Lineup: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
Minutes Played: 180
Offensive Rating: 114.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.8 points per 100 possessions
How it works offensively
For years, the Rockets worked toward a day when they could employ elite talent to create an offense around basketball’s most efficient shots. With the acquisition of Dwight Howard, that day has arrived in Houston.
The numbers are outrageous: 53 percent of the starting unit’s shot attempts have been taken in the basket area, and another 26.3 percent of them come from beyond the arc. That means nearly four out of every five shots for this unit originate from one of the sweetest spots on the floor -- almost unheard of. Per 48 minutes, this lineup has scored 14.7 points more than its opponents just at the rim, coming into Thursday night.
James Harden, Howard & Co. generate these premium shots by adhering to two basic objectives: Don't let the defense get set, and find the quickest, best shot off the first action. There's an assumption that the Rockets' starters have appropriated the offense of Howard’s Orlando Magic teams from a few years back: “Surround Howard with shooters, and go from there.”
Yes and no.
Howard’s Orlando teams launched from long range, but those shots were products of more deliberate half-court sets. The Rockets are a little less orderly, though the starters are hardly their most frenzied unit.
All five guys can do positive things in transition. They also initiate a lot of possessions with early drag screens on a controlled break, with the intention of maintaining that break long enough for the ball to find an open guy. Unlike the Magic, with their four proficient outside shooters fanned out in spatial perfection around Howard, his Houston quartet is involved in a more jagged, improvisational production.
A good number of these early screens are built around Harden, who lords over the chaos. He loves to attack a defense that’s still getting organized, barreling into contact, maneuvering his way to the rim, stepping back for a jumper or generally creating mischief. He manufactures these points at will. If the defense sinks, he’ll kick the ball out -- often with the intention of getting it back.
Lately, defenses have been giving Harden a bit more cushion to shoot. One coach recently privately conceded that given Harden’s knack for drawing fouls, and his middling numbers from long range, yielding a little space to Harden isn't the worst strategy.
But Harden isn't the only option early. On the weak side, Terrence Jones might make a basket cut, or Chandler Parsons will trail, pick up the ball on the move or catch a pass in stride before stepping into a 3-pointer. Parsons has exceptional court vision, so he can move the Rockets into their next action if the shot isn't there. Patrick Beverley isn't much of a spot-up threat but isn't a bad place to have the ball early because that allows Harden to get on the move against a discombobulated defense.
This unit's slower half-court stuff isn't all that systematic, much of it designed around post feeds for Howard. He has more vision down low than we give him credit for, and gathers information as he backs a guy in. When Howard is on the left block with the ball, he spins low and finishes with his left if he doesn’t see help coming along the baseline. If he does, he turns middle and moves into his running hook. This isn’t anywhere close to the Rockets’ most efficient offense, but if Howard on the block is the gristle on the steak, the team is in good shape.
Naturally, Harden gets plenty of opportunities to isolate when the game slows down. He knows where the vacant spots and empty lanes are on the floor. Harden makes a handful of bad decisions per night, but the volume of creativity more than compensates for it. The aesthetics leave something to be desired -- the constant head-jerks and flailing are like bad miming -- but it’s hard to argue with the production.
The Rockets now have increasing faith in Beverley to get them into a half-court possession, but his first two imperatives are still to get the ball into the hands of Harden (off a pin-down, curl, etc.) and Howard (simple entry pass). Beverley is the weak link offensively but doesn't cost this unit a lot. He’s just passable enough from 3 to require some monitoring, and he’s not a bad distributor even if he doesn’t rise to the level of playmaker. All in all, Beverley plays a smart game. In parts of two seasons now with Houston, he’s put up some of the team’s best overall on-off ratings.
Kevin McHale has some old-school sensibilities and likes to hunt for a specific matchup advantage and call that number. Against the Warriors recently, Terrence Jones got a bunch of opportunities to work one-on-one opposite David Lee, and torched him. Two nights later, the Rockets looked for Howard against Glen Davis, with Howard raising his hand on the block like a guy trying to get a server’s attention.
This extends beyond individual matchups. The Houston starters are quick to recognize when they have a tactical edge. Up against the paint-packing Spurs in that nutty game a couple of weeks back, they drove at sagging defenders then looked outside and generated a couple dozen good looks from long distance. Against an interior-minded defense, they’ll also run a dribble handoff with Howard and either Parsons or Harden way, way up top. If the small defender can’t get over Howard, the shot is going up without hesitation.
That might be the defining characteristic of this unit -- decisiveness. The ball doesn't always pop around the half court, not with Harden and Howard taking their fair shares of touches for one-on-one situations. But even those possessions are characterized by a clear purpose.
How it works defensively
With Howard situated in the middle of the defense, the Rockets are implementing the inverted principles that guide their offense -- denying opponents good shots at close range and open looks from behind the 3-point line.
Remember that stat up top that highlighted the Rockets taking four out of every five shots either at the immediate basket area or from beyond the arc? For the starters' opponents, that combined number is a paltry 55.6 percent. That’s the equivalent of facing a Doug Collins-coached offense every single night.
The starters take full advantage of the luxury that accompanies a center like Howard underneath. Howard is a patient, mobile rim defender who might have lost some bounce over the past couple of seasons but has cultivated a veteran big man’s nose for sniffing out schemes.
At first blush, it might appear as if Howard is less aggressive, but there’s clearly a defensive mandate to hang back, guard the rim and avoid triggering a rotation. Against pick-and-rolls, Howard isn't a Duncan-esque extremist when it’s time to drop, though he’s certainly inclined to maintain interior control. He commits very early to the driver, and weakside defenders are on alert early.
Jones usually follows the same tack as a pick-and-roll defender, immediately corralling the ball handler, arms extended. But if Jones' counterpart at the 4 is a threat, the Rockets will switch up the coverage. Jones might jump out hard on the pick then scamper back or have Howard tag his man.
Against lethal scorers and playmakers, there are instances when the Rockets will launch a blitz and double the ball -- and not just against a high screen. Playing small against Golden State, Beverley and Jones trapped Stephen Curry deep in the backcourt as soon as the ball crossed the time line. And even with Howard underneath, the Rockets will send another body at an opposing big man working on the block, as they did Thursday night in spots against LaMarcus Aldridge.
One of the better barometers for a defense is how well it responds when it has to improvise. The Rockets adapt well, aided in large part by Howard’s strong ability to buy time for Beverley or Harden and Jones’ flexibility as a guy who can hold his own against most bigs and wings. Howard will rove more than most goalie-centers, but he’s become a bit more selective as a helper and weakside menace. He no longer feels the need to contest anyone and anything in his field of vision and doesn’t enjoy defensive commutes as much as he once did.
The Rockets have found something in Beverley, who gives them a capable on-ball defender who has the wherewithal to monitor what’s going on behind him, how much time Howard can buy him on a given action and when not to gamble. He isn’t an easy guy to beat off the dribble, and when an opposing player dumps the ball off then simply tries to clear through, Beverley loves to bump him off course.
Harden doesn't contribute much defensively. He's not a guy who closes out with any effectiveness, and help from Harden generally means an idle stab at the ball while the driver zooms past. It’s impossible to know for sure since Harden has never been a motivated defender, but the presence of Howard seems to serve as yet another crutch for Harden’s when-the-feeling-strikes brand of defense.
Parsons is an average defender and Jones is a bit undersized in the half court, but as a tandem they’re insanely athletic, which comes in handy when the game turns into a track meet. Both forwards lend the defense a degree of versatility, because both can hold their own on the perimeter and in the post against most competition. With Beverley pressuring the ball up top and Howard guarding the paint down low, it’s a defense that can check just about every box.