. As a rule, title winners tend to come from the 6 to 8 range with a few outliers at 9 or 10. Pythagorean wins, a metric adapted from Baseball to Basketball (initially by Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, of course), spits out a win percent between 71 and 74. On all of these metrics, the Rockets are either spot-on or actually a little below expectation.

There is one criterion that may leave some unpleasant wiggle room, and that is three point percentage. The Rockets are shooting a very solid 37.7% from three point range. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are both shooting above 40%. This is the particular trap that the Blazers fell into last season, and which the Bulls just fell into this season. The problem is that it’s very hard to tell if three point shooting is sustainable or not. This might be their new normal. Those numbers are high but no garishly so. Alternatively, this may be a bubble which will burst at any moment. There’s no way to be sure they won’t shoot themselves out of every game for the rest of the season, but the longer this goes on, the more likely it is to be sustainable.

It’s hard to believe, but there actually isn’t much evidence to point to the Rockets overachieving this year. They’ve been much better than anyone had any expectation of, but it hasn’t been due to luck. Any objective metric suggest this is just how good they are. As long as they can stop injuries from piling up, this is the start of an extremely fun year.

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