Daryl Morey doesn’t do many things without a lot of thought and measuring the consequences. After a 4-7 start for his 2015-16 Houston Rockets squad, Morey fired Kevin McHale and gave the interim head coach job to J.B. Bickerstaff. This year was McHale’s fifth with the Rockets and he had a 193-130 record. The Rockets and McHale were in the first year of a 3 year, $13 million extension.
So what went wrong? Outside of their overall record, it seems like it was mostly out of McHale’s hands. Before I look more in-depth at it, this may have simply been a long time in the making. McHale is not exactly a coach you’d naturally pair with a front office like Morey’s. There have been rumors before and Morey stated in his press conference that they needed a new voice in the locker room. McHale may not have been getting to the players anymore. All are reasons that are difficult to see when just looking at performance.
Not much has changed in the extreme use of threes and driving the lane, something that has been their hallmark for a few years now. As you can see, their heat map is still threes and the restricted area. It looks almost exactly like last season’s, just with a smaller sample.
They’re still taking the most 3PA as a team, another modern Rockets theme, except they’re converting at a second-to-last rate of 29% on the season. They’re usually a league average 3P% team, they were 14th at 34.8% in 2014-15, they just shoot them at such a high volume that it works in the long run.
Some of that dip is real as Trevor Ariza is another year older and shooting about 4% lower than last season, Harden is in quite the shooting slump to start the year generally,1 Donatas Motiejunas is still injured and he’s an underrated low-usage three-point shooter, and finally Ty Lawson is struggling to fit in and is shooting well below his 36% career average.
Few teams embody the saying, “live by the three, die by the three” more than this year Rockets team. You won’t be successful when shooting the most threes and converting at the second lowest rate.
There isn’t as much of an issue with getting to the line, though they are at a lower rate than in previous seasons. They’re sitting sixth in the league in total free throw attempts and free throw rate.2 Much like their three-point shooting, the Rockets are driving at the second highest rate per game with 32.7 per game and converting at the lowest rate, 37.8%.
This is all to say that the offense, while stalling right now, is likely to shoot better as the season goes on and there isn’t a discernible difference in placement of shots. That’s not to say that they’re as creative of an offense.
The defense is where all the issues truly crept to the forefront. They’re near the bottom of the league in several effort type of defensive stats. They’re second in opposing points off turnovers,3 second in opposing second-chance points, and sixth in opposing fast-break points. They’re sitting at the second highest defensive rating at 106.5 and their net rating is fourth-worst in the NBA.
Dwight Howard is supposed to scare teams off from even considering shooting when he’s patrolling the paint. Unfortunately for that narrative this year, the Rockets are giving up the most points in the paint. Part of this is definitely the fact that two of their top lineups involve playing Ariza and Thornton/Harden in the forward slots.
That doesn’t let Howard off the hook though. According to Nylon Calculus’s rim protection stats, Howard is still contesting shots at a reasonable 39% clip, but he’s tied for 10th for the highest FG% when he’s contesting a shot at 58.1%. Howard is also just above league average in Nylon Calculus’s Deterrence Index, which speaks for itself.
Clint Capella is averaging close to the same overall stats by Nylon Calculus but is performing closer to average, though still below, in keeping points off the board. Howard is just below Nikola Mirotic in this category. All of this can’t be placed at the feet of McHale, but the front office clearly determined that change was needed. The poor performance in those effort-based defensive stats may be the biggest indicator.
Based on the lower than expected shooting percentages and defensive performance of the players on the roster, this might be a great gig to take over merely based on a possible positive regression. However, some of the under-performance could certainly have been McHale’s fault, though if you can get the players to buy in, that might be another reason it’s a good job to land.
My personal replacement candidate is Tom Thibodeau. This team is an injured roster but defense is what they need most. The window may not be as large as we expected, though that can change quickly if Morey decides to pull the trigger on a possible big trade. Players in Chicago grew tired of Thibodeau, but if the idea is to win now and you’re not worried about preserving the future of Howard, then Thibodeau might be able to push this team to the level they need to get to defensively.
Thibs is an uncreative offensive mind, but Morey may be able to instill in him the Rockets philosophy. Maybe. It seems takes a few years for players to get the Thibodeau defensive system down, but it just might be the right high-risk hire, if Thibodeau isn’t looking for personnel control in his next job.