No team in all of sports confounds expectations quite like the Houston Rockets with the possible exception of the discussed-Monday San Antonio Spurs.
They are the ultimate dichotomy, the Spurs a testament to the power of brutalist old-school efficiency on two-point shots and fundamentally sound play that left them sixth in eFG% despite being dead last in 3PAR.
The Rockets are the polar opposite, freewheeling with an astounding 51.7 percent of their overall attempts on the floor coming from long range and the fourth-highest eFG% despite the seventh-worst raw FG%—that’s right folks, in case you needed reminding, three is more than two.
Houston wasn’t even that good from long range. They hit 35.6 percent of their attempts, good for just 12th in the league, but they shot so many of them while finishing third in 2-point percentage (55.1 percent, testament to what happens when you don’t shoot midrange jumpers) that it ended up with that fourth-in-the-league efficiency overall.
But they’re also the ultimate feast or famine team. When the shot’s not dropping, you get a meltdown, nowhere more famously (or infamously) displayed than in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals, when they missed 27 in a row from long range and lost to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
Vegas has them down for 52 wins this year, one fewer than last year’s total, but at the same time, they just added one of the worst 3-point shooters in the history of the league in Russell Westbrook. This can’t possibly mean they’re headed for doomsday…can it?
2018-19 record: 53-29
2019-20 over/under: 52
The Westbrook/D’Antoni Problem
Westbrook is historically bad at 3-point shooting. He shot just 29.0 percent last year, and he’s at 30.8 percent for his career. In NBA history, 163 players have played at least 500 games while attempting at least three 3-pointers per game.
Out of all of them, Westbrook ranks dead last as the worst volume 3-point shooter in NBA history. Not that being a 3-point gunner is essential to success—the bottom 10 includes not just Westbrook but Kobe Bryant (9th-worst) and Allen Iverson (third-worst), but those guys didn’t play on teams that took half their shots from beyond the arc.
Westbrook’s eFG% on his 3-pointers for his career is .462. His eFG% overall for his career is a putrid .465, and if we sort that same 163-man list by that latter stat, it ranks 149th (congratulations Jerry Stackhouse on being the worst shooter of all-time among guys who took at least three 3s a game.)
If Houston seriously expects to play efficient basketball with a gods-awful 3-point shooter who needs the ball in his hands to be in his comfort zone on the basketball court, that is a problem.
Turnovers. So. Many. Turnovers.
The top five seasons in NBA history for most turnovers belong to James Harden (2016-17), Russell Westbrook (2016-17), James Harden (2018-19), Russell Westbrook (2017-18), and James Harden (2017-18), in that order.
Put simply, both guys are absolutely putrescent at taking care of the basketball, and the 400-plus turnover seasons that Harden (464) and Westbrook (438) put up in 2016-17 seem like they will remain the only such individual seasons in NBA history until the heat death of the universe.
And those guys are supposed to share a backcourt? Guys who feed off selfish assists and gunning for counting stats in their quest (successfully achieved by Westbrook three years running!) to average a triple-double?
Houston is going to give away a TON of possessions in 2019-20. I can think of no two players more perfectly suited to be the best players on the other team while forcing bad passes and getting called for travels (just imagine Harden’s turnovers if the refs actually called the game tight) on a constant basis.
The Rockets actually had the ninth-best turnover percentage on offense last year, as Harden was the only one consistently coughing up the ball.
They’re not going to be able to repeat that top-10 efficiency finish with two butterfingers guards sharing a backcourt.
D’Antoni’s Defensive Decline
Last year’s Rockets were 17th overall in Defensive Rating, a far cry from the sixth they put up in 2017-18.
Then again, Westbrook was the anchor of an Oklahoma City defense that, along with fellow All-Defensive candidate Paul George, ranked fourth.
If the Rockets are to find salvation defensively to make up for their surely-more-inefficient offense this season, it’s going to have to come from Westbrook playing lockdown defense on whichever opposing guard is better-skilled offensively.
But then again, Chris Paul, who is a better defender than Westbrook, tried that last year and the Rockets were below the median defensively.
There are red flags all over the shop here.
And the Limitations of Clint Capela
Is Clint Capela good? Or does he benefit from the same tendencies Boban Marjanovic does whereby traditional center things—rebounding, shooting a high percentage thanks to being always at the rim for attempts, altering the calculus for the other team in regards to attacking the lane—tend to be overvalued by the Win Shares stat?
Capela had a .230 WS/48, for cryin’ out loud. That is superstar level—only nine players in the entire league played at least 2,000 minutes and posted a WS/48 over .200.
Capela took only 7 shots from beyond 10 feet from the rim last year. He missed them all. He shot 36.4 percent from between 3 and 10 feet out, representing 24 percent of his attempts.
And yet he nearly led the league in FG% for the second straight year by shooting fully three-quarters of his shots from three feet and in, making 74.7 percent of them.
Yes, he’s a rebounding beast, averaging 4.4 offensive boards a game thanks mainly to the large volume of caroms created by all those missed threes, but being a less-versatile Domantas Sabonis does not a superstar make.
When The Alchemy Dies
I think this Rockets team is about to plummet like Daryl Morey’s career after that Hong Kong tweet.
A space flight that soared to the conference finals is about to come slamming back into the Earth like my attempts to play Kerbal Space Program.
D’Antoni’s offense relies on the kind of player that the Rockets’ most high-profile offseason acquisition simply isn’t, and Harden and Westbrook are going to run into on-court friction as each’s attempts to gather counting stats rankle the other.
It’s going to be 2015-16 all over again, with Westbrook in the pariah-teammate role that Dwight Howard played on that wretched Rockets squad four seasons ago.
That Houston team went 41-41. I don’t know that this year’s Rockets will be that bad, but when a team that relies on 3-point volume shooting brings in the worst 3-point volume shooter of all time, they’re not dropping only one win from last year to this year.
They’re dropping into the 40s, possibly all the way to that .500 mark, in the franchise’s worst season since 2016. Daryl Morey is probably going to end up sacrificed to the Chinese dragon either because the team doesn’t want the lost brand value of all their Chinese fans they’ve had since Yao Ming still played or because Adam Silver forces the Rockets’ hand and makes them fire Morey.
Without that front-office vision, D’Antoni will be on the chopping block as soon as the team goes on an extended losing streak—it’s worth noting the Rockets were 14th in the Western Conference standings at points early last season.
And just like that, a championship window will slam shut for good, if not in the regular season, then in the first round of the playoffs against a team like Denver or Utah.
Are they good? I mean, they’ve got two superstars, so it’s Plausible. I just don’t believe it. I’m taking the Under.
NEXT: Phoenix Suns.