Feb 6 2013 6:07PM

Houston's Rocket-Fueled Efficiency


Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

Offense costs money.

All you got to do is look at the Top 10 offensive efficiency list to see teams that are toeing the $70 million luxury-tax line (Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Warriors) or spending way past that amount (Knicks, Heat, Lakers, Nets).

Houston GM Daryl Morey has built his playoff-contending team by spending only $51 million this season.

That's $7 million under the salary cap and $12 million less than the next big-spending Top 10 offense, the Nuggets, who spend only $63 million.

Every other big offense spends anywhere from $69 million to $130 million (Lakers).

So how does Houston do it?

By playing smarter and more efficient than the luxurious squads.

Just check out the output from the last five games.

Tuesday, the Rockets beat the Warriors by 31, scoring 140 points on 91 shots.

Before that, they beat the Bobcats by 14, scoring 109 points on 82 shots; lost to the Nuggets by 6, scoring 110 points on 81 shots; beat the Jazz by 45, scoring 125 points on 89 shots; beat the Jazz by 13, scoring 119 points on 87 shots.

... And so on.

In those games, the Rockets tied a franchise record for three-pointers (23 versus Warriors), James Harden got his first career triple double (versus the Bobcats) and the Rockets gave the Jazz its worst home loss ever.

It's safe to say Houston is playing some of its best basketball right now, following a blueprint that has seen them steadily improve, month after month after month.

Simply put, here's what they do ...

They take it to the rim (making second-most shots in the NBA, with 19.8 restricted-area baskets at 64.4 percent).

They draw fouls (ranking fifth in free-throw attempts per game with 25.5 at 75.4 percent).

Or they shoot three-pointers (making second-most 10.3 per game at .365 percent, which translates to .548 effective field goal percent).

Nothing else.

The Rockets rank dead-last in long 16-to-23-foot two-pointers (10.9 attempts per game), dead-last in 10-to-15-foot two-pointers (3.1) and 25th in 3-to-9-foot two-pointers (7.7).

To show the contrast, the average NBA team shoots 34.1 of those shots that Houston avoids, while the Rockets shot only 21.7.

It makes perfect sense when you consider the average squad only makes 39 percent of those shots in the 3-to-23-foot two-point range.

But no team openly eschews so many of those shots that tantalize your typical NBA shooter as the Rockets.

It is no doubt a tribute to the message the Houston analytics crews has been preaching to its players for so long.

Back in the day, Morey had an advanced-stats believer in Shane Battier, who ate up the statistic-tendency scouting reports provided by Executive VP of Basketball Ops Sam Hinkie on a game-by-game basis.

But Morey also inherited a veteran team with bloated contracts that prevented him from truly putting his stamp on the squad.

In the last two years, Morey has hired Kevin McHale as his head coach to carry out the game plan. And this season, he acquired big-money-yet-bang-for-buck rising stars in James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to build his franchise around.

Lin is one of the 10 best at setting up teammates for three-pointers and shots at the rim.

Harden is the best at getting to the rim and drawing fouls.

Asik, to provide some court balance, just may be the best defensive big man in the game today.

Now, when you mix in a roster of young, cheap talent to those three underrated stars, you are able to groom young men in how to play the right way as a team, outsmarting other squads who field older lineups along the way.

It really is quite unusual when you look at it like that.

This Houston team indeed has a lot of upside.

With all its cap room and young talent to boot, Morey may shock the world and acquire another star before the February 21 trading deadline.

Or he may just wait until the summer to make another splash--that's when he'll have enough cap room to land another max player, if he so chooses.

In the meantime, Houston is 27-23 with a Simple Rating Score that ranks eighth in the league.

Nobody saw this coming and nobody has an idea how good they may become after the Rockets make their next big move.