Eventually, the math will break your defense. That seems to be the lovechild of the Mike D’Antoni system under the analytics of Daryl Morey. D’Antoni wants his Houston Rockets to hit with wave after wave of quick attacks. Whether his point guard is Steve Nash or Jeremy Lin or Kendall Marshall or James Harden, D’Antoni’s teams always want to push the pace in a way that hits opponents with mental fatigue as much as physical fatigue. It’s one thing to know a team is going to constantly create looks at the rim or on the 3-point line. It’s another thing to chase it around constantly and keep its defensive principles.
For Morey, the analytics battle he’s fought for years isn’t as contentious as it used to be. Teams have analytics staffs. A lot of coaching staffs consider the information filtered to them. Sometimes coaches implement plans based on selected data, whether it’s shot location or lineup combinations. Field goal percentage has become a relatively outdated measurement of production as more organizations focus on effective field goal percentage (accounting for the extra point on a 3-pointer) and true shooting percentage (bringing free throw shooting into it, as well).
Combining Morey and D’Antoni brings a shot chart like these two. The one on the left is from last season. The one on the right is from the first 12 games of this season.
You’ll notice the heavy concentration of the 3-point line and shots at the rim. The mid-range is a wasteland of inefficiency for this front office and sideline. Going to take a jumper? Take a few steps back so it’s worth more points.
The NBA has trended this way for a while. Five of the 10 highest-volume 3-point team seasons in NBA history happened last season. Golden State set the all-time record in 3-pointers made in a season with 1,077 makes in 2015-16. Last season, Houston and Cleveland cracked 1,000 makes from deep. Those are the only three times in NBA history four digits have been hit from downtown. The Rockets set the pace for everybody last season by hitting 1,181 3-pointers. They shattered the Warriors’ record for makes and became the first team in NBA history to attempt at least 3,000 3-pointers. The Rockets finished with 3,306 makes, which is over 500 more than second place.
Houston is on pace to shoot 3,662 3-pointers this season. At their current rate of accuracy, the Rockets will end up making over 1,200 3-pointers this season — mostly because they keep shooting them, no matter what their accuracy is. The Rockets ranked 15th in 3-point percentage last season at 35.7. They were just below league average (35.8 percent).
This season, the Rockets have dropped to 23rd in the NBA in 3-point accuracy. Their 34 percent clip has been a huge drop-off from last season. Yet, they’re shooting 3-pointers at a rate we’ve never seen and not blushing at missed shots. They keep firing away because they know the math will eventually turn in their favor. While their 3-point accuracy is 1.9 percent below league average, they possess the third-best effective field goal percentage in the NBA. Only the Warriors have a higher true shooting percentage.
So what happens when the Rockets start regressing to the mean with their 3-point production? What happens when they keep their current rate of fire and start making a higher percentage of those 3-pointers? Why are the Rockets currently struggling to make 3-pointers, and how much does Chris Paul’s return give them a boost?
Where they’re not falling
Why have the Rockets shot so poorly in their first 12 games?
The most interesting part of the Rockets’ success from 3-point range last season: James Harden was a bad 3-point shooter. His eFG was fantastic, but from strictly a percentage standpoint, his 34.7 percent was well below league average. This season, the Rockets and Harden have swapped effectiveness. The Rockets as a team are down but Harden is currently shooting a ridiculous 40.6 percent on 10.7 attempts per game.
Harden’s effectiveness is emerging all over the floor. His catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage has risen from 38.9 percent last season to 40.7 this season. The real difference for him comes from pull-up 3-pointers. Last season, he made 33.2 percent on nearly seven attempts per game. So far this season, Harden has made 39.3 percent on just over eight attempts. Whether this is sustainable remains to be seen, but it’s a big jump forward with his shooting comfort in this system.
For the rest of the team, the struggles are confusing. The Rockets rank dead last in the NBA in catch-and-shoot 3-point accuracy. They’ve made just 30.1 percent while taking the most attempts. Last season, they finished 15th in catch-and-shoot 3-point accuracy at 36.9 percent. Houston mostly can’t make open 3-pointers and it’s causing its percentage to plummet. The Rockets rank a respectable 17th in wide-open (six feet or more of room) 3-point percentage. The Rockets finished 14th last season, just 0.4 percent better than their attempts this season.
Open 3-pointers (4-6 feet of room) tank their current percentage. Last season, they made 36.3 percent of open 3-pointers (13th in the NBA). This season, they rank 25th at 30.3. This issue looms even more because 21.9 percent of their total field goal attempts come on open 3-pointers. Yet, the Rockets ranked second in the NBA in offensive rating with 109.3.
The biggest culprits of the inaccurate 3-point shooting are Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Trevor Ariza. Anderson has still shot well at 37 percent from deep, but that’s still down 3.3 percent from last season. Gordon takes the most 3-pointers on the team and is down 2.2 percent from last season with 35 percent accuracy. Ariza has fallen off a cliff at just 28.4 percent. Their spot-up 3-point shooting tells the real tale of their struggles.
If/when these guys start hitting these shots, we’ll see a real boost for the Rockets’ offense. Just a reminder: That offense is currently bested only by the best offense in NBA history. Closing the gap offensively with the Warriors could go a long way in getting Houston prepared for an eventual showdown in the postseason. The Rockets still have a very important weapon to bring back.
When Chris Paul comes back
Chris Paul, the Rockets’ big offseason splash, should be back with the team soon. Paul shot a career-best 41.1 percent from 3-point range last season at the highest 3-point rate he’s ever taken. Bringing him back into the fold doesn’t just put another facilitator to set up shooters. We also get a very good 3-point shooter (career 37 percent) who can thrive within this offense putting up these shots. Two years ago, Paul shot 45.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Last season, he made half of those attempts.
CP3’s return to the court could mitigate any shooting regression from the hot hand of Harden mentioned above. Harden has often shot much better on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers than the pull-up 3-pointers he so often takes. As the lead guard on this team, Harden rarely gets those in-rhythm attempts off the catch.
Since joining the Rockets in 2013, Harden has made 39.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts (913 attempts). On pull-up catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, Harden’s percentage as a Rocket drops to 34.6 (1,572 attempts).
As long as Paul continues to fit into the system D’Antoni wants to play, he’ll keep moving the ball to open shooters and help Harden keep his 3-point accuracy high. On the flip side, it’s just another reliable shooter for Harden to pass to when he draws the attention of the defense.
Does this strategy work against the Warriors?
This way of life for the Rockets should continue to overwhelm most teams in the NBA. But eventually, they have to get through the Warriors in order to win a championship. The Warriors sit atop the NBA like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the fifth floor in “Game of Death.” The Rockets share an even greater affinity for 3-point shooting than the Warriors, and it begs the question of whether they should fight a volcano with arson.
In this early season, the Rockets have displayed some wild swings in accuracy. They’ve had as many games over league average in 3-point accuracy as they’ve had games under 30 percent from deep. The Warriors feast on wild swings and usually use an opponent’s own inconsistency against them to win. Houston, despite the wild swings in accuracy, does what the Warriors love to do. The Rockets make opponents worry about the 3-point line in order to open up layups at the rim. Then when opponents worry about the layups, they pepper them with 3-point attempts. They make opponents pick their poison.
Will it work against the Warriors? The Rockets beat Golden State on opening night, but not many people will put that feather in Houston’s cap when the games happen in the postseason. The Rockets have to keep throwing haymaker after haymaker while hoping to withstand the big punches from the Warriors. They have to hope the tipping point of deep attempts puts the math in their favor, as opposed to the Warriors’ favor.
That’s tough to do when facing a team with the two greatest shooters of all-time and Kevin Durant. Against the rest of the NBA, it breaks opponents most nights. It causes them anguish in trying to figure out how to get ahead of the tsunami of 3-point attempts. The Rockets are shredding the rest of the NBA and their 3-point shots aren’t falling.
What’s going to happen when they do?