While the Houston Rockets have been a great offensive team for years, there’s been one glaring problem that got even worse this season.
It should come as no surprise, but the Houston Rockets have finished in the top two in offensive rating every season since Mike D’Antoni took over as head coach in 2016-17. At 113.8 points per 100 possessions, the Rockets were on pace to finish second this season before play was suspended on March 11th.
Coach D’Antoni certainly deserves credit for being able to sustain such an offensively excellent team no matter the makeup of the roster. His admirable handling of stars like Chris Paul, James Harden and now Russell Westbrook has led to him having a winning percentage of 68.7 over his tenure with the Rockets, winning 213 out of 310 coached games.
Still, whether it be due to unfortunate circumstances like CP3’s untimely playoff injury or poor shooting when it matters, the Rockets have been unable to make it to the NBA Finals when they should have. Being in the bottom three of a major statistical category, however, has to also play a part in why Houston might not be having the success they should be having.
Over the last two seasons and through 64 games of this one, the Rockets have been in the bottom five in the league in assists per game.
2017-18: 21.5 AST (26th) 2018-19: 21.2 AST (28th) 2019-20: 21.5 AST (29th)
While H-Town has actually slightly increased their assists per game over last season, the league average also increased, so they’re ahead of only the Portland Trail Blazers when it comes to assisted buckets.
So, why are the Rockets so bad at tallying assists?
Next: Why is this Happening?
What’s Causing This Recurring Issue?
Fans have heard it a million times, but once again the phrase “live by the three, die by the three” applies immensely to a situation surrounding the Houston Rockets.
The fact of the matter is, with the team being so heavily reliant on outside shooting, they simply must be near the top of the league in 3-point shooting percentage to make up for their lack of easy buckets.
For the most part, assists are generated from ball movement that leads to the easiest possible shot. The Rockets do that just fine, but the fact that those open shots are farther away from the basket leaves less of a margin for error.
Last season, the Rockets were 24th in the league in field goal percentage and 12th in 3-point percentage. The season before that? 15th and 13th. This season, Houston is 22nd in overall shooting and 23rd in shooting from beyond the arc.
While there have been seasons where the Rockets have been guilty of standing around too much and watching Harden go iso, the over-arching problem has been their inconsistent shooting.
With how many close games Houston always seems to be involved in, you have to wonder how much better they would be faring this season if they were shooting even a slightly higher percentage from deep, like 37 or 38 percent as opposed to their current 34.8.
Next: How can the Rockets fix this?
So, How Can the Rockets Fix This?
When the Rockets traded away their starting center for Robert Covington, they made a clear statement that they were going all-in on small ball based on quickness and outside shooting.
They already have two of the best playmakers in the league in Harden and Westbrook. Each of them has led the league in assists over the course of a full season, with Harden doing so in 2016-17 and Russ doing so the following two seasons.
They also have a plethora of outside shooters, but many of them are having subpar-to-horrible shooting seasons from distance, which is the biggest contributing factor to the team’s assist woes.
While the Rockets shoot the most threes in the league by far, they don’t even have a top-35 outside shooter in terms of accuracy. Ben McLemore‘s 39.5 percent has him tied at 36th in the league while P.J. Tucker has the next Rocket spot at 37 percent (79th).
Even though the team is scoring at a high rate, they’re still leaving too many points on the board that they could otherwise be converting if they stepped in for mid-range shots or took the ball to the rack.
It doesn’t appear to me that D’Antoni is going to suddenly change the Rockets’ plan of attack in favor of mixing in more mid-range shots, drives or even post-up plays, even though that would be the best solution.
Given that, it sounds like a broken record, but for this team to go far, they have to knock down their threes. Doing so would naturally raise the team’s assist numbers, creating a more dynamic offense that would be unstoppable.