“Speeches, only reaches those
That already know about it
This is how we go about it, bout it” — Outkast, “Humble Mumble”
The Houston Rockets have the best record in the NBA and offer plenty of fantasy help. But can they sustain their success on the court and high-end box scores for fantasy teams?
There are plenty of doubters who believe for several reasons that the Rockets look good in the regular season but aren’t truly contenders.
One reason often cited is that previous teams coached by Mike D’Antoni were unable to win a championship, and thus his style of play isn’t conducive to championships. Another is that the Rockets don’t play defense, regardless of what the analytics say, and thus they can’t win if they aren’t shooting well.
It’s often said that the Rockets’ style of play is too heavily influenced by analytics and that analytics work only for teams that have Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. I’ve even heard people say that Curry and Thompson are at least as good as James Harden and Chris Paul and that Kevin Durant is better than all four of them, and thus the Rockets have no real chance to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs.
This whole line of thought, predicated on the notion that analytics are done only by people who don’t know the game and thus aren’t relevant to evaluating or building teams, reminds me of the Outkast lyrics above. Because some of the biggest personalities who cover the NBA don’t buy into analytics, there are many fans who don’t receive the messages that can be found in the numbers.
In this case, though, those not recognizing just how potent the Rockets are as legitimate championship contenders are missing the forest for the trees. Today, let’s dig a bit deeper and show (again, without egg-headedness) that the Rockets really are that good. That, even if the motivation and support behind their approach were heavily supported by numbers, the approach makes sense on the court. That the addition of Paul is a dynamic that has been under-reported because it makes everyone on the Rockets (individually and collectively) so much better, and it makes the team a championship favorite and the players fantasy feasts, even if Paul himself doesn’t reflect that impact with his box scores.
Let’s start there. Through his first 10 games as a Rocket, Paul is averaging 14.3 points (45.5 FG%, 88.5 FT%, 40.8 3-PT%) with 9.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.9 turnovers. His value in fantasy basketball is a bit depressed by his lower scoring volume, which was to be expected. However, he is rocking his lowest shooting percentage from the field of the past decade, and that mark will likely normalize or increase as the season goes along, such that his scoring-based roto numbers should improve.
Besides scoring, his other numbers are terrific as usual. His assists are right around his norm, despite dramatically less on-ball time playing next to Harden, and his passing efficiency is outrageous, with an assist-to-turnover rate well over five (one of the best single-season marks in history, if it holds up).
But Paul’s value to the Rockets goes beyond his fantasy implications because he completely changes both the potency and the robustness of the team offense while making a tangible contribution to the team defense. The Rockets team was built — yes, largely using analytics — around the concept of a central ball handler creating offense with four high-efficiency finishers around him at all times. Most of those finishers are spot-up 3-point shooters, but the center slot can also be manned by athletic bigs who can dive to the rim off the pick-and-roll.
Using this approach in the D’Antoni system, with a single gifted lead guard, can create an offense that is often oppressive to opponents because of how difficult it is to face the barrage of high efficiency — often 3-point shots — that is produced.
However, there are two primary weaknesses to this system. First, it can be difficult to find personnel who can fit the offensive requirements for the finishers while maintaining an adequate level of defense. Second, the load on the central offensive creator is amazingly high.
The former issue was often what was seen with the Steve Nash-era Phoenix Suns, as players such as Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and even good defenders used out of position (such as Shawn Marion) managed the offense but gave a lot of it back on defense. The latter has been the bigger issue in Houston, as Harden has carried an amazing offensive burden. However, he had to conserve his energy on defense (leading to a reputation as a laughably bad defender) and experienced some high-profile breakdown moments (such as the closeout game against the Spurs in last season’s playoffs, when he either had an off night or just couldn’t carry the load, and the entire Rockets team collapsed around him).
Paul essentially solves both of those issues in almost a “perfect storm” way. Paul is as good of a pure shooter from the point guard position as there is east of Curry, which makes him fully capable of being one of the “four finishers” around Harden. Paul is also as good of a defensive point guard as there is east of a healthy Patrick Beverley, which is a positive as well.
Most importantly, Paul’s ability to slide into that offensive creator slot for large periods of the game — which allows Harden to slide into one of those four finisher slots, create at a much higher efficiency and thus get the maximum contributions from the other finishers — is game-changing. It allows for 3-and-D defenders to be utilized and maximized to the fullest extent. It allows Harden to shed some of his overbearing load, be more robust and have more energy for defense and offense. It also gives the whole Rockets team redundancy in an outstanding way.
For example, the pick-and-roll/pop game is a huge aspect of what the Rockets do. The on-ball pick is essentially the staple of the Rockets’ half-court offense, as only the Jazz (2,545 picks, 27 games) and Raptors (2,117 picks, 24 games) run that action more than the Rockets (2,049 picks, 24 games).
(Side note: That information and the following pick analysis come courtesy of an outstanding video scouting software tool called Eagle, courtesy of Second Spectrum, which has already become my favorite toy).
NBA-wide, pick-and-roll/pop offense (which I’ll call pick-and-play moving forward) has resulted in 0.92 points per chance across 54,631 total picks (as of Dec. 10, 2017). If we look at some of the best perimeter players in the NBA, we see that:
LeBron James has produced 0.993 points/chance, using 614 total picks.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 0.877 points per chance, 242 picks
Ben Simmons: 0.834 points per chance, 637 picks
Kyrie Irving: 1.044 points per chance, 616 picks
Victor Oladipo: 1.023 points per chance, 509 picks
Russell Westbrook: 0.908 points per chance, 936 picks
John Wall: 0.981 points per chance, 500 picks
Stephen Curry: 1.134 points per chance, 564 picks
Kevin Durant: 1.011 points per chance, 186 picks
Damian Lillard: 0.956 points per chance, 935 picks
James Harden: 0.976 points per chance, 1,148 picks
Harden has run this action more than any of the other superstars listed, and on pick-and-plays, Harden was solidly more efficient than league average in points produced (by either a shot made by Harden or a pass that led to a made shot). Harden fit right in the middle of this elite pack in terms of efficiency, with Curry leading the way.
Now, let’s look at Paul: 1.162 points per chance, 341 picks (10 games)
Obviously, Paul has had fewer opportunities because he has played in only 10 games, but his per-game pick rate is higher than most on that elite list. His points produced per pick is the highest on that list, even higher than Curry’s. When Paul runs a pick-and-play with a teammate, he produces points for his team at a rate higher than that of the player commonly considered the most efficient point producer in the NBA. When Paul does so, he allows Harden to have a lower-energy offensive possession, which allows him to stay fresher to play a more complete game and stay fresher over the season. That’s a powerful weapon in helping take the Rockets to a new level.
It’s also powerful in fantasy circles because Paul is more of a distributor than a finisher, which means that a good chunk of this elite point production is coming via other players’ scoring. Sure enough, if we look at his screen partners, we find that when the screener is Clint Capela, the Rockets are producing 1.109 points per chance (125 picks). With Ryan Anderson, that mark is 1.2 points per chance (54 picks), and with PJ Tucker, it’s 1.421 points per chance (20 picks).
Thus, a lot of Paul’s excellence as a ball handler/creator in pick-and-play action is leading to easy, high-efficiency finishes for his teammates. This is improving the Rockets’ scoring volume and efficiency when playing with Paul, and when it comes to Anderson and Tucker, it is improving their 3-pointers made as well. Thus, the value of the Rockets’ finishers is higher when Paul is playing, and therefore, their fantasy value improves as well.
Bottom line: This is an example — one of many we could have chosen — that illustrates Paul’s common-sense impact on the Rockets’ team (and their fantasy prospects), utilizing a scheme that was influenced in development by analytics, with an obvious utility that can easily be demonstrated by analytics.
Because Paul can make Harden’s life easier and preserve his energy, Harden should be able to maintain his MVP-level pace over the course of the season and through the playoffs.
Because Paul offers redundancy that in some ways improves the system when run by Harden, the Rockets as a team have a more robust and reliable offense, even utilizing the dreaded long-range shooting.
Because Paul makes life easier for everyone who plays with him, the Rockets are a hotbed for some of the best fantasy production in the NBA.
You don’t have to be an egg-head yourself to receive this speech: The Rockets are legitimate contenders, you want to have them on your fantasy teams, and utilizing Paul in addition to Harden makes the Rockets dangerous in a way that no D’Antoni team has ever been.