There's no question that the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets offenses are simply in a class of their own. Jockeying back and forth all season for the league lead in offensive efficiency, they are not only the best in 2017-18 but a real threat to challenge last year's Warriors, who finished with the most efficient offense in modern NBA history.
Before Wednesday's games against Dallas and Orlando, they were averaging an identical 115.2 points per game. Given that both teams can go off on a moment's notice and lay waste to anyone with paralyzing runs fueled by seemingly endless barrages of 3s, it's tempting to view them as one and the same -- poster children for today's pace-and-space revolution. But that's not the case.
Yes, they score a ton of points. Yes, they are the gold standard for shooting.
But that's about where the similarities end. The truth is that these offenses, although both historically potent, are actually nothing alike.
With all due respect to the Showtime Lakers, the Warriors might be the best passing team in NBA history. Not only are they on the verge of becoming the first team to average 30 assists per game in back-to-back seasons but they're also once again assisting on more than 70 percent of their made field goals, which is something Magic Johnson & Co. never did. By comparison, when the Lakers set an NBA record with 31.4 assists per game in 1984-85, they assisted on 65 percent of their buckets, the same as the Philadelphia 76ers this season and a figure that ranks outside of the top 100 all time.
Meanwhile, Chris Paul and James Harden are two of the most dynamic table setters in today's game. Harden led the league in dimes per game last year, and Paul has done it four times. They both rank among the top five this season in APG. Outside of their sheer volume, they also are two of the most creative passers, often anticipating windows and making reads that others with gaudy assist totals simply don't.
It might come as a surprise then that, despite trotting out at least one surefire Hall of Fame point guard at all times, Houston ranks 29th in passes per game, according to Second Spectrum, despite ranking among the 10 fastest teams in the NBA. Golden State ranks third.
Even more telling is looking at how each team moves the ball in the half court before shooting. It's here that the differences in these two offenses start to manifest.
Watch Houston closely and you'll notice that Harden and Paul often simply take turns. Houston passes one or fewer times before a shot on 58 percent of its half-court possessions, with the two All-Stars accounting for the vast majority of those plays, easily the highest mark in the league. Not only do they do it often but they do it better than anyone, leading the league in effective field goal percentage on such possessions. In fact, their overall field goal percentage on half-court possessions with one or zero passes is better than that of 23 teams when passing it four or more times.
The inverse is true for the Warriors. Though both Paul and Harden average more assists than anyone on the Warriors, six players on Golden State average more assists than Eric Gordon, who ranks third on Houston. That's because the ball moves much more often with the Warriors, who rank among the league leaders in half-court possessions with multiple passes. In all, seven players -- Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Zaza Pachulia, Andre Iguodala and Jordan Bell -- have led the team in assists this season.
Although the Rockets might not whip the ball around much, they are still devastatingly effective in the half court. In fact, according to Second Spectrum, they rank first in points per play in the half court while generating higher-quality looks than any other team in the league.
The efficiency in spite of a lack of movement is thanks mostly to the fact that Paul and Harden are perhaps the two best players in the league in pick-and-roll actions and isolations. Why put the ball in anyone else's hands when they can simply read and react to a bending defense while flanked with finishers?
Early in possessions, the recipe for success is simple: Send a high ball screen for Harden or Paul and wait for the defense to make an impossible decision.
Rotate help off shooters and the simple fact that 3 is greater than 2 works in Houston's favor with its stable of world-class snipers. Switch the screen and stay home and it leaves a big to defend against either the game's best at driving and drawing contact (Harden) or the game's best at pulling up for midrange jumpers (Paul). Blitz the screen and it leaves the lane wide open for Clint Capela, who has become perhaps the league's premier rim-runner while feasting on lobs from the Hall of Fame backcourt.
If need be, after probing a screen action and patiently waiting, they can fall back on two of the game's best at getting their own shot. In fact, among the more than 75 players with at least 50 direct isolations, Paul and Harden rank first and third, respectively, in points per direct isolation, according to Second Spectrum.
Meanwhile, Golden State's offense is vastly different. According to Second Spectrum, the Warriors average just 36 combined direct isolations and pick-and-rolls per game, which is the fewest in the NBA and a far cry from Houston's league-leading 78 per game (10 more than anyone else).
As it has for several years now, the Warriors' bread and butter remains getting out on the break, as a league-leading 19 percent of Golden State's points come via the fast break. That's nearly twice as many as for Houston, which surprisingly ranks just 17th.
If you keep Golden State from running or scoring on secondary breaks, the onus becomes staying attached away from the ball and disciplined in fighting through screens. The Warriors lead the NBA in points per chance using off-ball screens, according to Second Spectrum, and attempt more than 23 shots directly from off-ball screens, which is four more than anyone else.
Although Harden's injury keeps Thursday from becoming a true measuring stick game, there will still be plenty for these teams to dissect and store away for a likely meeting in May. BPI currently gives a 64 percent chance of these teams meeting in the Western Conference finals, nearly six times more likely than any other matchup.