What Effect Will Chris Paul have on the Houston Rockets Offense?

In an NBA offseason flush with activity, perhaps no more significant move was made than the Houston Rockets trade for Chris Paul. Coming off their second championship in three years, the Golden State Warriors look poised to dominate the NBA for the foreseeable future, and the Rockets now find themselves as (possibly) the NBA’s best hope to take them down.

Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni burst back onto the scene last October with his James Harden-led Moreyball offense that saw the Rockets post the second-highest offensive rating in the NBA (second only to Golden State). Their high-tempo offense (third-fastest pace) and barrage of three-point attempts proved futile, though, as Harden—the team’s engine—began to look worn down by the season’s end.

Never one to be content with the status quo, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey made the boldest move of the offseason by trading a good portion of his rotation for Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul.

NBA Math’s own Brian Sampson covered the potential fit of these two guards and made some interesting notes, some of which I will explore in further detail. He found that the Rockets took a shot on 18 percent of their transition possessions in 2016-17 but only scored at the 16th-most-efficient rate in the league (1.08 points per possession). Paul will help improve that number significantly for Houston, but what about the about the Rocket’s half-court offensive sets?

First, we must understand which play types are most useful for NBA teams. Via Synergy Sports, the NBA has data on the 11 different play types that detail the end result of all offensive possessions. Two years ago, Nylon Calculus’ Nick Restifo ran a league-wide regression analysis to determine which play type are most effective. He found the most important types, in order, were pick-and-roll ball-handler, spot-up, isolation, transition and PnR roll man.

These five categories accounted for 73.5 percent of the Rockets’ total offensive possessions in 2016-17, but will their offense look any different next season with Paul in the mix? As noted earlier, Sampson has already covered the effect he will have on transition plays (hint: It’s a positive result), but let’s take a look at the other four types, beginning with spot-up possessions.

Spot-Ups

The Rockets were an above-average spot-up team in 2016-17, averaging 1.03 points per possession (PPP) and finishing in the 69th percentile, though they certainly left room for improvement. After their big roster shake-up this summer, a significant adjustment could be forthcoming. Four of their top five shooters are returning for next season (farewell, Patrick Beverley!), and they made some key additions, as well.

Newcomers P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute and Paul all shot well on spot-up opportunities last year:

wdt_ID Player Points per Possession (PPP) Possessions per Game PPP Percentile
1 P.J. Tucker 1.18 2.60 88.80
2 Luc Mbah a Moute 1.14 2.40 82.30
3 Chris Paul 1.10 1.50 77.30

Paul and Harden will likely share ball-handling and distribution responsibilities, which means each of them will see more time as traditional shooting guards. Taking the ball out of former’s hands will benefit the Rockets. He only averaged 1.2 attempts per game on catch-and-shoot opportunities, but he generated an effective field-goal percentage of 69.1 percent (second-best among players with 30 games played). Since Paul will be playing more off the ball (Harden played 98 percent of his minutes at point guard last season), he is due for an array of open looks heading his way.

The Rockets were already a fairly strong shooting team, and they managed to add several great deep threats. Spot-ups accounted for 20.24 percent of Houston’s offensive possessions in 2016-17, and the additional floor spacing—plus Paul’s phenomenal passing—will see both efficiency and frequency improve.

Isolations

Houston ran the fifth-most isolation possessions in the NBA last season and was actually fairly efficient while doing so. This is important, because as Restifo notes, “Isolation efficiency, which was significant in predicting offensive efficiency, is the least important play type efficiency to influence on defense. This is probably because if you’ve forced the offense into a low efficiency play like an isolation (0.85 PPP), you’ve already won, and the actual efficiency of the play isn’t as important to your overall defensive strength as forcing the play type is.”

Defenses may typically try forcing foes into isolation sets, but they might need to alter their strategy against Houston. The Rockets now boast two of the most methodical ISO players in the league.

Houston averaged 0.95 PPP on isolations in 2016-17—the fourth-best mark in the league. Twenty players ran 2.5 or more isolation possessions per game, and Paul once again proved he’s one of the NBA’s most dangerous players. He scored 1.09 PPP on three possessions per game (93.6 percentile, second only to Kyrie Irving in that high-volume group). Harden was seventh with 0.97 PPP (76.3 percentile) on 6.8 possessions per game, though he had 370 more isolation attempts than Paul and 70.7 percent of Houston’s total.

Why are these two so successful in this play type?

Of the 20 players who attempted seven or more pull-up field-goal attempts per game, Paul and Harden ranked second (53.6 percent) and eighth (47.0 percent), respectively, in effective field-goal percentage. Paul is a phenomenal pull-up shooter, deadly from mid-range and isn’t afraid to let fly with a defender in his face. Look what happened when Noah Vonleh attempted to guard him on the wing:

Harden produced similar results but also has an extra element to his ISO game.

Harden drove to the rim 10.7 times per game last season (seventh most in the NBA), shooting an impressive 54.8 percent and scoring on 73.9 percent of these drives. Isolations only accounted for 9.45 percent of Houston’s possessions, but look for those numbers to stabilize or even decrease with Paul in the mix. Though they will enjoy a boost in floor spacing to allow for more high-percentage opportunities, this play type is not a fundamental piece of D’Antoni’s offense.

Pick-and-Roll Ball-Handler

Though this play type is considered the most important to Restifo’s model, it is far from the most efficient:

On the other side of the coin, plays finished by the Pick & Roll Ball Handler are very inefficient. The differences in this play type efficiency among the teams, however, are very important at determining how good a team’s offense is. Imagine the difference between Stephen Curry (0.99 in PPP as P&R Ball Handler), and Ricky Rubio (0.64 in PPP as P&R Ball Handler), and think about the difference in ability either of them has to finish the play right out of the pick and roll, and the influence that ability has on the other areas of a team’s offense. Defenders are in a lot more of a hurry to help on Curry than Rubio. This really speaks to the importance of above average off-dribble shot creators.

His sentiment echoes that players who can shoot off the dribble are a much bigger threat in the pick-and-roll, and it just so happens that Paul and Harden both fit that mold.

When faced with someone threatening to shoot off the dribble, the help defender in the (high) pick-and-roll is forced to meet the ball-handler up around the break. If a team clears out to the wings, like the Rockets do against the Cleveland Cavaliers below, that leaves an easy match-up for Harden against a slower big man such as Channing Frye:

Harden averaged 1.01 PPP (92.7 percentile) as the PnR ball-handler, and Paul contributed 0.96 PPP (83.3 percentile) for the Clippers. Though the Rockets had the third-best conversion rate from their ball-handlers, don’t be surprised to see their use of this play type surge as the team focuses less on isolations in 2017-18.

Pick-and-Roll Roll Man

Though Paul will no longer have monster pick-and-roll finisher DeAndre Jordan—he scored 1.52 PPP and posted an astounding 86 effective field-goal percentage as the roll man for the Clippers—he should still have a couple more-than-capable replacements in Houston. The Rockets ran the fifth-most pick-and-roll possessions ending with the roll man last season and were the third-most efficient team doing so (the Clippers were first). The key? Having several players who finish strongly rolling to the rim:

wdt_ID Player PPP Possessions Per Game PPP Percentile
1 Nene 1.25 2.60 90.30
2 Clint Capela 1.14 3.10 72.90
3 Ryan Anderson 1.12 2.20 68.80

Capela, who is somehow only 23 years old, is a great finisher around the rim, converting 65 percent of his field goals within eight feet and 65.5 percent on contested shots with a defender between two and four feet away. He has a soft touch and can make difficult shots look effortless. Joakim Noah actually defends Capela well in the coming clip, but the center still scores handily:

Nene will be 35 by the start of next season, but he was an even more efficient version of Capela around the rim, shooting 69.1 percent on contested attempts and 69.4 percent overall when within eight feet of the hoop. Now pair these two (and Anderson) with multiple guards who run the pick-and-roll adeptly, and the Rockets should be the top candidate to lead the league in points per possession during the 2017-18 campaign.

The Rockets already had a top-two offense and improved dramatically. The most obvious change is that Houston’s roster will now boast seven above-average spot-up shooters and will look to top the three-point attempt record the team set last season. They were in the middle of the league in terms of spot-up frequency and efficiency but should now find themselves in the company of the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs (high volume, high efficacy) in 2017-18.

Their offensive augmentation becomes a little more cloudy thereafter.

They had a top-three scoring rate in the other three play types covered above, but they’ll have to deal with the one ball theory. While they don’t have to abandon the play type entirely, the Rockets should focus less on isolations. A team with so much shooting, two triple-threat ball-handlers and multiple strong finishers around the rim has no reason to rely on less valuable possessions. That’s why the Rockets will rely more heavily on pick-and-rolls next season, as D’Antoni looks to re-institute more of his famous “seven seconds or less” offense. Houston has the ideal personnel to run it; it just has to cut down on that pesky turnover rate first.

If they want to have a chance at defeating Golden State in the playoffs, the Rockets have to learn how to mitigate their mistakes in a diversified offense. The Warriors are a deep team with several plus defenders and will make the Rockets pay dearly for every trivial mistake. That was the end goal of landing Paul—to make the Rockets a true threat to the Golden State dynasty.

Now, it’s time to make that goal a reality.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.