According to Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper: Rules and Tools for Performance Analysis, one of four keys to determining victory on the hard court is free throw attempts and makes (the other three are offensive rebounds, field goal percentage, and turnovers forced). The idea is not hard to grasp. Free throws should be free points. An ingredient of a NBA player’s job which he is compensated millions to do should be to hit a respectable percentage of his free throws, and the more attempts he can aggregate and cash in on, the higher percentage of victory for his team.
In the first Texas matchup of this fledgling season, the Rockets prevailed over their neighbors to the north in a matchup that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. The Rockets won the battle of free throw attempts 51-25 partly due to the Mavs’ hack-a-Howard strategy to climb back into the game. Congruently, the Rockets shot a paltry 66.7% in large part because of Dwight Howard’s 5-12 performance from the charity stripe.
For the Rockets to realize their contender potential (which in my opinion means advancing to the Western Conference Finals), free throw percentage will have to improve. Thankfully for their sake, the season is still nascent. The worst FT% of the four conference finalists in the 2012-13 season was Indiana at 74.6% per NBA.com
The Rockets as a team were fourth in free throws attempted for the 12-13 season with 2087. That number rounds out to be about 25.5 attempts per game; however, Houston also lead the league in possessions per game at 98.64 which inflates the free throws attempted. In fact, three of the top four teams in free throws attempted from the season prior were also in the top five for possessions per game. Houston will definitely not shoot a ridiculous 51 attempts per game, but the point must be emphasized, the percentage must go up.
Houston stalwart James Harden possesses a canny proficiency for drawing shooting fouls. Watch as he drives the lane on the Mavs and purposefully draws contact from Samuel Dalembert.
While some detractors will accuse Harden of flopping in this instance, the move to draw contact is actually quite clever, and aspiring guards at the high school ranks would be wise to emulate such moves. Harden sets up Dalembert with a simple lunge towards the basket as if he’s going for the layup, but the intent all along is to run into Dalembert once the center compromises his body’s defensive positioning.
Another detail to be wary of pertains to the Rockets’ pace. As already noted, Houston lead the league in possessions per game last season in large part due to a system predicated on attempts from three-point range or at the basket. Houston’s roster bolstered a fleet of wings proficient in getting to the basket and drawing help defense. The player could then either kick out for three or dump off for the easy lay-in.
The Rockets still push the pace, but they’ve also made a concerted effort to establish Howard on the left block early during games. For his career, Howard has averaged 1.5 assists per game per Basketball-reference.com. Since the 2002-03 season for players 6’10″ and higher with a minimum of 7300 minutes played, Howard is 31st out of 78 players in APG. That isn’t horrible, but it’s unequivocally average at best, especially when factoring the amount of Howard’s field goal attempts per game.
It will be interesting to see if the Rockets maintain this approach to mollify the happiness of their prized free agent acquisition, or if they begin employing their usual style as seen here with Omer Asik manning the five spot.
A last detail to make note of, Houston lead the Mavs 55-35 at 4:40 of the second quarter, but finished the half up only 61-50. This was largely due to the Mavs switching to zone defense. Houston’s style as mentioned already is predicated on drives to the basket, but in order to beat the zone, the Rockets must remember to keep moving without the ball and to not ignore players.
In this first clip, Jeremy Lin ignores a wide open Ronnie Brewer in the corner and drives into the Mavs’ paint clogging defense to no avail.
A few possessions later, watch how Brewer is utilized to stymie the Mavs’ zone.
It’s not hard to see: Use every player to achieve the best shot in the end, and keep moving and cutting until the best shot opens up.
On the whole, the Rockets are in an enviable position with the talent their roster boasts. They need improvement in a few ways, but then again, so does every team at this juncture. However, Houston will be one of the more interesting teams to watch in their season long progression towards maturing into a contender.