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The NBA is a copycat league, but good luck imitating the Rockets

The Houston Rockets have made at least 15 three-pointers in 35 games this season, 20 more than the next-closest team. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

When we think of the Houston Rockets, we think of a team that loves to shoot the three. Coach Mike D’Antoni’s squad has taken more than half its shots from behind the three-point line this season (50.5 percent), the most of any team since 1983-84, the first year data is available. The Rockets are on pace to set the NBA record for three-point attempts for the third time in four seasons.

It has become so extreme that Fox Sports 1 host Nick Wright asked Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey on the ‘Take That for Data’ panel at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston on Saturday if Morey felt an obligation to the sport to lessen his team’s focus behind the arc. Morey’s response: “No, my job is to win.”

So far, so good. The Rockets, the top team in the West, coasted to a 119-114 victory — their 12th in a row — over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night, hitting 15 of 35 from long range. That was their 35th game this season with at least 15 three-point shots made, 20 more than the next-closest team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. But a close look at how Houston generates points shows this is a team that is much more than a long-range threat, with an offense almost impossible to replicate.

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Houston takes 26 free throw attempts per game, second most in the NBA, and a league high 82 percent of their shot attempts from either the restricted area or behind the three-point line. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers are tied for second with 71 percent of their attempts coming from those two areas, but neither comes close to the level of efficiency established by Houston.

Shots in restricted area or behind the three-point line
2017-18 Percentage Points per shot
Houston Rockets 82% 0.97
Cleveland Cavaliers 71% 0.88
LA Clippers 71% 0.83
Brooklyn Nets 70% 0.79
Toronto Raptors 70% 0.82
Los Angeles Lakers 70% 0.81
Denver Nuggets 69% 0.81
Miami Heat 68% 0.80
New Orleans Pelicans 68% 0.81
Memphis Grizzlies 68% 0.76

It’s that last part that separates Houston from the rest of the NBA: They aren’t just taking the right kind of shots, but they’re making them. You can follow Morey and D’Antoni’s blueprint, but without high-skill players such as MVP favorite James Harden and eight-time all-NBA point guard Chris Paul to pull it off, it doesn’t work as well.

The Brooklyn Nets are trying to emulate the Rockets’ game plan. But the Nets are shooting 61 percent from the restricted area this season, the eighth-worst mark in the league, and just 34.6 percent from behind the arc, the third-worst. The Los Angeles Clippers are better from the restricted area (63 percent) but also struggle from long range (35 percent, which ranks 23rd). Same for the Los Angeles Lakers (64 percent in restricted area, 34 percent from three, second-worst in NBA).

Houston’s range, averaging 3.5 more three-point attempts per game than any other team, opens up driving lanes to the rim and forces defenses to switch frequently in an effort to keep defenders on shooters. That often results in a mismatch, with a small player able to use his speed and quickness against a bigger defender, or a big using his size against a smaller defender. This, in turn, allows the Rockets to get high-percentage layups (they average 1.3 points per attempt in the restricted area) and to draw fouls (they average 1.5 points per two shots at the line) — two of the most efficient shots in the league. In fact, Houston is the most-efficient NBA team since the adoption of the three-point line in 1979-80, scoring 116 points per 100 possessions this season.

At the individual level, Harden has found himself in isolation a third of the time this season (33 percent, league high), scoring 1.25 points per possession with an effective field goal rate of 57 percent. Paul is second in frequency (30 percent) and efficiency (1.2 PPP) among 30 players with at least 100 iso possessions in 2017-18. Overall, the team scores 1.15 points per iso possession, the highest since the NBA began tracking this in 2014-15. To put that in perspective, the Clippers are scoring 1.02 points per iso possession this season, and are the only other club over the past three seasons to average more than a point per iso play.

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If you do somehow limit Harden and Paul, there are other weapons on the court that can hurt you.

Guard Eric Gordon is scoring 28.3 points per 100 possessions, his best rate since 2012-13, with an effective field goal percentage of 57.3 percent when asked to be the spot-up shooter, the sixth-best success rate among 30 players with at least 200 spot-up attempts in 2017-18. Trevor Ariza is close behind with an effective field goal rate of 56.6 percent on spot-up attempts. Center Clint Capela scores 1.3 points per possession as the roll man on the pick-and-roll, the second-best mark among players with at least 100 possessions of this type this season. Forward Ryan Anderson is on pace to set a career high in true shooting percentage (59 percent), scoring in transition (1.4 points per possession, top 7 percent of the NBA) and off screens (1.3 PPP, top 7 percent).

It’s fair to worry about how Houston’s style of play will impact the rest of the league. But as you can see, they are playing a brand of basketball that is perfectly suited to their coach and players, and one that no other team is likely to replicate any time soon.

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