Houston’s offense a combination of great shot selection, poor shooting

The Rockets are getting to rim. Once they get there is when the problems start.

(Author’s note: all of this hoop data is from HoopData.com)

Over the last few years, NBA teams have been getting smarter about where their shot attempts should come from. It’s pretty easy to generate a lot of long two-point jump shots, but that’s usually not the best course of action – teams are much better off shooting closer to the basket (where the rate of success is higher), or from further away, behind the three point line (where they’ll make slightly fewer shots, but they’ll be worth more).

This isn’t to say that teams that take a ton of long twos can’t be effective offensively – just last year the Bulls finished fifth in the league in offensive efficiency despite taking the fourth-most shots from 16-23 feet. Phoenix was also in the top ten in both categories in 2012.

However, those teams are the exceptions, not the rule. Last season, the other teams that populated the top of the Long Two Leaderboard were teams like Charlotte (last in offensive efficiency), Philadelphia (20th), Boston (25th), Toronto (29th), and Washington (26th).

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum where Houston has all but abandoned the mid-range jump shot this season. As a team, the Rockets shoot just 11.5 shots per game from 16-23 feet, by far the fewest in the league. For some perspective, the gap between Houston at 30th and San Antonio at 25th (16.9 per game) is bigger than the gap between San Antonio at 25th and Utah at 6th (22.1 per game). As a team, just 14% of their shots come from 16-23 feet – the league average is close to 25%. Instead, they take a ton of shots at the rim (32.1 per game, behind only Denver) and a ton of threes (25.9 per game, behind only New York). And it’s working – overall, Houston is 8th in the league in offensive efficiency.

The crazy part about this is that they aren’t even shooting high percentages in any area. The two areas where they live on offense? They’re below league average in both. Their 62.1% clip at the rim is good for 20th, and their 34.8% success rate from downtown is 18th. Overall, their field goal percentage of 43.9% is 20th in the league. But the sheer number of attempts in high-percentage areas sends their eFG% up to 49.2%, which is 11th-best.

Just for kicks, I thought I’d do the math on where their offense would be if their shot map lined up with the league average. As a team, they take 81.4 shots from the floor per game, which is slightly above the league average of 79.6. Here’s how those shots break down for Houston, and how they break down for the league average:

AreaHoustonHouston FG%League AverageLeague FG%
At Rim32.1 (39.4% of FGA)62.10%25.6 (32.1% of FGA)63.70%
3-9 Feet8.3 (10.1% of FGA)35.30%9.0 (11.3% of FGA)37.90%
10-15 Feet3.6 (4.4% of FGA)41.40%6.0 (7.5% of FGA)40.20%
16-23 Feet11.5 (14.1% of FGA)32.10%19.2 (24.1% of FGA)37.60%
3PT FG25.9 (31.8% of FGA34.80%19.8 (24.8% of FGA)35.80%
Total81.4 FGA43.90%79.8 FGA44.50%

How important is this shot distribution?

Below is a table that shows what would happen if Houston shot the same percentage from each spot on the court, but distributed those shots at league-average levels. That means fewer shots at the rim and from 3, and more mid-range jumpers. (Note: point totals do not include free throws).

AreaHouston (Current)PointsHouston (League Average)Points
At Rim32.1 FGA at 62.1%39.626.1 FGA at 62.1%32.4
3-9 Feet8.3 FGA at 35.3%5.99.2 FGA at 35.3%6.5
10-15 Feet3.6 FGA at 41.4%36.1 FGA at 41.4%5.1
16-23 Feet11.5 FGA at 32.1%7.419.6 FGA at 32.1%12.6
3PT FGA25.9 FGA at 34.8%2720.2 FGA at 34.8%21.1
Total81.4 FGA82.981.4 FGA77.7

Purely based on the location of their shots, Houston’s offense is more than five points better than they would be with a “league average” shot map. In terms of eFG%, it’s the difference between Houston being 11th at 49.2% and being 20th at 47.5%.

Perhaps here is where we see how a team built around the talents of James Harden plays. If you look at James Harden’s shot chart from last season, you see a staggering trend – tons of shots around the rim, tons of shots from three… and that’s basically it. In the space between paint and the three-point line, Harden took just 95 shots, which accounts for barely 11% of his overall field goal attempts. This season he hasn’t been able to be so selective, largely because he’s shouldering a bigger offensive burden, but two-point jumpers are still accounting for less than 20% of his field goal attempts.

How are they doing it?

The whole team is taking on the scoring trends of Harden, one of the league’s real pick-and-roll experts. This data reflects the power of the spread pick-and-roll offense. Even though the players are not executing at the highest level — ie, they aren’t making the shots which this offense creates — just the fact that Houston plays a certain way is worth a major uptick in points.

For the most part, mid-range jumpers are not a part of Houston’s system. The big men almost never pop on ball screens unless it is to the 3-point line (Marcus Morris comes to mind). Omer Asik, for instance, is almost exclusively diving hard to the rim. With multiple guards, Harden and Lin, who are tough to keep out of the paint and wings like Chandler Parsons who aren’t afraid to let it fly from deep and can attack closeouts, defending both the rim and 3-point line is tough.

That’s great, but Houston’s offense is not as good as it could, or perhaps should, be. Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons both finish pretty well at the rim with field goal percentages of 70.4 and 65.0, respectively, but Harden is shooting just 61.3 percent at the rim, Jeremy Lin 59.7 percent, and Omer Asik, 58.7 percent (keep in mind, the league average at the rim is almost 64 percent).

And because those three players account for over half of Houston’s rim attempts, even modest improvements going forward will result in a noticeable bump overall. Harden, for instance, shot a staggering 70 percent at the rim last season. But Lin and Asik have never been league average finishers, so their outlook is less optimistic. For Houston, the question isn’t whether they are doing the right things on offense, it’s whether its players have the talent to take advantage.

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  4. Optical Tracking Data and the importance of screening in the Boston Celtics’ offense
  5. LeBron couldn’t hit a shot, still dominated the NBA Finals


  1. [...] Over at Hoopspeak, Jeremy Conlin does a great job of pointing out that Houston actually shoots pretty poorly considering the amount [...]

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