The Rockets had a historic offense in Mike D’Antoni’s first season as head coach. With James Harden making the move from shooting guard to point guard, the Rockets attempted 40.3 3-pointers per game and made 35.7 percent of those opportunities. They became the second team in NBA history to make 1,000 3-pointers in a single season in the process, all the while finishing at the bottom of the league in midrange attempts by a large margin.
While it seemed as though the Rockets had pushed the limits of Moreyball, they’ve taken it a step further this season. They are once again leading the NBA in 3-point attempts, this time with 43.2 per game. They are making 36.8 percent of those attempts, meaning they are good for 15.9 3-pointers per game. And they are taking even fewer midrange shots, going from 7.1 attempts per game last season to 5.6 attempts per game this season. The end result is the most efficient offense in the NBA with an offensive rating of 113.8.
After the Rockets took a season-high 57 3-pointers against the Hornets on Oct. 27, D’Antoni perfectly encapsulated Houston’s offensive strategy by saying, “I don’t know why we didn’t shoot 60.”
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The Rockets were actually close to reaching those numbers last season. According to NBA.com, they would’ve attempted 41.3 3-pointers per game if Harden was able to play every minute of every game. Because he couldn’t, the Rockets had to deal with someone else running their offense for the quarter he spent on the bench. In addition to being significantly less dominant offensively in those minutes, a higher percentage of their points were made up of unassisted 2-pointers and a lower percentage of their shot attempts were 3-pointers.
The difference this season is they have Chris Paul, a nine-time All-Star who shares the floor with Harden for about 20 minutes per game and then takes over as the primary creator for almost a quarter’s worth of minutes when Harden is on the bench. The combination means the Rockets can have one of the best point guards in the league running their offense at all times, seeing as Harden returns the favor by playing 14.7 minutes per game with Paul on the bench, and it’s helping them reach peak Moreyball.
The Rockets have practically turned Paul into Harden 2.0. Whereas 46.4 percent of his shot attempts were composed of 2-point pull-ups last season, they only represent 28.7 percent of his shot attempts this season. Paul makes up for that difference with more shots at the rim and more pull-up 3-pointers, giving him a similar shot distribution as Harden. Paul also likes to create those shots for himself in similar ways. The bulk of his offense comes from pick-and-rolls, but he’s one of the league leaders in isolation scoring this season, doing so at a rate of 1.36 points per possession. It gives him the tools to fill in perfectly for Harden as a go-to scorer.
The best way to think about it is Paul starts the game in Patrick Beverley’s role and takes over Harden’s role when he becomes the primary ballhandler. It explains why his usage rate jumps from a Gary Harris-like 20.1 percent when sharing the floor with Harden to a LeBron James-like 30.2 percent when Harden is on the bench. It gives Paul more opportunities to run pick-and-rolls and attack mismatches in volume much like he did when he was with the Clippers.
As he has proven time and time again in his career, Paul can create scoring opportunities for himself as well as anyone in the league. Almost all of his baskets without Harden on the floor this season have been unassisted, which is made all the more impressive by Paul shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from the perimeter in those situations. He can score at all three levels, and he’s having a career year around the basket.
Paul is equally capable of finding open teammates when the defense collapses. He’s averaging 19.2 assists per 100 possessions and 4.7 turnovers per 100 possessions this season when Harden is on the bench.
The benefit of playing in D’Antoni’s system is Paul is always surrounded by 3-point shooters who know where to position themselves and an athletic roll man who can finish above the rim. It makes his life easier as a facilitator because it simplifies his options. Either someone is open on the perimeter for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer when the defense begins to rotate . . .
. . . or a 7-footer is rolling to the basket for an uncontested dunk:
It becomes much clearer when looking at the location of Paul’s assists. According to NBA.com, 71.7 percent of his assists in a Clippers uniform ended in 2-pointers and 28.3 percent ended in 3-pointers. As a member of the Rockets, those figures stand at 41.0 percent and 59.0 percent, respectively. Even the type of shots his 2-point assists have created is different. All but eight of those assists with the Rockets this season have ended in layups and dunks, which wasn’t the case when Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan were on the receiving end of nearly three-quarters of his assists.
The Rockets survived when Harden wasn’t on the court last season, but they’re an entirely different monster this season. Since Paul returned from injury on Nov. 16, they’re outscoring opponents by 13.7 points per 100 possessions with both of them on the court. With Harden on the court and Paul on the bench, they’re outscoring opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions. With Paul on the court and Harden on the bench, they’re outscoring opponents by 36.0 points per 100 possessions.
They’re basically blowing starting lineups out of the water together, then feasting on second units when one of them sits, and they’re only on the bench together for a couple of minutes per game, which is usually when the game is way out of reach.
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The first part is somewhat surprising seeing as there were questions heading into the season about how Harden and Paul would complement each other on the court. Both have always been at their best with the ball in their hands, and Paul in particular hadn’t had much experience playing off ball.
The second part, however, isn’t surprising at all. Harden and Paul have always been dominant scorers and facilitators out of the pick-and-roll, and they’re now both getting an opportunity to spread their wings in a system that plays perfectly to their strengths.