Though it might have been inevitable the Rockets would have issues to iron out in the first weeks of the season given everything that happened along the way, few would have expected to check off scoring on their early-season-struggles bingo card.
Stephen Silas would not have anticipated having to devote a precious practice day to the topic. A video session between games against the high-scoring Mavericks and super-efficient Pacers would not seem likely to be about anything involving the ball in the Rockets’ hands.
But after Tuesday’s video and practice, forward David Nwaba said, “We went over the offensive end.”
The offense needed repairs, straining between keeping the iso-heavy style of the recent past and folding in ball movement and balance, as well as seeking the open 3-pointers that have been their identity while maintaining improvement in the paint and from midrange.
The offense has not been terrible and, in some ways, not as great an issue as defense and rebounding. But ranking 12th in scoring and 13th in offensive rating is far off the Rockets’ standards and expectations. In their last three halves, they have totaled 138 points.
“New system. We’re definitely still adjusting,” guard Eric Gordon said. “There’s a lot of new players. It’s definitely going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight. We’re going to continue to get better and better.”
The issues were especially evident when the offense bogged down Monday against Dallas. It might have looked worse because James Harden and John Wall went a combined 9-of-27, missing shots they typically want. But the Rockets also reverted to a reliance on iso — a tactic they want, but not too often.
“It’s a fine line,” said Silas, whose Rockets are running 14.8 iso plays per game, four more than any other team in the league. “They’re both good at it. One of the things I didn’t want to take away from the situation (is) what’s good. We went over ways we can get into a little bit more random offense, ways it won’t be so hard for those guys to score where they’re having to do it all on their own, more system baskets where we’re getting baskets or points off actions. Mixing that in is a work in progress.”
The strategy with the iso parts of the offense is clear. Silas wants Harden, Wall and perhaps others to go one-on-one early in the shot clock if taking advantage of a mismatch or late after an action to make the defense move.
The first-year head coach does not want “guys just standing and kind of watching. That’s the goal.”
That would represent a bit of a change. But it is still more of a tweak than the application of an entirely new offense.
“I wouldn’t even say it’s that new or different,” Silas said. “They were running a few actions prior to me getting here and playing five-out. It’s different because we have John Wall and we have Christian Wood, who add a dynamic that hasn’t been here before. It’s not an easy thing, for sure, but I think the talent is good enough to make it work. We obviously don’t want to be playing isolation all game. But one of the great things James does is isolate and score and get to the basket.”
As much as the Rockets are known for shooting 3s and running, they have not done much of either.
Only three teams have hit fewer wide-open 3s than the Rockets’ 5.4 per game. Last season, only three teams made more. The Rockets still get and make more open 3s (with the nearest defender four to six feet away), but overall they are just 14th in 3-pointers per game after leading the NBA in five of six seasons and ranking in the top three in seven consecutive seasons.
They have gotten even less on the break, averaging 12.6 fast-break points per game to rank 18th after scoring just four against the Mavericks. Just 28th in defensive rebounding percentage, the Rockets have found it difficult to run when the other team still has the ball or even when they’re just having to battle to get it.
“We haven’t been rebounding well. That’s first and foremost. The second Sacramento game (on Saturday), we had 10 steals and 10 blocks. That fuels your offense. That fuels your transition game. We have to do things to be disruptive on the defensive end.”
Do that, and the Rockets can deal with some growing pains offensively. But after six quarters of relative struggles, they could not wait for their defense to solve the offense.
“It’s definitely a correction that can be made,” Gordon said. “If you don’t really have a good shot, you’ve just got to move it on to the next person. We have to do more screening, more penetration. There’s a lot of things we can do. I’d much rather get a good stop and come down five-on-four, four-on-three break. But we’re a good enough team (that) we should pretty much get a good shot just about every time down the floor.”