NBA Free Agency Diary: The Rockets Don’t Have Superstar FOMO Anymore

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Dear NBA Diary,

Time for a do-over. On Thursday morning, I wrote that the Houston Rockets would be just fine running things back with their existing core of James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela and company, despite the narrative that they were falling behind in the Western Conference’s superstar arms race.

Then Thursday night happened. Daryl Morey and the Rockets offered up what feels like the millionth earth-shattering transaction of the NBA summer by dealing Paul to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. Just like that, Houston had created an entirely new star combo in Harden and Westbrook — and we needed a new breakdown of their full-strength CARMELO rating:

Whoaaaa, look at this Rockets team now

Projected full-strength regular-season depth chart for the 2019-20 Houston Rockets, based on CARMELO plus/minus ratings

EXPECTED MINUTES PER GAME PLAYER RATING
PLAYER PG SG SF PF C TOTAL OFF. +/- DEF. +/- TOT. +/-
James Harden 8 25 4 0 0 37 +7.4 +0.9 +8.3
Russell Westbrook 31 5 0 0 0 36 +3.5 +0.5 +3.9
Clint Capela 0 0 0 2 29 31 -0.3 +2.3 +2.0
Eric Gordon 0 3 26 0 0 29 +1.1 -1.2 -0.1
PJ Tucker 0 0 3 25 0 28 -1.2 +1.1 -0.1
Austin Rivers 9 12 5 0 0 26 +0.1 -1.3 -1.2
Gerald Green 0 0 9 8 0 17 -0.7 -1.9 -2.6
Tyson Chandler 0 0 0 0 15 15 -2.9 +2.1 -0.9
Danuel House Jr. 0 3 1 10 0 14 +0.0 -0.4 -0.5
Deyonta Davis 0 0 0 1 4 5 -1.7 +1.0 -0.7
Isaiah Hartenstein 0 0 0 2 0 2 -1.7 +1.4 -0.3
Gary Clark 0 0 0 0 0 0 -1.9 -0.4 -2.3
Chris Chiozza 0 0 0 0 0 0 -0.9 -1.6 -2.5
Michael Frazier 0 0 0 0 0 0 -1.6 -1.3 -2.9
Trevon Duval 0 0 0 0 0 0 -2.5 -1.4 -3.9
Chris Clemons 0 0 0 0 0 0 -0.7 -1.0 -1.7
Team total 240 +6.8 +1.8 +8.4
Expected record: 58-24
CARMELO team rating: 1716

In the short term, this deal improves what was already a surprisingly strong-looking Rockets roster. Houston’s CARMELO rating was 1693 (good for a 56-win projection and a 19 percent championship probability) before the trade; now, that rating is 1716, to go with 58 projected wins and a 25 percent chance of winning the title. Morey paid two first-round picks (and two pick swaps) to make those marginal gains, but in a 2019-20 season that looks wide-open, every little bit could make all the difference.

Certainly, Westbrook (age 30) is younger than Paul (34) and projects to be better over the next few seasons, according to CARMELO’s wins above replacement metric, though he is coming off a worse season in 2018-19:

There are still plenty of questions about how the members of Houston’s new star pairing will coexist with each other. And the trade feels at least in part like a deal done just so the Rockets can say they made a big offseason splash on par with the West’s other heavy hitters. But it certainly further bolsters Houston’s case as the favorite in a loaded Western Conference.

UPDATE (July 12, 2019, 2:40 p.m.): This diary entry has been updated to reflect the signing of Tyson Chandler. Houston’s Elo didn’t change.

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PJ Tucker Does More For The Rockets By Doing Less. A Lot Less.

Creative shot makers and flashy passers are the easiest players to appreciate as fans. Less obvious are the role players who contribute to winning even when they don’t have the ball — and few such role players have had a bigger impact than Houston’s PJ Tucker.

There isn’t a formal definition for what constitutes a role player, but role players do have some defining characteristics. For instance, think of the relationship between a player’s minutes per game and his usage rate, which is the share of a team’s plays used by a player while he is on the court. Star players — your LeBron Jameses and Steph Currys of the league — log heavy minutes and have high usage rates. Role players may also log heavy minutes but tend to be comparatively less involved on offense.

Below is a scatter chart that shows the relationship between usage rate and minutes played per game. The relationship is flat for players who see fewer than 20 minutes per game, but there is a strong, positive relationship among starter- and rotation-level players. After all, if you weren’t producing on the offensive end, you wouldn’t be worth playing for long stretches of time. Unless you’re Tucker.

No one in the NBA this season logged more minutes while doing less on offense. Tucker is the first player since Shane Battier in 2008-09 to post a usage rate of less than 10 percent while also playing at least 30 minutes a game. In Game 1 of the Rockets’ series against Golden State, the Rockets were +9 in net points with Tucker on the court even though he scored no points and took only four shots while logging 39 minutes — the same time spent on the floor as James Harden.

Tucker ranks near the bottom in passes made per game and touches per game, and on average he had the ball in his hand for the shortest amount of time per possession of anyone who played at least 30 minutes per game this season. On offense, Tucker’s role is to stand in the corner and wait for a teammate to pass him the ball so that he can shoot an open three, which is the point of Houston’s spread-out, isolation-heavy offense.

So why can Tucker stay on the court for as long he does without doing much on offense? Two reasons.

First, Harden had the highest usage rate in the NBA during the regular season, and Harden and Tucker are on the court together more than any other two-man combination for the Rockets.3 Since usage rate is a zero-sum game among the five players on the floor, any increase in Tucker’s usage would come at the expense of Harden’s.

Second, Tucker’s defense is vital to the Rockets. While he might not be widely known as an elite defensive stopper, he has the profile of one. Five of the seven players he guarded most often during the regular season were Paul George, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nobody matches up with those guys that often unless he’s built for it.

Only nine players since the 1977-78 season have played at least 30 minutes a game while using less than 10 percent of their teams’ plays. The list is a who’s who of the best defensive specialists in NBA history, including Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Mark Eaton, Bruce Bowen and the aforementioned Battier. Most of those guys went on to win defensive player of the year, earn All-NBA honors or play a critical role on a championship team. Meanwhile, Tucker has never made so much as an All-Defensive team.

Even though the casual fan might not recognize Tucker for his defensive prowess, his peers do. Earlier this year, DeMar DeRozan praised Tucker’s defensive intensity. “PJ is one of the most intense individual defenders on the defensive end,” he told The Athletic. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.”

The good news for Tucker is that he has the chance to raise his profile during the Rockets’ second-round matchup against the Warriors. The bad news is that he has to prove his mettle by trying to guard Durant.

During the regular season, Tucker matched up with Durant on 111 possessions and held him to shooting 48 percent from the field, a tick below Durant’s 52 percent season average. Durant scored 35 points during the Warriors’ Game 1 victory on Sunday, though only 13 of those points were scored while Tucker was guarding him. In reality, the only person that can stop Durant is Durant. But as long as Tucker doesn’t allow him to shoot over 60 percent from the field like he did when he was guarded by Patrick Beverley during the Warriors’ first-round series, the Rockets will have a chance to pull off the upset.

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One Way James Harden’s Scoring Streak Is More Impressive Than Wilt’s

Houston Rockets guard James Harden has been busy this season redefining just how much offense a single player can create. As we near the NBA All-Star break, Harden has scored at least 30 points in an absurd 30 consecutive games and counting, which, according to Basketball-Reference.com, is the second-longest streak in league history. Harden’s streak trails only Wilt Chamberlain’s 65-game run from the 1961-62 season — a season in which Wilt happened to set the NBA record by scoring 50.4 points per game. The way Harden has been filling up the scoresheet, Chamberlain comes up as a frequent comparison, continually amazing for those of us who never thought we’d get to see numbers like Wilt’s in today’s game. But what might be most remarkable about Harden is the way he’s different from Chamberlain — specifically, how his one-man show has changed his team’s offense.

A big reason that Chamberlain keeps popping up is that it’s difficult to find a modern analogue for what Harden is doing. Harden currently has a usage rate of 40.2 percent, meaning he has taken a shot (or turned the ball over) on roughly two out of every five Houston plays when he’s on the court. And when he isn’t trying to score himself, Harden has also assisted on 40.3 percent of teammate baskets. The only other qualified season in NBA history to break those 40/40 thresholds belonged to Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 — and Westbrook was much less efficient that season than Harden has been this year, averaging 6.8 fewer points per 100 possessions on plays he had a hand in ending.

To get a sense of just how far Harden is pushing the boundaries of productivity, here’s a breakdown of all qualified seasons since 1976-77 by possession rate1 versus offensive efficiency. (The outermost points up and to the right are the best combinations of workload and efficiency.)

With 118.6 points produced per 100 possessions on a possession rate of 40.5 percent, Harden is currently having the greatest high-usage offensive season in modern history. From a team perspective, those numbers mean that Houston is funneling nearly half of its possessions through a player who is personally averaging nearly 2 more points per 100 possessions than the league’s most efficient team (the Warriors, at 117.0). So in theory, this should be a very good thing for his team’s scoring rate, which in turn should lead to more and more wins.

And in Harden’s case, that appears to be true. Since Harden’s streak began, he is averaging 122 points per 100 possessions with a usage rate of 42.8 percent, both numbers up from the 114 and 37.3 percent marks he had before the streak, respectively. And over the same span, Houston’s teamwide offensive efficiency has zoomed up from 111.2 points per 100 before the streak (sixth-best in the NBA) to 116.9 (second-best) ever since, with his Rockets’ on/off-court offensive efficiency split (+5.8 points per 100) staying roughly the same before the streak and after. Houston is also 21-9 over the streak, after starting the season 12-14. Of course, the recent return of former All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who missed 18 games during Harden’s streak, has buoyed the Rockets as well — but in general it’s safe to say that Harden’s tear has had a very positive effect on Houston’s efficiency and overall record.

Why is that notable, though? Isn’t that simply the logical result of having a highly efficient player dominate his team’s possessions? You might think so, but in a dynamic sport such as basketball, things are often more complicated than they may appear. And the best example of this could be Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s career was unwittingly one of history’s most fascinating laboratories for basketball experimentation, in large part because he was the NBA’s most extreme statistical outlier ever. Wilt led the league in scoring in each of his first six seasons, with a staggering scoring average of 40.6 points per game over that span; he also led the league in field goal percentage in three of those campaigns, making 50.7 percent of his shots in total (at a time when the NBA average was around 42 percent). With such a high volume of efficient shots, you might expect that Wilt was like Harden, leading his teams to tremendously efficient offensive performances.

But you’d be wrong. Shockingly, Chamberlain’s Warriors struggled to even break league average in efficiency during his seasons with the club, despite the enormous amount of high-percentage scoring Chamberlain did by himself. It wasn’t until Chamberlain switched teams and started scoring less — passing to his teammates more — that his clubs began breaking offensive records.

To better understand the sometimes-counterintuitive effect a single scorer can have on his team’s offense, I reached out to Ben Taylor, author of the book “Thinking Basketball,” who was one of the first researchers to notice this phenomenon in Chamberlain’s numbers. “The arc of [Wilt’s] career is very, very unique,” he said. “Not only do some people consider him the best player ever precisely because of these raw stats, but he goes through many different coaches, they put him in many different situations, and specifically Alex Hannum comes along with this great idea — like, ‘Hey, Wilt, what if you just didn’t shoot that much anymore?’ — and he does this, and the team becomes incredible.”

Chamberlain’s 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons with Philadelphia present the most fascinating test case. According to Taylor’s research, Chamberlain’s own personal scoring attempts in 1966 were much more efficient (averaging about 1.09 points per possession) than those of his teammates when they tried to score (0.94), and the 76ers had a mediocre offense with Chamberlain scoring 33.5 points per game. If anything, that makes it sound like Chamberlain should have shot the ball even more — but instead, Hannum persuaded Chamberlain to spread the ball around the following season. His teammates, basically the same cast of characters, averaged more points per attempt (1.01) on more shots per game, while Wilt himself was far more efficient (1.27 points per attempt!) when scoring “only” 24.1 points per game. The result was a championship for Philadelphia and one of history’s greatest offenses.

Chamberlain’s less-is-more experience is indicative of other one-man shows from throughout NBA history, Taylor said. “You can see it with other high-usage players in a modern setting. I think the classic examples are 1987 [Michael] Jordan, 2006 Kobe [Bryant], guys like that — they’re doing a similar thing, and again you don’t have anywhere near a top-shelf offense.”

But Harden has been able to break that mold by playing differently than other one-man offenses from the past. “Harden’s not the best example of one of these high-usage all time scorers,” Taylor said. “He’s a little weird in that he’s more like Steve Nash — he’s passing and dominating the offense to also set up teammates, and so you have a huge ‘creation’ player. … The stark difference between [Harden and Wilt] is that Wilt, when he was scoring, was more like a black hole, and Harden is just running everything.”

The idea that Harden is what Taylor called a “Scoring Nash” is eye-opening. Playing in a similar (if not exactly identical) system to the one Nash orchestrated for four years under coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden has evolved the role of distributor to include an even greater level of player choice. If one of Nash’s great strengths was drawing defensive attention as a means of setting others up for easy shots, Harden can also use the threat of the pass as a means of giving himself more space to shoot. As a result, Harden has an “offensive load” — Taylor’s metric for measuring direct involvement via scoring or passing within an offense — of 66 percent, compared with Nash’s single-season high of 51 percent under D’Antoni in 2007.

Pass-heavy initiators like Harden don’t always elevate otherwise mediocre offenses to greatness. For instance, Westbrook — who in 2017 set the NBA record for single-season usage rate (just ahead of Harden’s rate this year) — was the centerpiece of a barely average scoring attack that year, despite his record offensive load of 74 percent. But a disproportionate share of history’s greatest offenses were led by players such as Harden, Nash, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and even Golden State’s Stephen Curry — players who stretched defenses into oblivion with the interplay between their passing and scoring.

That’s why Harden’s admittedly impressive scoring streak is only one part of the puzzle that has helped vault the Rockets back near the top of the Western Conference’s contender list. By playing more like the Chamberlain of 1967 than 1962, Harden isn’t just helping the team with his own statistics — he’s also making the players around him better.

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Nearly Every Team Is Playing Like The Rockets. And That’s Hurting The Rockets.

Winners of five straight games, the Houston Rockets nudged their record back up to their season-high mark of two games over .500 (16-14) with a blowout win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night, during which they set an NBA record by making 26 3-pointers. Despite this hot streak, however, it’s still fair to say that the Rockets have not performed as expected thus far this season. When searching for reasons why that might be the case, the focus has often been on their inability to replicate last season’s switch-happy defense or the early-season injuries and suspensions they had to weather or their general offensive malaise. (If ranking fifth in offensive efficiency can be described as a malaise.) But the root of Houston’s issues may actually just be that the rest of the league is increasingly subscribing to Houston’s core beliefs, which has eaten into the team’s math advantage.

To fully understand what that means and how that’s happened, we need to back up a bit. Daryl Morey has been the general manager of the Rockets since 2007, but it wasn’t until the 2012-13 season that the purest form of Morey’s basketball philosophies truly began to shine through on the floor.

Coming off three consecutive non-playoff seasons and having just traded for James Harden, the Rockets re-engineered their offense to play not only to their new star’s strengths, but also to The Math. It was during that season that the Rockets began their maniacal pursuit of the most efficient shot on every single possession, turning their collective backs on years of NBA tradition by eschewing the lost art of the mid-range jumper whenever possible in favor of attempts either at the rim or behind the three-point line.

It’s easy to see the benefits of that offensive strategy now — six years after the Rockets took it to what then seemed like its logical extreme — but at the time, it was not yet really accepted that this was a healthy way to construct an offense. Not everybody believed in The Math. The Rockets did, however, and they did to a degree that was then unheard of in league history.

During that 2012-13 campaign, the Rockets attempted 73.6 percent of their shots from either the restricted area or three-point range, per NBA.com. (For the balance of this piece, we’ll refer to this percentage as a team’s “Moreyball Rate,” in keeping with certain segments of the basketball analytics community.) The next closest team was the Denver Nuggets at 67.4 percent, while the average NBA team had a Moreyball Rate of 57.1 percent.

By attempting so many more of their shots from the most efficient areas of the floor than any other team, the Rockets created for themselves a healthy math advantage. Through shot selection alone, they essentially began each game with a small lead that their opponents needed to erase in addition to out-scoring them over the course of 48 minutes in order to win the game.

For the next three seasons under Kevin McHale, however, the Rockets’ Moreyball Rate stayed fairly stagnant. They still led the NBA in Moreyball Rate during each of those seasons, but they did so with rates that hovered between 72.6 and 73.8 percent. At the same time, the league average Moreyball Rate crept upward, eating into the Rockets’ math advantage and, by extension, that small de facto lead with which they began every game.

This is perhaps best exemplified by scaling their Moreyball Rate against the league average. Fans familiar with baseball statistics like OPS+ will recognize this formula: The NBA average Moreyball Rate is given a score of 100, while a team whose Moreyball Rate is 10 percent better than league average receives a Morey+ score of 110, and a team whose Moreyball Rate is 10 percent worse than league average receives a Morey+ score of 90. So, in a world where the league average Moreyball Rate is 50 percent, a team with a 55 percent Moreyball Rate has a Morey+ of 110, while a team with a 45 percent Moreyball Rate has a Morey+ of 90.

Using the same formula, we can calculate that during the 2012-13 season when the Rockets had a Moreyball Rate of 73.6 percent against a league average of 57.1 percent, they had a Morey+ of 129.1, meaning they attempted shots in the restricted area or from three-point territory at a rate 29.1 percent higher than that of the average NBA team. That is a ridiculously high mark. But it was also essentially the high-water mark for the McHale-era Rockets, whose Morey+ plummeted over the next few seasons, though not through any offensive fault of their own.

At the same time the Rockets’ math advantage on offense was shrinking, the same thing was happening on the defensive end of the court. During that 2012-13 campaign, the Rockets did an excellent job of limiting their opponents’ attempts from the Moreyball areas of the floor. Slowly but surely, however, they ended up yielding better and better shots, and their opponents’ Moreyball Rate crept upward at an even faster rate than the league average.

The decline of the Rockets’ math advantage during that time looks even starker when pitting their offense and defense against each other. At the same time as they were shooting 29.1 percent more often from Moreyball areas than the average team in 2012-13, they were forcing opponents to shoot from those areas 3.2 percent less often than the average squad. Add those two numbers up, and the Rockets had a Moreyball Advantage of 32.2 points during that season. By the time they got to the 2015-16 campaign, however, their Moreyball Advantage had been cut by more than half (to 13.8 points).

During those four years, the Rockets were the only team to have a Moreyball Rate above 68.8 percent, but the average team still gained steadily gained on them, and their ability to prevent their own opponents from getting to Moreyball areas declined as well. And it was then that Morey decided to hire Mike D’Antoni. Because if the Rockets couldn’t stop the rest of the league from following their lead in following The Math, then the next-best option was for them to take The Math to new heights.

In D’Antoni’s first season, the Rockets had a Moreyball Rate of 81.8 percent, blasting the previous league highs they’d set over the prior few seasons. That 81.8 percent figure was, obviously, the highest in the NBA by far, making it the fifth consecutive season during which the Rockets led the league. Crucially, that rate bumped their Morey+ all the way back up to 128.8 — almost all the way back to where it was during that 2012-13 campaign, when the Rockets first began truly orienting their offense around The Math.

Morey+ score* for the Houston Rockets

Season Morey+ score
2012-13 129.1
2013-14 124.8
2014-15 125.3
2015-16 120.1
2016-17 128.8
2017-18 126.1
2018-19 119.8

* A rating where 100 equals the NBA average and every point above or below 100 equals a one percent change (up or down).

During that 2016-17 season, though, five other teams exceeded the Moreyball Rate of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who had the highest non-Rockets Moreyball Rate of any team from 2012 through 2016. That incredible jump from one-sixth of the league foreshadowed what has happened since: The league’s Moreyball Rate has been rising far faster than it did during the McHale years, meaning that the Rockets’ math advantage is once again shrinking, through no fault of their own offensive priorities.

While the average Moreyball Rate jumped only 3.7 percentage points from 2012 (58.1 percent) through 2016 (60.8 percent), it has rocketed (pun very much intended) all the way up to 68.3 percent in 2019. That’s a jump of 7.5 percentage points in just three seasons, compared with the four it took to erase a smaller advantage for the previous incarnation of the Rockets. And at the same time that the NBA’s average Moreyball Rate has shot through the roof, the Rockets themselves have once again stalled out. They appear to have hit a ceiling in terms of how many of their shots can really be taken from the most efficient areas of the floor.

Houston’s sky-high Moreyball Rates during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons helped them to two of the most efficient offensive seasons in NBA history. During that 2016-17 campaign, the Rockets registered the 10th-best offensive efficiency in NBA history, per Basketball-Reference. During the 2017-18 season, they posted the 11th-best offensive efficiency in history. And during both seasons, the Rockets led the NBA in Moreyball Rate by a healthy margin, even while the league as a whole was catching up.

This year, however, they don’t even lead the league in Moreyball Rate, marking the first time since the 2011-12 campaign that they’ve fallen out of first place. (They’ve been passed by Mike Budenholzer’s Milwaukee Bucks, who are at 82.6 percent, the highest figure that can be gleaned from the shot location data in NBA.com’s database, which reaches back to the 1996-97 season.) Amazingly, Houston’s Morey+ this season has already dropped below where it was during the 2015-16 season that inspired Morey to bring in D’Antoni in the first place. And even while they’ve cleaned up their defense a bit these past two years, the rate at which leaguewide Moreyball Rates are spiking has left their Moreyball Advantage at the lowest point it’s been in years.

It seems unlikely that other NBA teams will simply stop pursuing shots from the Moreyball areas of the floor, so the league average will presumably continue to rise — if not necessarily at quite the rate it has these past few years. And with the Rockets having seemingly maxed out their own Moreyball Rates in the low 80s, it looks like the best way for them to regain the sky-high Moreyball Advantage they had in the early 2010s is by engineering their defense so that opponents simply can’t access the most efficient areas of the floor. But that’s also what every other team in the league has been trying to do to the Rockets for years, and as they’ve been showing us for quite some time now, it’s easier said than done.