One Team, One Stat: Rockets' bench is thin, but effective enough
* Tonight on TNT: Rockets vs. Warriors, 10:30 ET
For the last three weeks, the Houston Rockets have looked more like the team that had the best record in the league last season. After starting the season 11-14, the Rockets have won 10 of their last 11 games to climb from 14th to fourth place in the Western Conference. The last five wins have come without Chris Paul, who has been out with a hamstring injury.
James Harden has made up for the absence of Paul, averaging 41.8 points over the five games. He has scored 39 or more in eight of his last 10, averaging 14.9 free throw attempts per game over that stretch.
Five of the Rockets’ wins in this 10-1 stretch have come against teams that currently have winning records, but only two have come on the road, and the Rockets had a rest advantage (with their opponent having played the night before) in both of those road wins.
They’ll have another rest advantage in Portland on Saturday. But before they get there, they have a date with the Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Thursday.
Here’s one number to know about the 2018-19 Rockets as they go into their second meeting with the champs …
The Rockets have averaged just 74.1 minutes per game from players off the bench.
That is the fewest bench minutes in the league by a wide margin and down from 84.6 minutes per game last season.
One reason for the drop is that the Rockets haven’t blown out their opponents as much as they did last season, when they led by at least 20 points for a league-high 450 minutes, 11 percent of their total minutes. This season, they’ve led by 20 or more points for just 77 minutes (4 percent).
But the Rockets’ rotation has also been really thin. Last season, the Rockets had a steady group of eight veterans that all averaged at least 25 minutes in 58 or more games. Two of those guys — Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute — left via free agency last summer and a third — Ryan Anderson — was traded.
Filling those holes has been a struggle. Carmelo Anthony was gone after 10 games. Michael Carter-Williams’ run in the rotation didn’t last that long. Isaiah Hartenstein (the 43rd pick in the 2017 draft) and Gary Clark (an undrafted rookie on a two-way contract) were both forced into service in November when they should have been getting reps in the G League. Danuel House Jr. (who came from the G League) and Austin Rivers each played at least 28 minutes in a game within hours of signing contracts.
Injuries have taken their toll. Nene missed the first 21 games of the season, Chris Paul has missed eight games to injury (plus two more for a suspension), and James Ennis suffered a hamstring strain after losing his starting job at the start of this 10-1 stretch. In 12 of their 36 games, the Rockets have had only seven or eight guys play more than five minutes.
Coach Mike D’Antoni has used only as many players as he’s had to, often dropping one guy from the rotation as soon as another is available to replace him. Brandon Knight returned from a 22-month absence to play a few games, but was then replaced by Rivers.
On top of a thin bench behind him, Harden leads the league in usage rate by a wide margin, having finished a career-high 37.4 percent of the Rockets possessions via a shot, turnover or trip to the line while he’s been on the floor. In his minutes, he has accounted for 62 percent of the Rockets’ points via his own scoring and assists points created (according to Second Spectrum tracking). Though he’s missed three games, Harden has had possession of the ball for 46 more minutes than any other player this season.
Over the last five games (without Paul), Harden has had a usage rate of 43.4 percent in 39.4 minutes per game. His Kia MVP candidacy (in each of the last three seasons) is about both his numbers and how much of a load he carries on the end of the floor in which his team is most successful. But it’s unclear how long this recent stretch of super-high usage in heavy minutes can continue.
The interesting thing about the Rockets’ bench is that, as thin as it’s been, it’s been rather effective in the minutes it’s played. As they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games, the Rockets have been better with Harden off the floor (plus-16.0 points per 100 possessions) than they’ve been with him on the floor (plus-6.6).
Harden is a plus-55 in 422 minutes over the 11 games, but has has had a negative plus-minus in three of the 10 wins, and his team has outscored its opponents by 37 points in just 106 minutes with him on the bench. The Rockets’ best plus-minus totals over the 11 games belong to House (who came off the bench for the first six of those 11), Gerald Green (who hasn’t started a game all season) and Nene (also a full-time reserve.
Here’s the thing. That plus-37 with Harden off the floor over this 10-1 stretch? It was a plus-42 with Paul on the floor in the five games before he got hurt. Though the Rockets’ bench hasn’t got killed when Harden has sat since then, a big part of its plus-minus success over the last two years has been D’Antoni’s ability to have at least one of his two primary ball-handlers on the floor at all times.
In the games that both Harden and Paul have played this season, the Rockets have been outscored by 3.0 points per 48 minutes in their 501 minutes on the floor together. But in those 23 games, they’ve outscored their opponents by 10.6 points per 48 minutes in 572 total minutes with either Harden or Paul on the floor without the other.
The pair’s minutes together were much better last season, when the Rockets outscored their opponents by 12.4 points 48 minutes with them both on the floor. But their minutes apart (in the games in which they both played) were similarly effective (plus-12.3 per 48). They had improved defensive numbers (playing against the opponents’ reserves), but didn’t see a big drop-off on offense.
So while spots 6-9 in the Rockets’ rotation remain in flux, spots 1 and 2 remain the most important.
Pace: 97.0 (28)
OffRtg: 112.6 (4)
DefRtg: 111.0 (24)
NetRtg: +1.6 (11)
ROCKETS NOTES – GENERAL
- The Rockets have seen the league’s second-biggest drop in winning percentage from last season. Only that of Cleveland has been bigger. Both the Cavs and Rockets are two losses away from matching their loss total from last season.
- The Rockets have outscored their opponents by 15.8 points per game from 3-point range. No other team has a differential better than plus-7.9 per game on points from beyond the arc.
- The Rockets have played seven games with a rest advantage (rested, with their opponent playing the second game of a back-to-back), second most in the league (the Clippers have played eight). They’re 5-2 in those games and 1-2 in the three games they’ve played with a rest disadvantage.
ROCKETS NOTES – OFFENSE
- The Rockets rank last in both ball movement (277 passes per 24 minutes of possession) and player movement (10.2 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession), according to Second Spectrum tracking. No other team ranks in the bottom five in both.
- For the sixth straight season, the Rockets lead the league in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range. Their mark of 49.9 percent is down slightly from last season (50.2 percent).
- They’re the only team with a higher effective field goal percentage in the last 12 seconds of the shot clock (53.9 percent) than in the first 12 seconds (53.3 percent), according to Second Spectrum tracking. Have the league’s highest effective field goal percentage (53.5 percent) in the last six seconds of the shot clock.
ROCKETS NOTES – DEFENSE
- The Rockets have allowed a league-high 52.9 points in the paint per 100 possessions. Their opponents have taken 52.6 percent of their shots, the league’s highest opponent rate, in the paint. Only the Detroit Pistons (68.5 percent) have allowed their opponents to shoot better in the restricted area than the Rockets have (67.9 percent).
- They’ve rank 29th in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing just 69.9 percent of available defensive boards. That’s down from 75.0 percent (4th) last season. Only the Chicago Bulls have seen a bigger drop.
- The Rockets have also seen the league’s third biggest increase in opponent free throw rate (FTA/FGA), from 0.229 (sixth lowest in the league) last season to 0.295 (fourth highest) this season. Last season, the Rockets outscored their opponents by 5.0 points per game (the second best differential) at the free throw line. This season, they’ve been outscored by 0.1 points per game at the line.
ROCKETS NOTES – LINEUPS
- The Rockets’ two most-used lineups have been outscored by 58 points in their 344 minutes. All other Houston lineups are a plus-114 in 1,394 total minutes.
- The team’s most-used lineup — Paul, Harden, Ennis, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela — has grabbed just 65.2 percent of available defensive rebounds, the second-worst mark among 61 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together. It has also turned the ball over 19.7 times per 100 possessions, the second-highest rate among that same group of lineups.
- Best on-court NetRtg among two-man combinations (minimum 200 minutes together): Capela and House. The Rockets have outscored their opponents by 13.7 points per 100 possessions in 228 minutes with the pair on the floor together.
ROCKETS NOTES – INDIVIDUAL
- Clint Capela ranks second in the league with 13.4 points per game scored in the restricted area.
- Eric Gordon has an effective field goal percentage of 46.9 percent, down from a career-high 54 percent last season. That’s the fourth-biggest drop among 114 players with at least 300 field goal attempts in both seasons.
- Gerald Green has taken 81 percent of his shots from 3-point range, the highest rate among 211 players with at least 200 field goal attempts. P.J. Tucker (72 percent) has the second-highest rate. Capela, meanwhile, is one of only five players with at least 200 field goal attempts and no 3-point attempts.
- James Harden leads the league in scoring at 33.3 points per game. He leads the league in field goal attempts (21.8), 3-point attempts (11.9) and free throw attempts (11.1) per game. He also ranks in the top five in assists (8.4 per game) and steals (2.1 per game)
- According to Synergy play-type tracking, Harden has isolated on 46 percent of his possessions, the league’s highest rate by a wide margin (Chris Paul ranks second at 31 percent) and up from 35 percent last season. Harden has scored 1.12 points per possession on isolations, the fourth best mark among 52 players with at least 50 total isolation possessions and down from 1.22 last season.
- If he were to play the rest of the Rockets’ games, Harden is on pace to make 363 3-pointers (second most in NBA history) and 742 free throws (ninth most in NBA history).
- Harden has 114 assists to Capela. That’s the most from any player to a single teammate this season.
- Paul has been assisted on just 11.7 percent of his baskets, the lowest rate among 194 players with at least 100 made field goals. Harden has the second lowest rate (13.2 percent) among that same group, while Tucker (93.0 percent) has the highest rate.
- Tucker leads the league with 56 corner 3-pointers, 21 more than any other player (Danny Green and Justin Holiday are tied for second with 35). Tucker leads the league in both left corner threes (20) and right corner threes (36).
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