One Team, Three Stats: Rockets launch from deep at a record rate

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

With a coaching change and an influx of talent, the Houston Rockets have been the league’s most improved team, 6.6 points per 100 possessions better than they were last season.

The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are still the class of the Western Conference, but after a season of mediocrity, the Rockets have put themselves back among the league’s elite teams. With an offense that’s near impossible to stop, they’re on pace for a franchise record in wins and have candidates for MVP, Coach of the Year, and Sixth Man of the Year.

The Basics – Houston Rockets (32-12)

Pace: 101.3 (4th)

OffRtg: 112.1 (3rd)

DefRtg: 105.7 (18th)

NetRtg: +6.4 (4th)

Rockets links: Team stats | Player stats | Player shooting | Lineups

With Tuesday’s loss in Miami, the Rockets have lost three out of four games for the first time this season. But they still have a strong hold on third place in the West and, as they look to right the ship, they host the Milwaukee Bucks in the first game of ESPN’s Wednesday double-header (8 p.m. ET).

Here are a few numbers to know about the Rockets …

No. 1

The Rockets have taken 46 percent of their shots from 3-point range, the highest rate in NBA history.

It’s also the second highest rate in NBA history compared to the league average of that season. The only one higher was the 2002-03 Boston Celtics, who took 33.1 percent of their shots from 3-point range (because there were no fours) when the league average was just 18.2 percent. Celtics coach Jim O’Brien was ahead of his time.

And the Rockets are still way ahead of the league in regard to launching threes. Last summer’s coaching change has something to do with that. Mike D’Antoni has a history with high 3-point volume (see the bullet points below).

But this all started when the Rockets acquired James Harden in 2012 … sort of.

In the 2011-12 season, the Rockets took 24.0 percent of their shots from 3-point range, a mark just 1.4 percent higher than the league average. That number jumped to 34.9 percent (10.6 higher than the league average) in 2012-13, Harden’s first season with the team. But they traded for Harden after the preseason, in which they took 30 percent of their shots from 3-point range (the league’s fourth highest rate). So they were already getting a little three-happy in Kevin McHale’s second season on the bench.

Since then, the only team that has taken a higher percentage of its shots from 3-point range than the Rockets in a particular season was the 2012-13 New York Knicks, the best Knicks team of the last 17 years (in the season after D’Antoni was fired – go figure).

This season’s jump in 3PA/FGA (9.1 percent higher than last season) is the Rockets’ biggest increase since Harden’s first season (10.9 percent higher than the season prior). And the additional threes have mostly replaced inefficient 2-point shots. They’ve taken less than 20 percent of their shots between the restricted area and 3-point range, where they’re only getting 0.73 points per attempt.

The Rockets have seen a small decrease in the percentage of their shots that come from the restricted area. Those shots have been worth 1.31 points per attempt, more than the 1.11 they’re scoring on 3-pointers.

The Rockets have also seen the league’s second biggest decrease in free throw rate (FTA/FGA). The departure of Dwight Howard and reduction of intentional fouls (free throw rate has decrease league wide) have a lot to do with that. Harden has seen an increase in his free throw rate (from 0.52 to 0.56), but every other Rocket is getting to the line less often than he did (or than his ’15-16 counterpart did) last season.

Despite that, the Rockets have been the second most improved offensive team in the league, scoring 6.6 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season. They took the league’s eighth best offense and made it better by shooting a lot more threes. And maybe 46 percent of total shots coming from beyond the arc isn’t enough.

The Rockets’ prolific 3-point shooting has a few of their players set to make history …

Eric Gordon is on pace (if he were to play the final 38 games of the season) to make 291 3-pointers. If he were to reach that mark, it would be the second or third most in NBA history. Stephen Curry made 402 last season and is on pace for 312 this season (if he were to play the Warriors’ final 41 games). Currently, the second highest mark of all time is Curry’s 286 in 2014-15.

Trevor Ariza leads the league in corner 3s for the fourth straight season (a streak that started in Washington). He’s made 52, 18 more than any other player and is on pace for 97, which would be the fifth highest mark since 1996-97 (when shot locations were first tracked) and tie the Rockets’ record, set by Shane Battier in 2006-07. The league record for corner threes over the last 20 years (and probably all-time) is 103 by Joe Johnson in 2004-05 (with D’Antoni’s Suns).

James Harden has assisted Gordon on 49 of his 153 threes and 30 of Ariza’s 52 corner threes. Harden leads the league with 225 assists on 3-pointers (61 more than any other player), putting him on pace to record 419 assists on 3-pointers if he plays every game this season. We have numbers for assists on 3-pointers going back to ’96-97 as well, and the record since then is 284 by Steve Nash with those ’04-05 Suns (Nash’s first MVP season). Harden will likely put himself in the top 10 all-time (with at least 234) this week and break Nash’s record before the All-Star break.

No. 2

The Rockets have outscored their opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions with Harden off the floor.

That’s a pretty good number for time without your best player. If it were a team’s season-long number, that team would rank eighth in NetRtg, between the Cavs (plus-3.6) and the Celtics (plus-2.9).

But the no-Harden Rockets got off to a rough start this season. Through their first 11 games, the Rockets were outscored by 22.1 points per 100 possessions in 118 minutes with Harden off the floor. Their offense in those minutes was anemic, scoring less than 90 points per 100 possessions, even though Gordon (a starter at the time) played almost all (103) of those 118 minutes.

Then Patrick Beverley made his season debut on Nov. 17 and everything changed. Since then, the Rockets have been better with Harden off the floor (plus-10.7 points per 100 possessions) than with him on the floor (plus-6.9).

Some of those no-Harden minutes are garbage time, which has actually taken that off-court number down. In minutes that count, D’Antoni has had Beverley (who moved Gordon to the bench and has started ever game he’s played) on the court when Harden sits. And in 305 minutes with both Beverley and Gordon on the floor without Harden, the Rockets have outscored their opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions (107 points total).

Harden is the current favorite for the Most Valuable Player award. He ranks third in the league in scoring and first in assists per game. The Rockets are who they are because of him.

But the Rockets have also been really good with him on the bench. They build on leads instead of losing them, which keeps Harden fresher. He’s now playing his fewest minutes (36.6 per game) since he came to Houston. And how good the Rockets have been in the minutes with him off the floor is a big reason they went from 6-5 to 31-9 before their recent mini-slide.

Voters will take team record into account when making their decision on MVP. Even with the Rockets losing three of their last four, they’re 6 1/2 games ahead of Russell Westbrook’s Thunder, who have been outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook off the floor.

If Harden does win MVP, it may be the minutes that he sits that make the difference.

No. 3

The Rockets are one of six teams that has improved in three of the four factors of efficiency on defense.

The Rockets aren’t a great defensive team. They rank 18th in defensive efficiency (having allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions) and 15th in games against the league’s top 10 offenses (having allowed 109.6 in 12 games against the other nine).

But they have taken a step forward on that end of the floor this season. They’ve allowed 0.1 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season, but when you compare that to the league average (which has increased by 1.7 points per 100 possessions), it’s improvement. Only five teams have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season.

The Rockets have allowed a lower effective field goal percentage, are the second most improved defensive rebounding team, and have also seen a decrease in opponent free throw rate. They rank last in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area, but they’re allowing less of those shots than they did last season. And their opponents have had the third lowest effective field goal percentage from outside the paint.

With how potent their offense has been, the Rockets don’t need to be a top-five defensive team. They need to be better, but they could definitely be worse.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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