On The Offensive

HOUSTON - Note to the reader: Today’s feature was originally meant to be a story about the philosophy and evolution of the Rockets’ read-and-react offense. But then I interviewed Houston assistant coach Chris Finch on the subject and his answers were so good and offered so much insight that I figured I might as well let his responses tell the tale. So if you’re interested in the reasons why the Rockets run this style of offense, find yourself curious about how Houston plans to incorporate Dwight Howard on that end of the floor, or just want to know how the team plans to improve upon its late-game execution, this piece promises to have something for you.

JCF: I hear the phrase “free-flowing offense” around here all the time. I’d like to start by asking you to describe precisely what that means with regard to the philosophical ideal of how you want to see this team run its offense.

CF:  It’s base a lot on unpredictability. We like the fact that we’re kind of hard to scout because we’re not running patterns, we’re not running football plays – and even football now is running the read-option which basically entails lining up in space, give your guys options and let them choose and create which is kind of what we’re doing.

Then the other component that goes with that is unselfishness because there’s lots of way to create opportunities for each other on the floor that are just using your own basketball intelligence and making quick decisions and then allowing guys to read off of that.

So it’s almost a domino thing where you make a decision, I make a decision, and someone behind me makes a decision based on what we’ve done.

JCF: That obviously places a huge emphasis on everyone being on the same page and being able to read the same things. To continue with your football analogy, it’s no different than a quarterback and receiver needing to see the same things when they’re making their pre-snap reads.

CF: Yeah, it takes a while. It takes a while to A.) Understand your options and what they are in any given situation, B.) To understand what’s probably best to do in that situation and, C.) Throwing in the component of knowing who your teammates are and what they do best and how you can best accentuate them so you can do something that helps them as well.

So it is a bit of a process that takes a while to unfold. But having said that, one of the things we love about our offense is that it allows players to gravitate to what they do best within our structure so they tend to look good as a result of it. Guys get in trouble when they try to do too much or play with too much freedom, thinking that they can eat everything at the buffet – that’s not the case. It’s not necessarily equal opportunity, it’s not every shot is open to everybody. We still try to define what we want from each guy within that structure.

JCF: To that end, I think there are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding how the offense works and is supposed to run. Last year, for example, some criticized the late-game offense because it had a tendency to get too iso-heavy and used that as an indictment of what happens when you don’t have an encyclopedic playbook to draw from when the game slows down as it so often does late in games or in the playoffs.

CF: I would counter this by saying that our late-game situation was the antithesis of our offense; it wasn’t a byproduct of our offense. We actually abandoned our offense too much to go to late-game isolation situations and you see what happens when you have players in isolation or in simple NBA sets where the defenses, which are at heightened intensity at that point in time, are locked-in on game plan and taking away what you do best: they’re forcing your best players into hard shots and then when you have other players who aren’t able to create their own offense the way a James Harden can, it becomes even tougher.

So the key for us this season is staying with that fluidity later, keeping that unpredictability as well as mixing in sets that emphasize Dwight’s touches, James’ touches, and whoever else has it going that we feel has a mismatch or is playing well in that game.

JCF: So what needs to happen in order for that to transpire? Is it just all about buy-in, comfort and confidence?

CF: I think we have great buy-in. I think our players have really bought in over the last year and a bit. By its nature it’s an unselfish offense. I think our players play unselfishly. Guys can still take a high volume amount of shots but that may be their role in our offense, but I don’t think they’re taking bad shots that hurt our offense.

The buy-in is there, I think it’s just a series of learning all the situations and seeing them. In our offense it’s really hard to be wrong – there’s a lot of times where you can be more right than others, and as long as you’re making quick decisions and whatever you decide to do you do it well so it has some effectiveness then we’re happy with that because we want the speed, we want the unpredictability and then we want the good execution in that moment.

So guys playing without that hesitation is probably the next step for us. Then after that it’s learning all the advanced options like how you can exploit a defense when they’re playing you a certain way, and different cuts and counters and things that we can do to take advantage of that. But we don’t try to over-orchestrate our offense because, when we do, I think that’s when we get in trouble.

JCF: Obviously this applies to any offense, strategy or scheme, but having some core pieces back from the year before has to leave you feeling much better about this team’s grasp of the offensive principles you’re trying to instill.

CF: Yeah, so last year we had new philosophy, new players, and then at the very last moment before the season starts you plop in a high usage guy like James, who you want to give a huge role to in the offense without having to disrupt everything we just built, so that took a while. It’s like when you drop a rock in a small pond you get a big splash and that’s exactly what happened. So this year we have a foundation of guys and I think we’ll be able to get to the next level of offense that we were never able to get to with just more intricacies and reads and little actions that we can encourage.

Now we have Dwight and that’s another big rock we’re dropping in. The ripples there are learning to play with a guy who can really score in the post, be a presence in the post. We have so much emphasis on our perimeter, our quick decision making, attacking off the dribble and all that kind of stuff, but we’ve got to give time for our post play to develop. We have basically a dozen different ways to get the ball inside within the flow of our offense, and we’re hitting our guards daily with the message that we can do this two ways: we can slow the game down, call a ton of plays and get Dwight his touches, or you guys can figure out how to get him involved in the flow. And to a man they all want to get it to him in the flow because that’s how we’re so used to playing. So now we’ve got to get Dwight comfortable with that, too; understanding the things that he can do, and that A leads to B, B leads to C, and then C means he gets the ball. So the decisions he makes out there for other people will influence how and where he can get the ball.

JCF: Is there an equilibrium you’re trying to achieve based on the heavy emphasis on pushing the pace after every miss and playing up-tempo versus allowing enough time on offense for the post game to breathe and develop?

CF: Our principles of playing fast, playing with great space and taking the right shots – those aren’t changing. So whether it be ‘O’ (Asik) or Dwight or D-Mo, or Terrence [Jones] or anybody who plays for us at the five – and particularly if the two bigs play together – they’ve got to run. If Dwight runs and is committed to running, then we’re committed to getting him the ball early.

It’s not something that we overemphasized last year. ‘O,’ oftentimes because he rebounded the ball, he trailed a lot. But if ‘O’ is going to be rebounding, then Dwight should be able to get out a little bit more and vice versa. So those guys need to get down there so we can get them in early post-up situations. They can get four, five, six touches a game just in the flow of the offense before the defense settles, and the benefit of that is not only unpredictability, but the defense can’t set up, they can’t force them off the post, they can’t come with organized traps and doubles and all kinds of other pressure in an attempt to bother Dwight or ‘O’ in those kinds of situations.

So there’s a way where we can take our principles and benefit from it if those guys are willing. That buy-in I think is there, we just need to get Dwight accustomed to playing with our pace and then making an emphasis to find him when he does.

JCF: This a team that ranked 6th in offensive efficiency last year so obviously we’re talking about attempting to improve upon what’s already an area of strength. Putting points on the board is not an issue. The biggest area for offensive improvement seems to lie in those late-game situations.

CF: We’ve got to become a better late-game team, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve got to have better execution there, stay with our flow a little bit longer. I think we’ve got to get James on the move and in more creative situations rather than just handing him the ball and expecting him to make a play all the time – that gets hard for anybody, even superstars. Then we obviously have Dwight as well to include in what we’re doing in late-game situations.

JCF: When you’re talking about finding more creative ways to give James the ball it brings to mind Miami and how the Heat had to evolve with regard to giving LeBron and D-Wade time to master the art of playing off the ball after they’d spent their entire careers playing with the ball in their hands.

CF: Absolutely. That’s a great example because when they lost to Dallas in the Finals everything that LeBron did late was stagnant and in front of five defenders. Just in general they’ve massaged their offense so that it’s far more fluid now. Now you have LeBron coming off a screen or an action where he’s on the move and has an angle on somebody, he gets his shoulder by him and it’s over. James [Harden] has the same creativity and capability and strength – he’s so strong and quick. We need to run some more counter action and stuff like that.

I think also that he’s so good at passing we can use him as a catalyst to create shots for other people. Chandler [Parsons] has made a ton of big shots for us in the fourth quarter and if we can get James to collapse the defense and create the ball movement that we like then all of a sudden everybody out there is a threat to make a shot – that is the very nature of our offense: unpredictability and unselfishness.