A Comprehensive Film Breakdown of the Houston Rockets' Offense
The Rockets’ offense currently has an offensive rating of 115.77, good enough for them to claim the third most efficient offense of this century, behind only this year’s Warriors and the 2010 Phoenix Suns. In Mike D’Antoni’s first year in Houston, he has maximized James Harden’s potential as a playmaker. Harden is averaging over 29 points per game & over 11 assists per game, both career highs, in MDA’s prolific offense. By running nearly every action through Harden in the high pick & roll, Houston has created an offensive juggernaut, ensuring a 50 win season and all but securing the 3 seed in the west.
Houston uses a variety of screeners to initiate its most common action: the Harden pick & roll.
Capela’s talent as a rim runner has been crucial to the Rockets’ success in the pick & roll. He’s shooting 63% from the field this year, good enough for third in the league.
Below, Harden takes the dribble handoff from Ariza that leads into a Harden/Capela pick & roll, wherein Harden drops the ball off for a Capela dunk.
Below, the Harden/Capela pick & roll forces LeBron to help off of Ryan Anderson in the weak side corner.
While LeBron is able to cut off the initial lane to Capela, Houston quickly whips the ball along the baseline to find Anderson for the open corner three.
Below, Wade decides to help off of Ariza after the Harden/Capela pick & roll.
Harden shows his ability as a passer, swinging the ball across his body to Ariza for the open three just as Wade begins to help off.
Nene has shown himself to be a quality on ball screener as well. While he doesn’t explode to the rim the same way the bouncier Capela does, he uses his strength to set physical screens, often forcing teams to switch smaller guards onto him.
Below, Nene sets a solid screen for Harden, forcing Thompson to switch onto Harden, before Harden makes a quick dribble move and explodes past Thompson to the rim.
Below, Nene again sets the on ball screen, this time for Lou Williams.
Thompson again switches onto the ball handler, allowing Williams room to make the bounce pass to Nene on the roll. Notice how much space Nene has to roll to the rim, as no defenders are able to help off of their assignments with the shooting threats they pose.
Ryan Anderson also poses a unique threat as the high screener for Harden. While, he’s not a threat rolling to the rim, his shooting ability draws his defender away from the paint, often creating space for other actions in the Rockets’ offense.
Below, Anderson sets the high screen for Harden.
Portis is unable to hedge effectively, as he is preoccupied with keeping up with Anderson on the perimeter. This forces Lopez to step towards Harden and stop the penetration, allowing Harden to throw the easy lob to Capela.
An interesting wrinkle in Houston’s high screen action is its use of Spain screens, named after its prevalent use by the Spanish National Team. A Spain screen involves a tradItional high screen & roll, however an additional screener will simultaneously set a pick on the high screener’s defender, as the high screener rolls to the rim.
Below, Nene sets the high screen for Harden as Gordon simultaneously sets the Spain screen on Plumlee.
Gordon’s Spain screen doesn’t allow Plumlee to help on the Harden/Nene high screen. This gives Harden a wide open lane to the rim for the finish.
Below, Gordon again sets the Spain screen as Harden & Harrell execute a high screen.
Gordon’s defender, Jordan Clarkson, decides to hedge the high screen, which may have been the Lakers’ defensive scheme. However, no defender rotates over from the weak side to pick up Eric Gordon. This creates and easy lane of penetration for the Rockets, who drive & kick to create an open rotation three.
Below, Lou Williams sets the Spain screen as Harden & Dekker execute a high screen.
Deron Williams sees Dekker cut towards the rim after the Lou Williams’ Spain screen and decides to help from the weak side. Harden recognizes this, and swings the ball to Gordon, who is open in the corner for the three.
One crucial element to Houston’s success with high screens is their ability to space the floor out past the three point line. Often times, opposing players are so preoccupied with their own assignment’s ability to shoot from 30 feet, that they are unable to help on any Harden high screens.
Below, Anderson spots up from the Smoothing King logo before taking a kick out three from a few feet behind the three point line.
Below, Gordon takes the dribble hand off from Pat Beverley before drilling the deep three.
Below, Houston runs a quick hitting action wherein Capela, Ariza & Beverley form a wall of screens past the three point line allowing Anderson to take a deep three from close to 30 feet out.
The sheer range of Houston’s shooters forces defenders to play their assignments tight on the perimeter, creating easy avenues to the rim for Houston’s ball handlers.
Below, Harden is able to get to the rim as no help comes from LeBron on the weak side, who has to stay at home against Ryan Anderson.
Shumpert probably should have helped off of Capela to stop the initial penetration. However, that would have opened up an easy lob to Capela from Harden. When the defense is unable to provide weak side help because of premiere shooting threats in the weak side corner, defensive schemes become much more difficult to implement.
Below, Lou Williams gets to the rim with ease, as no help comes from Nick Young or Brandon Ingram on the weak side.
SEVEN SECONDS OR LESS
Mike D’Antoni’s offense is often referred to as the Seven Seconds or Less offense, alluding to MDA’s preference of getting shots up quickly in the shot clock, or as the title says, within seven seconds or less. This is designed to give Houston as many shots as possible in transition, before the defense is able to get set.
Below, Harden finds Ariza in transition for the corner three 5 seconds into the shot clock.
Below, Harden finds Capela on the rim run 5 seconds into the shot clock.
Notice how this action doesn’t come from a turnover, but rather that this is simply the pace Houston has dedicated itself to offensively.
Below, Harden gets the hockey assist, as Anderson hits Beverley for the open three 6 seconds into the shot clock.
Below, Gordon gets to the rim, again in transition by design rather than off of a turnover, within 7 seconds of the shot clock.
Below, Lou Williams finds Dekker on the lob 6 seconds into the shot clock.
QUICK HITTING ACTIONS
In an effort to get shots up quickly, the Rockets often opt for quick hitters rather than slower, more methodical offensive sets. They have a variety of quick hitters, mostly involving two man actions, that they will run within the flow of transition.
The first quick hitter Houston uses are pin downs in transition.
Below, Capela sets the pin down for Ariza in transition, allowing Ariza to curl off, catching the ball and committing to the rim in one motion.
Below, Capela again sets the pin down for Ariza in transition. This time, Ariza kicks the ball out after penetrating the lane and relocates for the open rotation three.
The next quick hitting action Houston runs are transition pick & rolls. This is a common action ran by most NBA teams that prioritize pace; however, Houston may very well run this action more than any other team in the NBA.
Below, Capela sets the high screen for Harden in transition.
Ingram decides to help off of Ariza from the weak side corner to stop the Harden penetration. Harden makes the easy read finding Ariza in the corner for three.
Below, Nene sets the high screen for Harden in transition more than 30 feet from the rim.
Setting the screen this far out allows Harden to gain a full head of steam on his way to the basket.
Below, Nene again sets the high screen in transition for Harden.
This time, Nene slips the screen and gets to the basket for the easy finish.
Below, Anderson sets the quick hitting high screen for Harden before popping out to the three point line.
Harden takes advantage of the space created from the switch to hit the pull up three.
The last common quick hitter we see from Houston is a dribble handoff. Often the Houston guards will leak out in transition to the corners. If they don’t receive the ball for a rotation three in transition, the Houston ball handlers will perform a dribble handoff with the guards in the corner in an effort to create a quick look.
Below, Gordon leaks out to the corner in transition before Beverley heads towards that corner to execute a dribble handoff that allows Gordon to get to the rim.
Notice how Dekker clears the corner before the Beverley arrives allowing the action to take place.
Below, Harden and Gordon don’t technically execute a dribble hand off, but the action is effectively the same, as Gordon wraps around Harden to create space for the three.
While the actions I’m going to refer to here aren’t actually gimmicks in most NBA offensive schemes, I’m going to refer to them as such in regards to Houston’s offense because they’re such a rarity in Houston’s pick & roll centric system.
Below, Houston runs an elevator doors play for Eric Gordon as a quick hitter.
Dekker slips the screen and heads to the rim for the dunk. This was the only time in the stretch of film I watched for this analysis where I caught Houston running an elevator doors play this clearly.
Below, Houston runs a quasi triangle action for Anderson as a quick hitter, where Anderson curls off of a pin down and makes a move headed towards the rim.
My guess is that, by design, this is a more structured triangle action that would see Beverley use the Anderson screen for an option, but the looseness of Houston’s offense makes it hard to say for sure.
Below, Nene catches the ball in the pinch post for a textbook triangle action that involves a dribble handoff to Harden, forcing a mismatch and creating an easy finish.
Nene was the only Houston player I saw consistently operate in the pinch post in the stretch of film I watched, mostly catching the ball in that position off of in bounds plays.
James Harden’s career year coming directly after the arrival of Mike D’Antoni in Houston is no coincidence. MDA’s high pick & roll system centered on pace and spacing along with Harden’s elite talent as a ball handler and playmaker have created the perfect marriage of coach, system & superstar.