After hiring Mike D'Antoni to be their head coach in the summer of 2016, the Houston Rockets pitched the now two-time Coach of the Year's system to prospective free agents, focusing on how they would fit around James Harden playing the role of Steve Nash in his offence.
While it seemed like a ridiculous plan at the time for the Rockets to make Harden their Steve Nash, it's worked out better than anyone could have expected. Houston has surrounded Harden with the same type of players that the Phoenix Suns did with Nash and Harden has quarterbacked D'Antoni's offense in a similar way, albeit at an even higher and more historic level.
There is one way in which these Rockets differ from Nash's Suns, though. Whereas those teams played at breakneck speed, the Rockets have played at a slower pace each season D'Antoni has been head coach. According to inpredictable, they averaged 13.6 seconds per possession in his first season compared to 14.7 seconds per possession in his third and most recent season.
One second might not sound like much, but it's the difference between the Rockets ranking near the top and bottom of the league in how quickly they play.
|Season||Seconds Per Possession||Rank|
As D'Antoni explained to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, it's been a natural evolution to play to the strengths of Harden, who has become the most dominant isolation player in league history. Rather than playing with pace for early shot opportunities, Harden likes to run pick-and-rolls until he gets the mismatch he wants then methodically picks it apart.
"We got the best iso guy in the world," D'Antoni said of Harden. "And that's why we do it."
"I think every point guard plays at their comfort level, where they're most effective, and we just mold everything around that."
It resulted in nearly three-quarters of Harden's shot attempts coming in the second half of the shot clock last season, with many of his possessions looking like this:
Chris Paul operates in a similar way, giving the Rockets two players who play deep into the clock.
Paul, however, is no longer Harden's co-star in Houston - Russell Westbrook is. And unlike Paul and Harden, Westbrook looks to push the ball at every chance he gets, much like Nash used to, which could make next season's Rockets look more like the D'Antoni teams of old.
According to NBA.com, nobody attempted more shots per game within the first six seconds of the shot clock than Westbrook last season, the same range the Suns looked to score in when Nash orchestrated D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds of Less" offence. It saw Westbrook score 6.0 points per game in transition (25.5 percent of his offence on the season), placing him behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Devin Booker for most in the league.
MORE: Why Westbrook in Houston will and won't work
Similar to Antetokounmpo and James, Westbrook generates a lot of his own scoring opportunities in transition. Much has been made of him chasing defensive rebounds in pursuit of triple-doubles, but his willingness to attack the glass helped the Oklahoma City Thunder generate early offence. They were a completely different team in that regard with him in the lineup last season, going from averaging 20.7 fast break points per 100 possessions with him on the court to 10.5 with him on the bench.
For context, the Sacramento Kings led the league with 20.1 fast break points per 100 possessions last season. The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, ranked 27th with 10.5 fast break points per 100 possessions.
Westbrook is a one-man wrecking crew in the open court. He wasn't particularly efficient in transition last season - he ranked in the 12th percentile with 0.87 points per 100 possessions, largely because he was a turnover machine - but he'll add a new dimension to Houston's offence with his grab-and-go ability.
The addition of Westbrook alone should help the Rockets climb back into the top 10 in transition scoring next season. He will also help them end possessions, both as a rebounder - the Rockets had the second-lowest defensive rebounding rate in the league last season - and as one of the league's best thieves.
Harden was one of only two players to score more points per game off of turnovers than Westbrook last season, the other being Westbrook's former teammate Paul George. Even though he's never quite lived up to his potential as an All-NBA defender, Westbrook is consistently among the league leaders in steals and deflections.
Whenever the opposing team turns over the ball, Westbrook is off to the races, needing only a couple of dribbles to get from one end of the court to the other.
The tricky part for D'Antoni will be finding a way to mesh Westbrook and Harden's styles of play. They're both used to having the ball in their hands - Westbrook and Harden rank first and second, respectively, in usage rating since the 2014-15 season - and they have very different strengths. In a perfect world, D'Antoni would strike a perfect balance with the Rockets playing at a higher tempo when Westbrook has the ball in his hands and a slower tempo to cater to Harden's iso-heavy ways when he's in control.
The Rockets have the personnel to do so. Clint Capela is the perfect centre to pair with Westbrook and Harden because he can run the floor, attack the offensive glass and play above the rim as a lob target, and they still have shooters at every position, from P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon in the starting lineup to Gerald Green and Danuel House off the bench.
It's obviously much easier said than done to integrate two ball dominant superstars, but the pace at which Westbrook plays gives the Rockets something they've been missing the last two seasons.
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