The Houston Rockets cruised to a Game 1 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder and, as often, it was the team’s offense that carried the day for James Harden and company. While Harden and Russell Westbrook (when healthy) deserve all kinds of recognition for the heliocentric performance they exhibit in leading Houston’s offense, the Rockets do need quality supporting pieces to make the operation work. In addition to Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker, Mike D’Antoni’s system calls for rotation players that can space the floor and bomb away from beyond the arc and, in 2019-20, that means Ben McLemore.
McLemore, who was once considered a leading candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, was floundering in the NBA wilderness when he agreed to a partially guaranteed two-year deal with the Rockets in late July last summer. The former Kings and Grizzlies guard signed for a bargain-basement price, not only to be a part of a title contending team but, presumably, because McLemore’s asking price was limited.
While McLemore does have the pedigree of a top-tier high school recruit and lottery pick, the 27-year-old was something of a punchline in previous stops. As a member of the Kings, McLemore did appear in 293 games in his first four seasons, contributing a bit as a scorer and staying on the floor due to Sacramento’s sizable investment in his development. However, McLemore wasn’t what anyone would describe as a “winning player” during his rookie contract and, with a perilous situation in an unstable organization, it was not a match made in heaven.
From there, McLemore spent a year in Memphis as a “buy low” candidate and, after that experiment didn’t click, he appeared in 19 games during the 2018-19 season for the Grizzlies. In short, it appeared that his days as a well-paid NBA contributor could be numbered and, while talent was never an overarching question for McLemore, his profile never fit snugly with what his previous teams asked him to accomplish on the floor.
Enter the Rockets, with Houston playing a highly specific style and building their roster with undeniable intention. At the time of the signing, plugged-in observers opined that a limited, targeted role could be good for McLemore but, in the same breath, few could have envisioned the success that the former Kansas guard enjoyed in his first season with the Rockets.
McLemore appeared in 71 regular season games, making 23 starts, and he averaged 10.1 points while shooting 40.0 percent from three-point range. At first glance, his box-score statistics don’t look markedly different from previous seasons but, after a bit of closer inspection, McLemore’s performance in Houston really shines with regard to his role and deployment.
First, McLemore’s three-point attempt rate soared with the Rockets and, as part of the NBA’s analytical revolution, that is usually in line with increased efficiency. McLemore attempted a career-high 12.9 three-point attempts per 100 possessions and, with an elite clip of 40 percent, that shooting is exceedingly valuable. In addition, McLemore’s usage rate declined to a career-low 16 percent, mitigating some of his weaknesses with regard to playmaking and turnover avoidance.
In addition, not all three-point attempts are created equal and McLemore serves a very specific purpose within Houston’s system. McLemore attempted 545 shot attempts this season and a whopping 452 of them (82.9 percent) came from beyond the three-point arc. That is already a marked difference from the past, but 388 of the 452 three-point attempts were classified, by Synergy, as “catch-and-shoot” attempts.
Big shots from @BenMcLemore!
📊 14PTS (4-6 3PT) pic.twitter.com/rmTJ3Osk2G
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) August 19, 2020
That is a sky-high percentage and, with Harden and Westbrook doing the lion’s share of the creation, McLemore was plugged in to perhaps the perfect role for his current skill set. To be fair, McLemore did shoot a quality percentage (38 percent) on pull-up three-point attempts but, on the whole, the Rockets simply asked him to be ready and willing to shoot from long distance whenever the opportunity arose.
It is fair to wonder whether McLemore’s current brand of offense would work in other stops. After all, he is still a soundly below-average playmaker and finisher for his size, and not every team can create the kind of opportunities for three-point shooters that the current Rockets provide. However, there is nothing wrong with a player simply finding the perfect spot to showcase his abilities and McLemore is doing just that in Houston.
As the playoffs continue, McLemore will be under pressure to defend at an adequate level. At this stage, he still grades as a below-average defender according to catch-all metrics, and playoff-level intensity is something different entirely. Still, the Rockets defense didn’t suffer with him on the floor this season and, in fact, Houston was 4.0 points per 100 possessions better with McLemore on the floor this season, including a lights-out 114.2 offensive rating.
McLemore’s 2019-20 renaissance is truly a reminder that, while a player must reach a certain baseline of skill development, it matters greatly how skill sets are developed, nurtured and developed. It is possible that, without Houston as a landing spot, McLemore’s career may still be dormant but, at this stage, it appears as if he has found a niche and, in just one season, a former lottery pick has reinvented himself as a shooting specialist that could be extremely valuable at the highest levels of the sport.