What can the Nets learn: Houston Rockets Edition

The Nets offseason continues to march on.  Will Deron Williams finally be gone? Is Joe Johnson traded to a contender for multiple parts? Are Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young back next year? We can guess the answers to these questions but will not get answers for some time.

In the meantime, as the Nets chart their course to try to get back to contention, they should look to the contenders above them, and learn from those teams’ smart decisions.

Today’s review? The Houston Rockets.

Lesson One: Spread the Floor for Threes

The phrase “you live by the three, you die by the three” has become overused.  Perhaps in the past, when the league was run by elite post play, and teams lacking such elite threats hoped to take those bigs down with random hot streaks from 3, the phrase had utility.  But today, it does not hold that type of water.  The best teams in the league attack, using guards and smaller forwards, off the dribble.  By creating holes in the defense, and forcing teams to rotate off the 3 point arc, they set up open 3’s (which is really no different than a big creating open 3’s when he draws a double inside: the only difference is the method, not the result).

Overall, the idea a team is a “jump shooting team” that cannot win in the playoffs because it takes threes? Remember when the Warriors were that two weeks ago? If a team built around an elite center produces open 3’s and that’s praised as “playing inside outside,” why aren’t threes created by dribble penetration called that?

Houston led the league this season, taking 32.7 threes per game.  That did not stop them from going 56-26, getting through a playoff bracket that includes the Clippers and Spurs, and winning a division that includes the Spurs, Grizzlies, and Mavericks.  Houston is a great team, or at a minimum, a very very good one, and are better than any Nets team since 2003.

Wide open threes are great shots, and Houston excels at creating them using James Harden as the fulcrum of their pick and roll attack.  15.5% of Houston’s shots this year were three pointers with no defender within 6 feet (“wide open” shots), a figure which ranks second in the league, according to NBA.com’s stats page. To add to that, 15.9% of their shots were threes with no defender within 4 feet (“open” shots), a figure leading the league per NBA.com’s stats page.

The implications:  wide open threes are great shots, and Houston is extremely efficient at creating them.  The NBA’s best offense (per NBA.com stats), the Clippers, scored 1.098 points per possession this season.  It’s 10th best offense, the Bulls, scored 1.047 points per possession.

The Nets? They shot 35.6% on wide open 3’s this season, a figure which itself would have generated the league’s 6th best offense, but only ranked 21st in generating these looks.  The top 8 teams at generating wide open threes? The Hawks, Rockets, Clippers, Blazers, Warriors, Spurs, Sixers, and Cavs.  The bottom 8? The Lakers, Timberwolves, Wizards, Knicks, Grizzlies, Hornets, Nuggets, and Pacers.  The correlation those numbers display between the creation of wide open 3’s, and the production of wins, is clear (sure, the Sixers, Grizzlies, and Wizards are anamolies, but one of those teams has two elite post players in a league with maybe ten of those players, one was criticized all year for its antiquated offense, and one is the Sixers).

The Rockets were successful all year, and in the playoffs, because of their three point attack.  With Harden creating up top, forcing defenses to send two players at him (at least) to play his stepback and drive, and to guard the roll man off his pick and rolls, that created constant daylight for shooters.  That daylight made the Rockets’ attack sustainable no matter the injuries suffered: the attack always was Harden at the top, a roll man capable of finishing, shooters spacing the floor, and good defensive team concepts on the other end.  Whoever went down, the crux of the formula was always in place.  Was it boring? Probably, but it was also successful.

What can the Nets learn from the Rockets? Look to acquire players who can create space for shooters off the dribble drive, and surround that attack with shooters who can hit their open shots.  The Nets have some of the latter, but none of the former.

LESSON TWO: YOU CAN BECOME A CONTENDER WITHOUT TANKING

Sam Hinkie has succeeded in making 2013 the era of “is tanking moral” and “do teams tank too much because they need to in order to win.”

One issue the Nets have in their rebuild (or reconstruct): they cannot tank.  With their picks through 2018 either out of their possession, or being swapped with other franchises, the Nets cannot decide to bottom out and draft star talent in the lottery to make their way to the top. They have to rebuild from the middle.

The Rockets? While Daryl Morey and Billy King are certainly different people (in their valuing of picks, approach to analytics, etc), the Rockets do serve as a model for rebuilding from the middle. Like the Nets (albeit at a higher, less hopeless level), the Rockets, upon the underwhelming McGrady-Yao era (relative to expectation), switched gears and looked to become flexible to build around a new core.  But in doing that, this was their record by season:

-2009-2010: 42-40

-2010-2011: 43-39

-2011-2012: 34-32

-2012-2013 (year 1 with Harden); 45-37

Then, from there, Houston took off into 54-56 win territory.  Still, look at those records.  Houston got Harden and Howard, but they never bottomed out. They hung around as a mediocre, lottery franchise, on the supposed “treadmill of mediocrity.” But they did it with flexibility, such that if a chance to leave the treadmill came about, they could pounce on that chance.  They eventually did with the Harden trade, and that trade led to Dwight wanting to be a Rocket, which led to the stable of veterans around them deciding to partake in things.

The Nets surely are unlikely to get players of either star’s caliber: surely not this summer, and perhaps not next summer either.  However, the Nets in the summer of 2016 will be similar to the Rockets in 2010: they will be a mediocre team, with flexibility.  There is nothing wrong with retaining that flexibility until the right opportunity comes about, being mediocre for a little while, as the Rockets did for three years (and they were prepared for a 4th, they did not get Harden until Halloween, on the eve of 2012-2013, a player acquisition like that, at that time, is unprecedented), biding their time as a mediocre team until the chance for franchise changing talent presents itself, all the while not falling into the lottery (which the pick situation renders hopeless).

The Rockets were contend with spinning assets into assets, trekking along with decent talent until better talent became available to them. There is nothing wrong with the Nets, if 2016 does not bring Durant or some other star, taking a similar course of action.

LESSON 3: WHEN THE PLAN DOES NOT GO AS PLANNED, SWITCH GEARS

Daryl Morey is the master of this, and this is an area where Brooklyn flat out needs to be better.  In 2010, the Rockets decided, like the Nets and others, that it was time to use that summer to build a champion.  When rebuffed by Chris Bosh and others, they did not panic sign plan B type talent just to say they did something, but they switched gears, largely keeping their team intact in the hopes of doing something grand in another year. The Nets do NOT need to overpay B level talent in 2016 if they strike out on the A class talent, just to say they did something.

More notable was 2012, and this past summer in Houston. In 2012, the Rockets were dead set on acquiring Dwight. He rejected them.  So rather than panic add a plan B, they totally shifted gears, dealing Kyle Lowry for a lottery pick and allowing Goran Dragic to walk to acquire flexibility. The Rockets quite literally went from shooting for 55 wins, to trying to bottom out, because of a change in the market. Their plan shifted gears.  This is oft forgotten because of the Harden trade in 2012, but that was a fluke (a fluke the Lowry deal helped, as that pick was added to the Harden package).

Then this summer, the Rockets nearly acquired Bosh, knowing full well a Harden-Dwight-Bosh-Parsons core could win 60 games (another note: Bosh and Dwight went from disinterested in Houston, to very much interested: the Nets should not worry if free agents rebuff their advances; by creating a winner you change the perception).

What happened when Bosh chose to stay in Miami? Morey shifted gears: he then decided it did NOT make sense to keep Parsons. It was one thing to lose future flexibility when adding Bosh to form that quartet. The creation of a juggernaut justifies throwing away flexibility? To lose it just to keep Parsons? Suddenly, you have locked yourself into a limited ceiling. Morey then said goodbye to Parsons, and acquired Ariza and others on more flexibility friendly deals.

The Nets do not shift gears enough. The Boston trade? If Deron was the Utah Deron, or if his name was Chris Paul, that trade, in all sincerity, would have been smart. It would have nuked the future, but when an opportunity to create an elite contender comes to you, that’s an ok price you pay.  Once Deron’s body betrayed him, the Nets should have shifted gears and went another way.

And in 2016, if the Nets fail to score their targets, they should not panic add lesser targets just to sell some merchandise. Shift gears and go in another direction.

The Nets can learn a lot from a 56 win team in the conference finals in the Houston Rockets.  Will they?

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