by Zach d'Arbeloff
Everyone knows the first part of the story.
In 2012, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey completed one of the greatest trade fleeces in NBA history, exchanging NBA bust Jeremy Lamb, one-dimensional Kevin Martin, and two first-round picks (plus flotsam) for budding superstar James Harden.
It was a trade that was the culmination of a years long strategy by Morey to acquire the right kind of assets and build enough capital to make a splash. Morey predicated his team building on analytics and efficiency. Morey was the first to notice the efficiency gap from which the NBA suffered; contested midrange jumpers and clogged iso sets led to bogged down offenses and stagnant scoring. Instead, Morey focused on the most efficient areas: the paint, where FG% was highest, the free throw line, where points are literally free, and the 3-point arc, where a made basket equals an extra point. Just as the Heat were starting to unleash Prime LeBron at the 4 in their pace and space offense, Morey was constructing a similar offense around Harden: get to the paint, get to the line, and get as many open threes as possible.
Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, excelled on his new team and immediately turned them into a borderline top-5 offense without much help. The Rockets were back in the playoffs, and a year later signed Dwight Howard, at the time widely considered the NBA’s best center.
Morey’s strategy appeared to be working, despite the playoff stumble against an upstart Portland Trail Blazers team in the first round of the 2014 playoffs (which can largely be credited to either Howard’s “injury” or complete disappearance, depending on who you talk to). Things were moving forward. The team improved in the win column every year, culminating in the 2014-15 season that saw Houston move, for the first time, into the Top 10 in team defense and make a surprise run to the Western Conference Finals.
Then it all came apart. Spectacularly. What happened?
Part 1: Players aren’t numbers.
The big mistake within the basketball analytics movement is the tendency to reduce an NBA basketball player into a set of numbers. It’s an easy mistake to make; the analytics revolution started in baseball, where each individual player is isolated from one another, therefore making it easy to use numbers to determine performance and trends. It makes it relatively simple to see where a statistical anomaly might predict a jump or a valuable skill that may have gone unnoticed otherwise.
In the spectrum of sports, basketball is the polar opposite. With only five players on the court, constantly sharing a single ball in a fluid game, it is impossible to separate them from each other. In the NBA, there are always layers to performance at a level of intricacy that statistics really can’t capture.
In Harden’s case, he was an extremely gifted offensive player who was a downright liability on defense. Much of his defensive struggles were covered up by having Serge Ibaka behind him, and his efficiency was bolstered by teammates Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, both Top 10 NBA players in their own right. Those players were the team's leaders and allowed Harden to be totally himself.
When he got to Houston, Harden became “the guy.” Expectations rose. In some ways, Harden has exceeded expectations, as he’s morphed into one of the five best offensive players in the league. In other ways, he’s been an enormous disappointment. He had one season of serviceable defense under former head coach Kevin McHale before reverting back into a listless turnstyle last season. His tendency to hold the ball and play 1-on-5 makes him an unpopular teammate and drove star center Dwight Howard out of town.
In the meantime, Harden has done him. He’s dated a Kardashian. He signed an enormous deal with Adidas before releasing the ugliest shoe this side of the new Steph Currys. He’s put up enormous box score stats. He’s created his own signature celebration. Yet, outside of that singular 2015 playoff run, he hasn’t experienced team success in Houston, despite talented rosters and high expectations.
It’s easy to make excuses, but Harden definitely deserves a large share of the blame. His style of basketball marginalizes his teammates, especially now-departed center Dwight Howard. His defense is so bad that ESPN made a best-of Harden blow-bys this season. Despite a monstrous stat line last year, Harden was left off the All-NBA teams, replaced by two-way players and excellent teammates Klay Thompson and Kyle Lowry. All of this to say: despite his friendly analytics and apparent offensive talent, James Harden has not been as successful at winning basketball games as the company he is often compared to.
Entering Year Five in Houston, the question is now valid: can you win a title (or even compete for one) with an enigma such as Harden as your best player?
Part 2: The League Catches Up
As Daryl Morey was executing his team building strategy through the early 2010s, he was in a league of his own. The basketball efficiency gap was huge; most teams were still running the same mundane iso sets that had been popular through the 2000s. Basketball was changing slowly, but Houston was well ahead of the curve.
However, by the time Morey found the star that fit the system he wanted in Harden, people were starting to figure his plan out. Whether or not it was by accident, Miami was actually the first to complete Morey’s secret master plan, surrounding LeBron James with shooters and letting him play point forward. As James broke down a defense and drew a double team, he could rifle one of his signature cross court passes to any of the shooters he played with (Mike Miller, James Jones, Ray Allen, Chris Bosh, etc) for an open 3.
While the “pace and space” strategy—which emphasized transition basketball, efficient shots, and defense—was almost undoubtedly pioneered by Morey, the term was actually coined by Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat head coach. By the time the Rockets acquired Dwight Howard (stage 2 in their plan), Miami was off and running with its small-ball, transition attack on their way to their second straight NBA title and third straight Finals.
Since 2013, the rest of the league has more or less adopted and adapted. Frontcourt players are smaller, faster, and more versatile. Three-point shooting is at an all-time premium. Ball movement and efficiency are today’s buzzwords.
The NBA has not helped the Rockets. The league has made a major effort to adopt many of the analytics and sports technologies used by Morey in the early 2010s and made them available leaguewide. SportVU tracking technology is now in every stadium, and nba.com/stats has become the most innovative destination for statheads. There are a few outliers clinging to the old ways of the sport—like the Knicks and Grizzlies—but most teams are on board with the trend towards positionless, maximum efficiency basketball.
Once you stop being innovative and start becoming the status quo, where does that leave you?
Part 3: Houston Falls Behind
The 2014-15 Western Conference Semifinals did not turn in Houston’s favor because of a spectacular performance by James Harden and Dwight Howard. Quite the contrary: then-coach Kevin McHale benched the starters and allowed a second unit to play most of the fourth. They erased a 19-point second half deficit, led by a combined 29 points from Josh Smith and Corey Brewer in the fourth quarter.
That the defining moment of the season did not involve superstars James Harden and Dwight Howard is fine. Really, it’s good coaching. McHale found what worked and stuck with it when all else was failing.
It’s hard to ignore this moment, because McHale got fired just 11 games into the 2015-16 regular season. My thoughts on the firing haven’t changed since, and it’s pretty clear that Howard and Harden were offended by the benching even if it won them the series. There’s no other explanation for firing such a successful coach so early in the season.
Pre-firing, the Rockets were a pick du jour to be big winners last season—Bill Simmons lost thousands of dollars betting on their over—before loafing through an uninspired campaign and a first round playoff exit in which not a single Rocket celebrated the one game they won against Golden State.
After such a disaster of a season, Houston was left with a “now what?” moment. In that moment, they decided the fate of their franchise for at least the next few seasons. In what was the opposite of the forward-thinking mentality they’ve championed since Morey was hired in 2007, the Rockets hired a coach whose last winning season was the one after Morey took the job: Mike D’Antoni.
Mike D’Antoni, for those living under a rock, is widely considered the modern pioneer of the “pace and space” offense. While it was more widely known at the time as “seven seconds or less,” the basic premise D’Antoni used to such success in Phoenix was a turbocharged, high speed attack based around the shooting and passing of two-time MVP Steve Nash. D’Antoni laid the groundwork for the modern NBA in a lot of ways, especially in the way that he used Amar'e Stoudemire as a stretch-5 and spread shooters around Steve Nash pick-and-rolls.
The team experienced great success, winning 60 games twice and making it to two Western Conference Finals. None of those teams were in the Top 15 defensively, however, and both got shellacked in those Conference Finals.
Therein lies the difference between D’Antoni’s Suns and the modern progenitors of Pace and Space. The 2012-13 Miami Heat, the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs, and the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors (and the 15-16 Warriors) were all near the top of the league defensively. These weren’t run and gun teams focused solely on scoring the basket; these were complete, two way teams that defended in a style as intense and high paced as their offenses. Which, by the way, the Rockets were doing a pretty damn good job at under Kevin McHale.
So, just to recap on the Rockets’ offseason: they hired a coach hated by one of the best rim protectors since 2000, setting the floor for him to walk. That coach has never had a good defensive team and now coaches the superstar with the worst defense in the league. Instead of hiring an innovative thinker and strategist, they hired the guy who was innovative 10 years ago. Their “big-name” signings were Nene, a center who hasn’t played more than 67 games since 2011, and Eric Gordon, a shooting guard who hasn’t played more than 64 games since he was a rookie. They went looking for an Xbox One and decided to buy a used Xbox 360 instead. For no apparent reason.
Are they are expecting this to be a successful plan?
Here’s my prediction for the 2016-17 Houston Rockets: a team is going to score 200 on them. James Harden is going to get blown by more than an EZ-Pass toll booth. Things might even get bad enough that Harden trade rumors pop up.
Oh, and they’re definitely missing the playoffs. Hell no, this team isn’t good.