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Tim Cato | April 13, 2017

How the Rockets made the wildest scheme in basketball analytics work

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How the Rockets made the wildest scheme in basketball analytics work

By Tim Cato | Published

Patrick Beverley talks to everyone. Go to a team practice, and his voice can be heard pinging around the floor. Find him after a game, and he’ll turn a weak question around on an unsuspecting reporter. Tell him a teammate attended a Beyoncé concert, something he says he would never do, and he’ll spend several minutes trying to figure out who it was. (It was James Harden, he finally deduces.)

Ninety minutes before the Rockets and the Grizzlies face each other in Houston in early March, Beverley starts talking to me.

“You going to chapel?”

Beverley is upbeat, even buoyant, as he sweeps through the locker room like he owns the place. In a sense, he does: the five-year veteran has seniority as the longest tenured Rocket, drafted in the second round a couple months before the Harden trade. Clearly, he doesn’t want me to feel left out.

I ask if I can be his plus-one.

“Yeah, come along!”

We both know it won’t happen. Media members aren’t allowed within the sacred confines of a pregame chapel service, typically a 10-minute affair involving both teams. But Beverley’s invitation was in good faith. He really wanted me to attend. He tries inviting a few more non-athletes in the room, before giving up and heading out the opposite door.

This expression of faith seems a bit antithetical in the context of the Houston locker room. After all, the Rockets aren’t just known as one of the league’s analytical pioneers, but have fully built their team off unfeeling data. The space where the players reside on game day is a reminder of those beliefs.

A long, continuous LED board stretches horizontally above the players’ lockers, alternatively displaying the league leaders in several advanced statistical categories. Where most teams play chronological footage of their opponent’s most recent game, the Rockets group various plays together, like pick-and-rolls and screens, and even show tendencies for the referee crew assigned to this game. It’s all a reminder that hard evidence is valued.

But faith has its place in the Houston locker room. Without the Rockets trusting that the system will yield results, they don’t believe their 55-win season and No. 3 seed could have happened.

“Our guys believe in our system,” says Monte McNair, the team’s vice president of basketball operations. “We hope there’s some grounding to it with our shot selection and the way we play. But certainly having our players believe not just that their shots are going in, but that their system can take them to the championship, is huge.”

Seconds after Beverley bounds out, Ryan Anderson strolls through the locker room. Where Beverley spills out infectious energy, Anderson is earnest and unassuming. He couldn’t have heard Beverly’s earlier invitation, but he sees me standing standing off to the side and extends a similar offer.

“You wanna go to chapel?”

The Rockets are not just the league’s most surprising team. They are a basketball laboratory conducting bold experiments beyond the boundaries of modern offensive efficiency. These are boundaries, mind you, that the Houston franchise has played a part in establishing over the past few years. This season’s Rockets have shattered three-point records and eschewed mid-range shots even more than years past. The league has been trending in this direction for years, but the Rockets have taken the movement and fueled it with nitrous.

500 more threes than Cleveland, who've made the second-most threes this season

Two seasons ago, Houston set the league’s record for three-point attempts, only to obliterate that record by attempting nearly 500 more this season. They have taken only 579 mid-range shots — inside the arc, outside the paint — total this year, by far the lowest among all 30 teams. In fact, four players around the league have taken more shots from the mid-range individually than Houston has as a team.

None of that inherently matters, except for the fact that it works. The Rockets have the league’s third-best record and would be on course to set a new standard for offensive efficiency if it wasn’t for those pesky Golden State Warriors. What’s fascinating is that the Rockets have doubled down on their offensive approach while retrenching around a singular star.

It was only a year ago that the Rockets were unceremoniously ousted from the postseason by those Warriors after a long, dismal season of infighting and disinterest. Harden and Dwight Howard resented each other, which essentially forced their teammates to choose sides. The reaction once their season mercifully ended could be summed up in a phrase: good riddance.

The team felt it necessary to conduct a top-down evaluation of their entire approach in order to regain their footing as one of the West’s top teams. General manager Daryl Morey has always viewed basketball through a progressive lens, but with a struggling defense and a dismal conclusion, common sense pointed to the Rockets taking a more traditional approach after last offseason’s debacle. Instead, Morey ripped up conventionality, lit it on fire, and launched it into the Gulf of Mexico. Still, McNair told me even the Rockets weren’t expecting the team to be this good.

After chapel, once congregating players revert back from parishioners to competitors, the Rockets launch 42 threes and make 18 of them, pushing Memphis and their traditional big man basketball into a quicker pace than they’re accustomed to playing. The Rockets score 123 points in a double-digit win and that isn’t even Houston’s best ball.

Houston has the 5th best offensive rating of all time

“We can play better,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni says post-game.

D’Antoni’s hiring last May put this year’s experiment in motion. You don’t hire the virtuoso who conducted the famed “Seven Seconds or Less” offense for the mid-2000s Phoenix Suns to play conventionally. In D’Antoni’s last two coaching stops with the Knicks and the Lakers, players hadn’t bought all the way into the quick-tempoed dogma. But the success of the Warriors, who played a similar style, inspired D’Antoni to give it another try. With Houston, he found the perfect situation.

“They’d been playing this way for a while and they wanted to go to even another level,” D’Antoni tells me after a shoot-around. “They know that’s what I believe in.”

With D’Antoni on board, the next item on Morey’s agenda was free agency. Morey had no qualms letting Howard walk, replacing him with a platoon of Clint Capela and Nene. He then doubled down on the offensive end by signing Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two shooters hardly known as defensive stalwarts.

“This is the team we have,” D’Antoni told the team in one of their first meetings. “These are the weapons we have, so let’s utilize them.”

The most important piece, however, was already on the roster. One of the first things D’Antoni did was broach Harden with the idea of playing point guard. Though the 6’5 guard had consistently handled the ball throughout his career, he had never been given total autonomy over an offense. D’Antoni used every trick in the book to convince him.

“Groveling, begging, I’m old and he felt sorry for me,” D’Antoni says. “I thought it was good for him and his career, but also mainly, because I thought we could win that way. And he wasn’t reluctant at all.”

James Harden is the first player to both score and assist for 2,000 points in a season

Two seasons after coming in second in the Most Valuable Player award voting to Stephen Curry, the move has made Harden a leading MVP candidate again. He posted career highs in points (29.1) and assists (11.2) while still tying his most efficient season ever, with a True Shooting Percentage of 61.3. His 53-point, 16-rebound, 17-assist game in December revealed the ceiling of his ridiculous play, but even Harden’s off games still helped the offense.

His presence and playmaking benefit players like Anderson and Gordon, who often can be found spotting up several feet behind the arc. If a defense shifts too far in hopes of containing Harden, he can find shooters within moments. Stay home, and Capela is an effective dunker on the roll. Mess up on defense even for a moment and Harden has his choice between the two. The results have been exactly according to plan: open threes and easy dunks.

“James has really brought out the best in everybody,” D’Antoni says. “He’s the key. You can’t do it without him. You can have all these nice ideas, but it can’t be translated without him. He’s been terrific.”

Instead of standing pat or looking for more defensive help at the trade deadline, Morey dealt for Lou Williams, one of the league’s top bench scorers. The Rockets ramped up their offense even higher, finishing the season scoring even more points and launching more 3s at opposing defenses.

In making the trade, the Rockets said: Screw it, we’ll just score even more.

They have bought in fully to Morey and D’Antoni’s system, putting their faith not just in the numbers, but themselves.

Morey once believed multiple superstars was the only way to a championship. It’s why the team originally signed Howard, and the reason they appeared to be hours away from securing Chris Bosh in 2014 the following summer. That mindset changed and Houston accepted Harden as their sole superstar. Now the second best player on any given night is, “Whoever the other team doesn’t want to guard as heavily,” as Anderson put it.

There is, however, a downside. One game later when facing the Spurs, a likely second-round playoff opponent, Harden has an extraordinary first half before he is swallowed up by Kawhi Leonard in the second. When Harden struggles in the fourth quarter, San Antonio narrowly wins. Harden refutes that the Spurs — or anyone — can bring the Rockets away from their quick-paced, fast-moving style. Houston did manage 110 points in the loss, after all.

“We’re going to get shots,” he says. “We’re going to play our game no matter who we play.”

D’Antoni introduced a mantra into the locker room when he arrived in Houston, and it has stuck with his team all year. So what? What’s next?

As it happened, what came next was another loss, this time back at home against the Utah Jazz. But D’Antoni isn’t flustered after the game, and indeed, it was one of only four times all season that the Rockets lost consecutive games. Later, D’Antoni compares his team to a casino table in Las Vegas.

“It’s a little bit like a pit boss,” he says. “You’ll have runs against you. You’ll have people who start winning hands. But your odds are, you keep building hotels. You’re the winner. You’re not going to beat the house. We don’t feel like they’re going to beat us. In one game, yeah, they might win, we might lose a game, this and that. But we think, over the long haul, they’re not beating us.”

That’s the science. But D’Antoni knows as well as anyone that championships aren’t won without all the cards falling in the right order a few times. His Suns teams never even made the finals, something that requires the ultimate convergence of luck, timing, talent and chemistry. Not all of those are factors a team can control.

The myth that jump shooting teams can’t win championships is dead, dispelled by the Warriors (and really, the 2011 Mavericks before them). Jump shots will ebb and flow in the regular season, but the Rockets trust that their mathematically proven strategy will win out over the long run. Threes, after all, will always be greater than twos.

Houston’s three-point approach, the team believes, puts them in a position to beat anyone in the playoffs. The rest is out of their hands, especially against opponents that might be slightly better on paper than them. Catch the Warriors or Spurs on a good shooting night, and anything could happen. Can it happen over a seven-game series? It’s a final test that they only partially control.

That’s why the Rockets allow every player to find their own way to fit into Houston’s scientific, data-driven approach. Basketball can be viewed through numbers, but it isn’t a computer simulation. The Rockets, as brought together by Morey and D’Antoni, push boundaries supported by tangible evidence and are as grounded in mathematics as any team we’ve previously seen. Still, it couldn’t live without the players who collectively provide the team its heart.

To answer the age old question: can science and faith coexist? In Houston, they’re proving it must.

Before the team played San Antonio, I received one more invitation to join the team at chapel, this time from Sam Dekker.

“If you care to join, come on down. It’s a good time.”

About the Author

I'm a staff writer covering the NBA and occasionally other sports for Before that, I was a writer and later manager for Mavs Moneyball. You can find me @tim_cato on Twitter.