If their first 17 games of the season are any indication, the marriage between offensive guru Mike D’Antoni and superstar guard James Harden looks to be a perfect match for the Houston Rockets. Harden has put up eye-popping numbers while guiding the Rockets to the Western Conference’s fourth best point differential (+4.3) -- placing them only behind the Clippers, Spurs and Warriors. Yet as great as Harden has been, and he’s been pretty great, one reason for Houston’s overall success is the (somewhat unexpected) production of three less heralded actors filling out Harden’s supporting casting.
Entering the season, Corey Brewer could have been viewed as a rotation liability with just cause. With D’Antoni’s system so rooted in spacing, Brewer’s outside shooting woes looked to make him a bad fit. Last year, during a disjointed season, Brewer’s presence on the floor ground the Rockets to a halt, lowering their efficiency from 108.0 without him to 102.1 in the 1,669 minutes he spent mostly clanking jumpers off the rim.
Now, not all of that is Brewer’s fault. The move from an overwhelmed interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to D’Antoni is a pretty massive upgrade. On top of that, the additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon meant Brewer was less likely to spend his court time around other poor floor spacers (like KJ McDaniels, Ty Lawson and Josh Smith) -- something that exacerbated his own flaws. But the bottom line is, Brewer has proven over the course of his career that converting 3-point shots is an issue unlikely to change anytime soon.
That is ringing true this season as Brewer is shooting 25.0 percent from deep on 1.6 attempts per game. Yet the difference is Houston, and Harden in particular, aren’t taking a giant step back offensively during Brewer’s minutes this season. The Rockets' offense is actually operating at roughly the same (very high) level when Brewer plays (109.7) as when he sits (110.3). Harden himself has actually been posting a better field goal percentage (48.5 to 45.2) and 3-point percentage (44.4 to 33.6) when Brewer is out on the court with him.
A lot of that goes back to the upgrade in shooting around both Brewer and Harden. With Anderson, Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Sam Dekker (who we’ll get to later) and the recently returned Patrick Beverley all shooting at least 38.3 percent from 3, Brewer’s shooting deficiencies are far easier to hide. Instead of cutting or driving off kickouts -- the things he does well -- into a thicket of bodies around the paint, Brewer now has more space to use his strengths. And because he’s not a drain on the team’s offensive flow, D’Antoni can benefit from his (albeit slightly overrated) defensive impact more often. That’s something that a team sorely lacking in first-rate stoppers sorely needs, even if it’s for just 20 minutes a night.
Speaking of that spacing being provided, one of the names on the above list may be rather surprising. After a lost rookie season, Dekker has emerged as a legit rotation cog in the early going. The second-year forward out of Wisconsin is shooting an impressive 50.0 percent from the field and 40.0 from 3, on 2.1 attempts per game. Dekker’s emergence has given D’Antoni - a coach notorious for shortening rotations in the wake of unreliable bench options - a legit nine-deep rotation.
Dekker being able to provide that type of depth will be huge for Houston as the season rolls along. Sparing someone like Ariza heavy minutes will hopefully keep the veteran forward fresh for a playoff stretch in which he will come across some daunting defensive duties (Hi KD and Kawhi!). And it’s already contributed to wins in the regular season.
In a game against Detroit last Monday, D’Antoni used a backcourt combination of Harden, Ariza and Dekker to stop the Pistons from “hiding” diminutive point guard Ish Smith. Because Detroit preferred to use their wing stopper, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on Harden, Smith needed to be cross-matched on a less threatening player. With Beverley and Brewer alongside him, Smith could hide easily.
But with that group in, Smith was forced to battle Ariza. A couple of post ups later and the Pistons were scrambling to find new matchups. The resulting points from that stretch alone likely provided the difference in a game the Rockets ended up winning by only three points (99-96). All that isn’t made possible without Dekker earning D’Antoni’s trust with his surprising production.
While Dekker’s performance may have been unexpected, Clint Capela, the team’s promising 22-year-old center, was someone expected to be a consistent contributor. But what’s happened in the early going is that Capela has taken the Houston offense to a completely different level. In the 446 minutes he’s been on the floor, the Rockets offensive rating has been a scintillating 114.5 -- a mark that would only trail the league’s preeminent offensive juggernaut in Oakland if it held up for an entire season, per NBA.com.
For D’Antoni’s offense to really hum, it needs a big man that’s an explosive finisher. Capela is D’Antoni’s 2016 version of Amar’e Stoudamire. With Harden on the court, Capela finishes damn near 70 percent of his shots (68.2) near the basket. So as much as Harden creates open looks for his teammates, the threat of Capela rolling to the rim for a dunk draws help defenders into the paint and off open shooters. It’s a big reason why Harden’s assists skyrocket from 13.2 per 48 minutes to 18.1 per 48 when Capela is on the floor.
And while Capela’s overall field goal percentage of 62.3 percent isn’t near the insane figures posted by DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler in recent years, it’s still pretty damn impressive. Like those two, Capela, who has attempted just one 3-pointer in his career, actually acts as a different type of floor spacer. Like a great outside shooter -- your Kyle Korver’s, JJ Redick’s, Steph Curry’s, etc -- Capela has a gravitational pull that frees up open space for his teammates. Except instead of pulling help defenders away from the paint, Capela’s pull keeps opposing big men on his body. Because if the man marking Capela takes even a single false step toward a penetrating teammate, this happens:
Like a perimeter player knocking down a 3, this type of play has a trickle down effect on how willing help defenders respond. Harden also leverages the fear of a Capela dunk to great effect with plays like this:
The space Harden needs for his little scoop shot in the above clip isn’t created by some fancy dribble move or crazy footwork. Instead it’s Harden’s pace allowing Capela’s dive to the basket to make the big defending the pick-and-roll -- Atlanta’s Dwight Howard in this case -- unwilling to come too far away from Houston’s high-flying center to prevent a high-value shot at the basket from one the NBA’s early MVP favorites. Just as a great shooter creates an open driving gap, Capela’s “vertical range” opens up space near the rim for Harden and the rest of the Rockets.
So far this season, Harden and Capela have laid waste to “drop” coverages (where the big sags back in pick-and-roll defense). Switches aren’t a great option because, while taking a physical toll, Harden will roast opposing centers trying to contain him on the perimeter (or get them into foul trouble). The only coverage that’s left to throw at this duo and hope for success is some type of trap/hard show tactic -- where the opposing big lunges at Harden in attempt to get the ball out of his hands.
It’s a coverage that will likely be reserved for late game situations in the regular season and definitely in playoff matchups where Harden is piling up points. In theory, it’s a perfect match with the proper personnel because the right play for Harden, who is drawing two defenders to him, is to move the ball out quickly to his screener and let him play 4-on-3 versus the rest of the defense. The demands on the big are quite obvious -- he has to catch, sometimes as far as 25+ feet from the basket, put the ball on the floor and make a play for himself or a teammate.
For most rim-destroyers like Capela, this is a huge issue. After all, no one fears Rudy Gobert dribbling at a defense from behind the 3-point line. It’s also something that can stall out great regular season offenses in the playoffs. Thankfully for Harden, D’Antoni and Houston, Capela shows flashes of being able to catch early on the roll and put pressure on an opposing defense.
This is definitely a development to monitor as the Rockets' season progresses. Capela is so helpful in so many ways that if he struggles to make plays high on the floor in situations like this, it’ll give teams zero pause to trap those pick-and-rolls with Harden. The more plays Capela makes like the one above, means less options for opposing defenses.
And to be clear, Harden is clearly the player that makes this offense go. En route to posting some insane stat lines, Harden is learning to make the game easier for everyone around him and Houston seems poised to carve out a spot in the top half of the Western Conference because of it. But Brewer, Dekker and Capela have formed a symbiotic relationship with the Rockets leading man, providing him with a measure of support that is allowing the all-world guard to showcase his skills.