The Houston Rockets are in trouble, to say the least. They are 10-27, bottom of the Western Conference, and are in trouble for the upcoming games. Uncomfortably, things are a mess, especially these days. what is going on? where do they go from here? To dive into Houston’s complex offense, athleticRockets Beat writer Kelly Iko turned to Steve Jones Jr., former NBA assistant coach and host of the podcast Dunker Spot, for his expertise.
Iko: Thanks for doing this, Steve.
As you know, the Houston Rockets are struggling. They have lost 9 of their last 10 games, completely halting an attack that was erratic from the start. They are 30th in half-court efficiency, scoring just 89.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Glass Cleaning. They also die last on turnovers. It’s a bad combination, really bad. So what do you get? You’ve seen them enough, along with other NBA offenses, to know right from wrong. What do you see watching these young Rockets play?
Jones: What you can expect from a young team is mainly contradiction. I go to the first play of the game against Dallas. Jalen Green came out of the screen with Alperen Sengun, engaged Christian Wood, hit Sengun rolling, hit Sengun rolling and gave Eric Gordon a 3 Shortly thereafter we saw a similar possession: Porter Jr.’s drive after the ball had moved. It’s there, the question is how many times will they find it? After a few plays, Porter calls “first play” and tries to repeat. Setup takes him 12 seconds, but the results are not the same.
You need to find consistency in their execution and commitment to each other offensively. The more the ball moves, the more they play together and have more success.
Iko: When Gordon gave a post-fight interview that was heard around the world, the effective word used was “improve.” He sincerely believes he hasn’t seen any improvement in the last three seasons, which probably says a lot about a rebuild that’s at a critical time.
It’s a young team, so there are growing pains, right? But how do you diagnose their struggles? For example, according to Synergy, the second most used offense includes pick and roll, but its output is only in the 3rd percentile . Naturally, these tasks fall on the shoulders of Porter and Green. But should it?
Jones: I read Gordon’s words as frustration related to the type of loss and the reason for the loss. It’s a mindset deal, I’m not the atmosphere police, but it’s too early for a Dallas game.Sengan makes a post-up, Luka Doncic turns away, Jabari Smith Jr. cuts and- Get a 1 and not… maybe a few guys stood on the bench and applauded. When you need to do certain things to challenge yourself and those things don’t happen, it tends to wear on people. For me, it’s a team trying to work through growing pains. Trying to find their way on both ends of the floor, and it’s hard for one end to affect the other.
With the manpower you have, give Porter/Green the pick-and-roll rep if you’re going to simplify it so it’s not overly scripted. As far as I read, it’s their development. Both have seen a lot of drop coverage. This will open up the space. We see pull-ups, we see drives to baskets and pocket passes. What you want is better readings, quicker decisions to be made, variable speeds and responsive defenses. Please be aware of Don’t decide in advance. Solidify your defense and then play. If the pick and roll is just a shot:
…or decide ahead of time and go to Pocket Pass
…it just limits what an attacker can do. Also, if the offense is simplified and gives latitude where pick and roll and iso are the default, then you should make the most of those opportunities. I want to play more outside the theater and create for each other. Drive and kick more, pass and cut more, and trust that the ball will come back.
Their best possessions usually come from multiple attacks. Use that athleticism and size to drive and kick outside the set, outside the first pick-and-roll to keep it moving. Having trouble executing a set and having trouble playing outside of that set will give you uneven results.
Iko: Stephen Cyrus has always stated that he likes his men to play fast, get up on the floor quickly, and punish defensemen before they are fully ready. It’s a great strategy, but you need to generate a consistent amount of defensive stops to apply it effectively, which Rocket does not.
So you end up trying to break through the defenses on the other side of the set. If you want to point out stagnation and bad habits, Houston spits the ball out more than any team in the league. But I like to think of them as final mistakes in possession. There are many other accidents that occur.
Jones: When you have to get the ball off the net, you have to do more on the half court. Too often it takes too long for them to be on set. The Knicks game in the early part of the 1st quarter (1st place vs Nippon Yusen 10:08) swings to Fernando and plays from a delayed action (big dribble handoff). Green hits and cuts through, with Jabari Smith seemingly waiting in the corner and Porter standing on the wing. Finally, with his 12 seconds on the clock, Porter comes out to get the handoff.
They’re the type of possessions they have to try and get rid of, act on, make quick decisions, and give themselves a chance. as against the clock. Or toss it into the post and look at the screen, wait, or appear to attack one-on-one. It looks different when they make quick decisions and execute. Otherwise you will have to force the issue.
I see teams like OKC. They certainly have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but they know they’re going to drive the ball and kick it. If Houston can commit to playing for each other again and again, good results will come.
Iko: On paper, it looks like Houston would be better off with a committee playmaking approach. The roster doesn’t have a true point guard, but Porter, Green, and Sengan can generate offense. But in addition to that, I have to pick up another name that might fix some issues: Jae’Sean Tate, 3rd year. He has missed most of the season with an injury to his right ankle, but all signs point to a return to the lineup this week.
For me, Tate has always been great in the connective tissue role. Tate has shown that he can close that gap offensively. Even if he doesn’t have to hit a rock for eight seconds or he doesn’t have to hit a rock for 10 seconds in possession, he’s great and he’s putting the play together. He understands what Cyrus wants and does it.
Will his return help smooth things over, or are their problems much bigger than that?
Jones: I think the various ways Tate can be used offensively should help Houston. You can get him into action, catch and attack, drive closeouts and force more help. Even catching passes and swinging them to keep things moving should give them a boost. These give Houston a certain level of consistency offensively. It’s possible little things. We’ll have to see how he’s used, but his skill set should smooth things over.
(Photo by Jalen Greene: Tim Heitman/Getty Images)