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The Houston Rockets Have Found Structure… And It’s Paying Off

There’s no one correct way to play basketball. In part, the beauty of the game comes from the ability of players to add their own flavor on the court. Improvisation proves to be pivotal if not necessary to the grander free-flowing game being played. Basketball, in its purest and most beautiful form is like Free Jazz, never predictable but always succinct. Oftentimes, no two possessions on the court are the exact same.

But there’s also a structural element to basketball, much like music. Read-and-react. Cause-and-effect. You have to be able to read sheet music in order to play an instrument, that sort of thing.

Every player grows up developing that real-time processing ability, the skill that allows players to digest what’s happening on the court and make decisions based on those actions. But when you remove that structural element, when the foundation gets pulled out from under you, or if the foundation wasn’t there in the first place? Well, that free-flowing, improvisational style just turns into… noise.

That was probably the most accurate way to describe the Houston Rockets offense last season: noise. None of the actions or decisions made any sense, there was no structure to be had and it seemed like that improvisational style just bogged down into “your turn, my turn”.

The Rockets were dead-last in half-court efficiency last season on offense and ranked 27th overall in offensive efficiency. They were near the bottom of the league in virtually every offensive statistic. A categorical disaster given how much young, offensive-minded talent they had on the team.

So far into this season, they have the 4th best half-court offense, generating over 12 points per 100 possessions more in the half-court than they did last season and they’re 11th overall in offensive efficiency.

What in the world changed? Structure.

With the arrival of Fred VanVleet, the Rockets have leaned on their big-time free agency signing to helm the offense by allowing him to be the orchestrator. And so far, through 9 games, the stout, 3-point shooting, playmaking guard has proved to be the exact conduit the Rockets needed to help give life to their offense.

None have benefitted from the presence of VanVleet this season more than Rockets big man Alperen Sengun. Their pick-n-roll partnership has become the foundation on which Houston’s offense is based.

So far this season, Sengun has received 187 passes from VanVleet, by far the most on the team. Sengun has taken 65 shots on those passes and has hit nearly 60% of those shots. To put it into context, the Jalen Green-VanVleet connection is second on the team with 105 passes and 29 total field goals attempted. It’s not even close.

According to a source with access to second-spectrum data, the VanVleet-Sengun pick-n-roll is the 2nd most frequent partnership in the league this season. It hasn’t been all that efficient yet, only generating 0.88 points per pick set, but Sengun himself is absolutely dominating as a roller, putting up 1.20 points per possession as a roller and doing it on the highest frequency in the entire league.

Part of that is VanVleet struggling as a ballhandler in these situations and not being as efficient as you’d like, but more generally, even when the shot isn’t falling, he commands a lot of respect from teams in these pick-n-roll actions because of the threat he serves as a pull-up shooter. And he’s averaging a career-high assist percentage at 32.3% because of his growth as a decision-maker in these pick-n-roll actions.

Guards are going to over on any screening action with VanVleet, if you’re not quick enough to lock-and-trail, he’s going to pull-up or deliver a bounce back to Sengun, who is crafty enough to get to the rim.

If you’re late going over? Or if you give VanVleet enough daylight? He’s good enough to make you pay for most possessions. The great thing is Sengun is such a sturdy screen-setter that more often than not, VanVleet does get enough room to take a shot, if he wants to.

And despite not being the most efficient rim finisher in the world, VanVleet is a much improved mid-range scorer — so his counter for teams that might play in a deep drop is to settle into a 15-footer like this, with the help of the space created by a Sengun screen.

It’s double the trouble when it’s a player as skilled as Sengun as the roller, who can make plays out of the short-roll, has become a much-improved short-roll finisher with a patent push-shot and is continuing to improve his outside shot.

His playmaking in the short-roll is what pops out the most when you watch the Rockets. He’s averaging a career-high in assists and assist percentage and a large bulk of his passes are to cutters like on this possession…

And the gravity created by VanVleet’s shooting ability and Sengun’s rolling ability continues to create wide-open shots for the Rockets shooters like this…

This possession right here is a great example of that gravity. The Hornets double VanVleet, Hayward is forced to help on Sengun as the low man, and that gives Fred the perfect angle to find Jabari Smith Jr for an open shot in the weak-side corner. Fred is in the top 15 in 3-point assists to start the year, while Sengun is in the top 40.

Sengun’s gravity as a roller is partly because of his craft in the short-mid-range area, especially on these push shots. He’s currently hitting on 59% of his short-mid-range buckets and 62% of his long-mid-range buckets, so teams are more hesitant to play off of him, which creates ample room for him to show off his playmaking chops.

Here’s an example:

And another one…

What makes their two-man game even more potent is Sengun’s improvements as a shooter. He’s only knocking down 25% of his threes, but if he can improve that… this duo becomes even more deadly.

So from this one play, the Rockets have found structure in their offense. An identity that they can lean on when they need a bucket. And the great thing is, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that two-man combination. The Jalen Green-Sengun partnership has been fruitful too, and it’s helped create a lot of open, spot-up shots for VanVleet.

And so, the pick-n-roll, a play the Rockets run more frequently than pretty much any team in the league so far this season has become the straw that stirs the drink for this offense.

And it’s boasted wonderful results that, if anything, can actually get better. If VanVleet starts shooting better, or if Sengun can improve as a shooter, that 2-man duo will see even more attention which will mean even more shots for the Rockets’ supporting cast. It’s a wonderful recipe, set up by merely incorporating a modicum of structure.

What may be even more surprising is that for all of their success offensively this season, the Rockets have looked even better on defense.

The Rockets were 29th in defensive efficiency last season and 29th in terms of points allowed in the half-court. So far this season, they’re the 4th best defense allowing just over 108 points per 100 possessions and boast the 5th best half-court defense in the league.

Sengun was a massive part of their defensive struggles last season. His slow-footedness wasn’t enough to keep up in pick-n-rolls and his hands got him in foul trouble often.

So what in the world changed? Ball pressure.

Remember when I said there isn’t one single way to play basketball? Well, there isn’t one single way to have an elite defense either.

With the additions of Dillon Brooks and to a lesser extent VanVleet, the Rockets added two of the biggest ball hawks in the NBA, known for being pests at the point-of-attack with their aggressive style and incredible hands.

This has helped compensate for Sengun’s lack of mobility. He can play in a drop more confidently now, especially in pick-n-rolls where Brooks or VanVleet are the perimeter defenders, knowing they’re going to fight over every screen and give a good, solid contest on the ballhandlers’ shots. But Sengun has also been more aggressive in defending the pick-n-roll, showing a little higher, near the level, which is forcing him to be much more active on the defensive end. In fact, according to Jackson Gatlin of Locked On Rockets, Coach Ime Udoka wants Sengun to be much more aggressive in his pick-n-roll coverage and avoid falling into the old habit of playing in a deeper drop.

Nonetheless, Sengun has defended the 8th most picks in the league, and he’s giving up 0.958 points per pick which is league average, a massive improvement from the 1.06 he was giving up last season in similar actions. And while part of that is because of Sengun’s own improvements, particularly with his hands, causing deflections, etc — the biggest reason is that the Rockets are relying on their guards and perimeter defenders to go over on these screens.

Sengun has defended 262 pick-n-rolls so far this season, and the Rockets have gone over on 136 of them and allowed 0.7 points per pick set in those situations. That is magnificent. Wildly successful defense given where they were last season.

Small sample size theatre and all but even the on/off numbers suggest that things are overwhelmingly positive on defense when all 3 of Sengun, Brooks, and VanVleet share the floor.

With that being said, here are 9 minutes of stout, awesome, point-of-attack defense from the trio.

Oftentimes, we rush to make conclusions about player’s qualities. We throw labels on what they can and can’t do without considering the context around them. Time and time again, any given player’s circumstance and situation proves to be one of the most pivotal things in providing a context for that player to succeed.

We’re seeing that with Sengun now. A highly skilled, young player who had his warts coming into the league. Warts that became exacerbated by the environment he was operating in. But now, his game is being complimented. Those warts are no longer the prevailing qualities people think of when his name is mentioned. His true potential is becoming evident, purely because he’s finally being put in a context that allows him to thrive.

His instrument is now being given the room to sing. The free-flowing, improvisational music that is Sengun’s playmaking and scoring ability is now popping off of the sheet music. And that’s because of structure.