Should We Worry About The Rockets' Offense?

By Kyle Chilek on October 26, 2017

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Just five games into the season, the Rockets offense has not been what many imagined it would be, even when factoring in the absence of the team's biggest off-season acquisition, Chris Paul. After shooting their way to a top ten offensive rating of all time last season, they find themselves out of this season's top 10, at 11th so far. While on the surface 11th doesn't seem like anything to be disappointed in, when you compare offensive ratings between this year and last, you will see a difference of 6.7 points. That's about the same difference between last year's Warriors and Hornets. So this brings forth the question, is there systemic or personnel issues leading to this drop off, or is it just early season noise?

The most glaring contributor to the Rockets offensive struggles is their lack of three point shooting. A season after sitting a fairly average 35.7% on a league leading 40 attempts per game, the Rockets are now second to last in percentage at 28% on a once again league leading 43 attempts. This is despite leading the league in both open and wide open three point attempts (as defined by Shooting that poorly for a whole season would be unprecedented in the modern NBA, as the last time that happened was in 2003, so some sort of uptick should be expected for just about any team.

The Rockets, however, are not just any team. While they shot just league average last year, doing so on a record breaking amount of attempts is no small feat, and they have retained nearly all of the shooting they lost in the off-season, with Patrick Beverley's 38% being the only major loss there. This season the Rockets have Eric Gordon (11% difference), Trevor Ariza (19% difference), Luc Mbah A Moute (17% difference) and Ryan Anderson (4% difference) all shooting well below their career norms, and are all likely to bounce back.

Another, more obvious, factor in the stalled offense is health. Just like last season, the Rockets entered the season without a true backup point guard. They opted to stagger their two starting guards in order to have a point guard on the floor at all times, but when one of these guards goes down, the Rockets' second unit comes screeching to a halt. Much like Tyler Ennis performed when Beverley missed time early in the year a season ago, Demetrius Jackson just does not look ready for the NBA game. This has forced Eric Gordon to function as a second unit point guard, which is not the best use of his shooting and slashing abilities.

The Rockets saw this in their loss against the Memphis Grizzlies and went out and signed former Bulls' guard Isaiah Canaan, after he was cut from the Oklahoma City Thunder's training camp. The Rockets will be looking for Canaan's shooting ability to jump start the second unit offense as the closest thing to NBA point guard that was available in free agency. Ultimately, despite Canaan's addition, this will continue to be a problem until Chris Paul returns from his bruised knee, (and if Paul misses time again). However, when Chris Paul's healthy, this flaw in the Rockets offense should be fixed. Although, I expect the Rockets to revisit the point guard market near the trade deadline.

Gordon has been capable in the backup point guard role, but can it last?
Now to some issues that are more troubling, as they are based on the way the Rockets are playing instead of how well they are playing (in other words, the systematic problems). After seeing much of their success come from early offense and transition, the Rockets have stopped going to their usual run n' gun offense, going from 3rd in pace last season, to just 20th this season. Without playing at their old blistering pace, the Rockets are missing out on easy fast break points They are currently adding just 2.3 points per 100 possessions through transition plays after adding 5 the season before, and are allowing defenses to get set, making mismatches harder to find in the half court.

The other alarming trend for the Rockets is that they currently lead the league in isolation possessions. A team with James Harden at the helm will always be towards the top of that list, as he is one of the best isolation scorers in the game. However, to be at the absolute top and using 14.5% ( 9.4% last season) of your possessions that way (especially while missing their other top isolation threat) is an issue. Isolations are generally inefficient plays, yielding around 0.8 points per possession, while the average offense generates around 1.05 points per possession, so depending on this play for such a large chunk of the offense is a recipe for mediocrity.
Rockets take too long getting into offense, forcing tough Harden isolation shot
Overall, it is far too early to panic about the offense; the three point shots will begin to fall, and Chris Paul will come back, but there are some early trends that need to be corrected. The Rockets may not reach the offensive heights they did last season, as having a top 10 offense ever is hard to replicate. With that being said, there is too much talent to believe they won't be in the season's top 5 by the end of it all, and if Coach D'Antoni can iron out the kinks in their play style, they may see themselves end up at the very top after all 82 games.

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