In the days leading up to Wednesday night’s 128-119 win over the Charlotte Hornets, a closer look at the film during Houston Rockets practice opened the door for unselfish play, a reinforcement of the message head coach Ime Udoka has been preaching since his arrival.
Udoka has long advocated for “good to great,” meaning sacrificing good shots to generate great shots for others. At its core, Houston’s internal turnaround depends greatly on ball movement. Coming into the game, they had somewhat struggled with that goal — they’ve been a middle-of-the-pack team in passes per game and have scored just 90 points per 100 half-court plays, a bottom-10 output. Houston was also just outside the bottom 10 in assists per game (23.7) and potential assists (44.7).
The longer the team sat through the film session, the more they realized the Hornets were a heavy help defensive team. In addition, Charlotte tended to “ice” the majority of ball screens, a defensive approach that forces the ball handler away from the screener and more towards the baseline, keeping the action out of the middle of the floor.
The Rockets understood the simple, yet effective message from Udoka: move the ball. And against the Hornets, they did exactly that, finishing with an impressive 35 assists on 44 made field goals, including 21-of-37 from 3.
“Our thing was good to great,” Udoka said. “Find your teammates. Every paint touch, their defense will dissipate and we’ll get open shots. Knowing that coming in, our guys stepped up and shot them confidently. When you can have 35 assists and move the ball like we did, more often than not, they’re going to drop.”
Throughout training camp, an extended period that bled into the preseason, I routinely asked Udoka about the base of the team’s offense, a newly-formed playmaking tree with Alperen Şengün and Jalen Green now being joined by veteran point guard Fred VanVleet. Having long been regarded as an organizer and structure-oriented guard, VanVleet’s primary role was to stabilize a team that had endured a lot of shaky possessions over the last three seasons.
We’re only four games into a new season, but there are clear trends. For starters, while Şengün, Green and VanVleet possess similar usage rates (Green’s was slightly higher compared to the other two coming into Wednesday), all usage isn’t created equal.
VanVleet, as said on several occasions, has never been one to pound the air out of the basketball. He simply wants to ensure things are moving smoothly. But Şengün is, and has always been, the engine that makes the offense go. In Houston’s playmaking tree, Şengün is the trunk, the base of the entire being. Şengün assisted on nearly 35 percent of his teammates’ shots, placing him in the 92nd percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass (VanVleet was in the 30th percentile; Green was in the 7.4th). Taking it a step further, Şengün’s usage-to-assist rate is in a class of its own, literally in the 100th percentile for centers. It isn’t a secret he’s established himself as the heartbeat of the Rockets offense.
“We just getting used to each other,” Şengün told The Athletic. “Today, Fred had the ball and he had 11 assists — he’s our point guard. It changes game by game. Today, we were watching film, some games we play more delay (actions), some games more pick-and-roll. That was the game today.”
Possessions like the above are what help a coaching staff sleep easy at night. Udoka will work with the tools he’s been given. He knows Şengün is a multi-faceted big and needs to have an offense that is tailored to his strengths — as well as those of Green and VanVleet. But ball movement should be a plus for the trio. As much as Şengün loves directing traffic, he can also increase functionality by operating as a screener, using vertical spacing to force defenses to rotate, which leaves gaps if you can find them. When everyone is on the same page, good things happen.
“Team play is always better,” Şengün said. “Like you said today, we had 35 assists or something. That’s the key. Every game should be like that, I think. When we share the ball, everyone is happy. I’m happy we’re playing better.”
Now that the Rockets know the formula for half-court efficiency, can they sustain it over five, 10, or even 15 games? They’ll need to figure out how to fill the void temporarily left by rookie Amen Thompson, who suffered a Grade 2 right ankle sprain on Wednesday. Thompson had emerged as the Rockets’ first option off the bench, a testament to his ball handling and playmaking ability. Houston may shift to Jae’Sean Tate as a stopgap sixth man and also can call upon Aaron Holiday for assistance.
It’s only been four games, but Spurs sniper Cedi Osman is loving life in San Antonio, which is off to a surprising 2-2 start — including an incredible 20-point road comeback win over the Phoenix Suns.
Osman’s hot to start the season, connecting on a whopping 56.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks (while averaging 4.0 per night). His shooting is naturally his most appealing quality, but Osman has been helpful on both ends of the floor, a plus-35 (!) for the Spurs on offense and a plus-16 (!!) defensively.
The seventh-year forward has never shot more than 40 percent from distance but that might change this season — and for good reason. It’s unrealistic to assume a shooter like Osman is immune to regression (he’s not), but the bevy of San Antonio’s playmakers, in addition to the Victor Wembanyama effect, is legitimate.
The key for Osman, like most shooters, is generating more wide-open shots. Last season in Cleveland, Osman took 2.8 such 3s a night, converting 40.6 of them. This year, that number has already jumped to 3.5 and Osman is connecting on 57.1 of them.
Osman has the benefit of sharing a good chunk of minutes with point guard Tre Jones, who is often tasked with running the second unit, but has played exceptionally well with the starters. As an aside, I wonder how long the Spurs keep up the Jeremy Sochan-at-point experiment, although it’s less important who starts the game as who finishes it, especially when the team is playing well.
Tre Jones +/- numbers so far:
vs. Suns: +13 in 1-pt win
vs. Clippers: 0 in a 40(!!!!)-pt loss
vs. Rockets: +14 in a 4-pt win
vs. Mavericks: +1 in a 7-pt loss
The impact is so abundantly clear. Jones is +28 when their differential is -42.
Play the dude with the starters.
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) November 1, 2023
But the presence of Wembanyama is undeniable, and it makes you wonder whether the Spurs plan to get Osman more minutes alongside him. Part of it boils down to head coach Gregg Popovich’s rotations; he’s started Wembanyama alongside Zach Collins, uses Charles Bassey for some minutes at center and occasionally unveils Wembanyama as a destroyer five. But the gravitational pull of the No.1 pick opens up so much room for others, a real asset paired with a lethal shooter with a rapid release like Osman.
Kawhi Leonard has to respect Wembanyama in the corner, and the other four defenders on the floor are so occupied with the strong-side threat and Jones, a wizard with the ball in his hands, that they forget about Osman in the opposite corner. Osman’s trigger is so quick that even an off-target pass is curtains for a closeout.
When Wembanyama isn’t on the floor, Osman’s 3-point attempt rate is modest, with 45.5 percent of his looks coming from behind the arc. That number nearly doubles when he shares the floor with the all-world rookie. The trick, however, is Osman has only played 21 minutes next to his French colleague and 60 without. It feels like San Antonio should experiment some and pair these two more often. Experimentation is a good part of what this season is about for the Spurs, anyway, They are 20th in 3-point percentage and 16th in attempts – neither is great, but it’s still early enough in the year for them to be salvageable. And with one of the best shooters in the league on fire, there’s a pathway to more success simply by getting Osman on the floor.
(Top photo of Alperen Şengün: Troy Taormina / USA Today)