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Friday, March 06, 2020

Clippers Rout Misfiring Rockets

The L.A. Clippers beat the Houston Rockets 120-105 on Thursday night--and the game was much more one-sided than even that 15 point margin suggests: the Clippers led 107-77 midway through the fourth quarter before the Rockets made a late, meaningless rally during what Marv Albert often calls "extensive garbage time."

This game was hyped as a battle between Western Conference contenders, but in reality this game demonstrated the difference between a Western Conference contender and a Western Conference pretender. The Clippers are a complete team: they are well-coached, they are well-balanced (with a good mixture of size, speed, playmaking, and shooting), they are deep, they play hard at both ends of the court, and they are led by Kawhi Leonard, a proven champion and a tremendous all-around player. In contrast, the Rockets are a flawed team: they stubbornly play one way no matter what (as TNT's Charles Barkley noted at halftime with the Clippers leading 67-44, the Rockets have no plan B), they lack size, they don't fully utilize the depth/talent that they have, they often do not play hard, and they suffer serious confusion about who is their best player.

Ever since the "stat gurus" made the revolutionary (to them) discovery that a three pointer is worth more than a two pointer, they have convinced themselves that the optimal basketball strategy is to minimize, if not eliminate, two point field goal attempts. The "stat gurus" do not look at matchups, they do not look at size, they do not consider physical or mental fatigue, they dismiss psychology, and they just keep repeating "Three is more than two." According to them, post play is dead, an antiquated relic from a primitive era before "stat gurus" dispensed basketball enlightenment to the unwashed masses. According to them, Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal would not be as effective in today's game as they were during their eras because those two dominant big men could neither make three pointers nor guard players who shoot three pointers.

Taking these beliefs--and they are much more akin to religious beliefs than scientific theories that have been tested--to their logical extreme, the Rockets have gone all-in with a small ball lineup. Not surprisingly, the Rockets have been outrebounded in every game that they have played since trading away starting center Clint Capela--but, according to the "stat gurus," rebounding does not matter because "three is more than two." Supposedly, that extra point per shot compensates for lack of size, for the inevitable fatigue that will affect small players who are guarding bigger players every game, and for being outrebounded every game.

Small ball can work during the regular season against teams that are mediocre or worse. It can even work occasionally against good teams. However, small ball is unlikely to work four times against a good team in a seven game playoff series. Even if the Rockets make a high percentage of their three point shots in a given game, they could still lose if their opponent pounds them in the paint--and the Rockets will almost certainly lose every single game against a good team when they shoot 7-42 (.167) from three point range, as they did against the Clippers.

Rockets' supporters will say that the bad three point shooting was an aberration. That is true in a literal sense--the Rockets typically shoot better than .167 from three point range--but in a larger sense this kind of woeful shooting accompanied by no plan B is something that you can expect to see at least once per playoff series. By playing this way, the Rockets are giving away at least one game per playoff series. That might work in the first round, but it is unlikely to work after the first round. Relying on volume three point shooting is willingly submitting yourself to a high variance outcome: you might shoot 21-42 from three point range (though that is unlikely to happen very often in the playoffs against a good team that is focused on playing defense), but you also might shoot 7-42 from three point range.

Back to Chamberlain and O'Neal for a moment. Would you take either of them over Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell? Zubac scored 17 points on 6-6 field goal shooting while grabbing 12 rebounds in 20 minutes versus the Rockets. He had a plus/minus number of +23. Harrell had 19 points on 5-9 field goal shooting while snaring 10 rebounds in 22 minutes. He has a plus/minus number of +3 (being on the court during garbage time deflated that number, which is a good example of why plus/minus numbers in a small sample size are often not the best way to evaluate a player's impact on winning). Chamberlain was a world class track and field athlete; until the last few seasons of his career, O'Neal was very mobile and surprisingly agile. If Zubac and Harrell can go 17-12 and 19-10 against Houston while playing less than half of the game, what would Chamberlain and O'Neal do? For Chamberlain, who routinely played 48 minutes during his prime, a 70-40 game versus this Houston team is not out of the question; for O'Neal, 60-25 seems like a reasonable projection.

Leonard was brutally efficient: 25 points, six rebounds, five assists, 8-15 field goal shooting in 29 minutes. You can't speed him up or slow him down, and you can't make him take a bad shot; he plays at his own pace, he takes the shots that he wants, and he may be the most disruptive defensive player of his size since Scottie Pippen was in his prime. Paul George contributed 13 points, nine rebounds and seven assists while shooting 5-13 from the field; he finished third in last season's regular season MVP voting, and he led the Indiana Pacers to back to back Eastern Conference Finals appearances in 2013-14, but it is difficult to picture him being the best player on a championship team. George is in the perfect role with the Clippers; Leonard carries the weight on most nights, and George chips in here and there without being depended upon to be the main guy. George has all of the tools to be a superstar--he is big, he is quick, and he can shoot, pass, rebound, and defend--but there is just some element that is missing in terms of putting his imprint on a game, a series, and a playoff run the way that guys like Leonard, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James have done while leading their teams to championships and winning seven of the past eight Finals MVPs.

Russell Westbrook led both teams with 29 points and 15 rebounds. He led the Rockets with five assists. He played hard, and he attacked the hoop relentlessly, but he was often the only Rocket with two feet in the paint, and the larger Clippers harassed him into 11-27 field goal shooting. Westbrook is Houston's best player, and any success that they have had since going all-in on small ball is attributable to running the offense through Westbrook. Without Westbrook's drives to the hoop and his remarkable rebounding as a 6-3 point guard, the Rockets would struggle to win half of their games as currently constituted. Of course, they likely would not have traded Capela if they did not have Westbrook; as I noted in a recent article, the Capela trade is a "Jedi mind trick" that forces Harden to play harder on defense while also shifting the emphasis on offense away from Harden and toward Westbrook. Houston's only chance to have any sustained playoff success is to hope that Westbrook's forays to the hoop can compensate for the games when the Rockets shoot a very low percentage from three point range--but, as this game showed, when the Rockets are missing a ton of three pointers and are too stubborn to try anything else (other than Westbrook driving), even Westbrook cannot stem the tide.

Harden was the third option when he played alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. The only things that Harden has added to his game since that time are flopping, traveling, and a higher volume of three point attempts at the expense of shot attempts from other areas of the court, so it is amusing that so many so-called analysts cling to the belief that Harden is Houston's best player. Harden scored 16 points versus the Clippers on 4-17 field goal shooting, including 0-8 from three point range; we saw "playoff Harden" weeks before the playoffs begin! One sequence was very interesting: Harden had an opportunity to score an uncontested fastbreak layup, but he slowed down to try to bait Patrick Beverly into fouling him ("stat gurus" insist that free throws are better than two point field goal attempts)--and Beverly delivered a hard foul so that Harden would not have a three point play opportunity. Beverly was assessed a flagrant foul 1. Harden split the pair of free throws, and then the Rockets did not score on the possession that they received as a result of the flagrant foul. Harden made the "analytically correct" play by drawing a foul, and Beverly made the "old school" play of not letting someone score a layup. The result was that instead of Harden just converting an easy two points, the Rockets ended up with one point. This is a great example of how the Rockets are outsmarting themselves by treating basketball as if the sport is nothing more than rows of numbers on a spreadsheet.

Data driven decision making using analytics that are accurate, complete and relevant has revolutionized many fields, including my field (the legal profession)--but the Rockets are not effectively utilizing analytics: they are instead committing themselves to a style of play that quite obviously is not likely to produce a championship. This is the logical, inevitable result of hiring Daryl Morey well over a decade ago, and it will be interesting to see what direction the Rockets take after they are eliminated from the 2020 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 AM



At Saturday, March 07, 2020 7:12:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

I visited a Rocket fan webpage after the game, my first mistake, and they were actively celebrating that 36 of the 42 three-point attempts by the Rockets were either open (closest defender 4-6ft away) or wide open (6ft+ away). Again, this shouldn't be a surprise considering the source but it never fails to amaze me just how deluded some fans can be. If I were a Rocket fan I would be wondering why Morey and Harden are viewed as these untouchable cornerstones of the franchise when their arrival has produced mostly underwhelming results, not frantically putting a positive spin on a 7-42 three-point performance. The Capela trade had all the signs of a Hail Mary panic move and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a massive overhaul of the franchise this offseason in the likely event of another disappointing playoff exit.

At Sunday, March 08, 2020 12:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Morey's fans care more about being "analytically correct" than they do about winning.

The Capela trade is the logical result of what Morey has been doing for several years: the Rockets are now completely dependent on "small ball," with no Plan B and no looking back. The one possible saving grace for the Rockets will be if they figure out that Westbrook is their best player, and they use Westbrook's drives/midrange game as the Plan B when the three point shots are not falling. In the playoffs, if Harden starts out 1-8 (or whatever) from three point range, the Rockets need to go to Westbrook, and not just watch Harden end up 2-16 from three point range. Westbrook provides a dimension that Chris Paul did not (and could not) in previous seasons.

That being said, even if the Rockets play correctly I cannot see them beating either L.A. team in a seven game series. If they end up with a good seed, and then someone else (or injuries) take out the L.A. team on their side of the bracket, they could sneak into the WCF before losing to the remaining L.A. team.


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