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Friday, February 07, 2020

Rockets Go All In With Small Ball

Give Daryl Morey credit for one thing: he is consistent in his beliefs. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," but Morey is focused on analytics, not literature. Morey's interpretation of basketball analytics has convinced him that the best way to play is to shoot as many three pointers as possible. He believes that big players and post play are inefficient relics that have no place in the modern game--and Morey has put his money where his mouth is, trading away center Clint Capela and rolling the dice with a primary lineup rotation that does not include anyone who is taller than 6-6. 

Speaking of analytics, in some quarters there is a false dichotomy suggesting that a person is either pro-analytics or anti-analytics (and, by implication, behind the times). Not all analytics are created  equal. In my line of work (legal analytics), we distinguish between analytics that are accurate, complete and relevant, and self-proclaimed "analytics" that are inaccurate, incomplete and therefore not only irrelevant but actually misleading and dangerous. The point of analytics is (or should be) to facilitate rational decision making that increases your likelihood of winning.

Are Morey's decisions based on analytics that are accurate, complete and relevant, or are his decisions based on a data set that is inaccurate, incomplete and/or irrelevant?

Over a decade ago I wrote about the statistical profile of an NBA championship team, and what I found then is still true today: championship teams tend to excel at point differential and defensive field goal percentage. The article noted that the previous 18 NBA champions had an average rank of 3.1 in point differential and an average rank of 5.2 in defensive field goal percentage; updating those numbers for the last three seasons, we see that the 2019 champion Toronto Raptors ranked third in point differential and fourth in defensive field goal percentage, the 2018 champion Golden State Warriors ranked third in point differential and third in defensive field goal percentage, and the 2017 champion Golden State Warriors ranked first in both categories.

Thus far, the 2020 Houston Rockets rank seventh in point differential and 17th in defensive field goal percentage. The Milwaukee Bucks rank first in both categories. If Morey is not sure what a "foundational player" looks like, he should stop staring at James Harden and observe the all-around brilliance of Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It is logical to suggest that the Rockets will not win the championship unless they improve their point differential at least a little, and unless they significantly improve their defensive field goal percentage. Therefore, from the perspective of building a championship team the correct question to ask about Morey's personnel moves and strategic decisions is whether or not they will help Houston improve their performance in the statistical categories that matter the most.

Trading Capela and going small is very unlikely to improve Houston's defensive field goal percentage. Houston may improve a little in point differential, by virtue of using three point barrages to blow out lesser teams, but that will probably be fool's gold that will not be indicative of what will happen during the playoffs when a team can zero in on the opposing team's weaknesses.

Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni, who is as much of an iconoclast as Morey, has embraced the new look lineup (not that he has much choice). D'Antoni understands that the Rockets will be outrebounded, and that they will be outscored in the paint, but he asserts that if the Rockets limit their opponents' second chance points and shoot a high volume of three point shots at an efficient rate then they can be successful.

The disadvantages of this approach should be obvious: opposing teams should be able to shoot a high percentage while they wear down the Rockets' smaller players. Morey's "analytics" focus on the self-evident fact that three point shots are worth more than two point shots, but do his equations factor in the reality that small players who are forced to guard big players will grow fatigued (both during a particular game, and also over the course of a season) and will not shoot the same percentages that they would shoot under more favorable circumstances?

The main advantage for Houston is that an offense with five players stationed outside of the paint will create many open driving lanes for Russell Westbrook, the team's best player. If the Rockets are smart enough to figure out that Westbrook is their best player, they could pose intriguing matchup problems, though I still am skeptical that this team playing this style will win a championship. Harden's game largely revolves around gimmicks, and he can be slowed down/frustrated by gimmick defenses--but Westbrook's game is based on playing hard and relentlessly attacking the paint, particularly in transition. If the Rockets rebound adequately and then Westbrook pushes the ball up the court, it will be very difficult for opposing teams to keep him out of the paint. D'Antoni believes that opposing bigs will have more trouble matching up with Houston's "small" players than Houston's "small" players will have matching up with bigger opponents--but Westbrook is the key element for this unconventional strategy to succeed.

Houston started the post-Capela era with a 121-111 win over the L.A. Lakers last night. Westbrook led both teams with 41 points on 17-28 field goal shooting. He tied Robert Covington, who was acquired in the Capela deal, with a team-high eight rebounds as the undersized Rockets finished with 37 rebounds, just one fewer than the Lakers had. Westbrook's +12 plus/minus number was second only to Covington's +16. James Harden finished with 14 points on 3-10 field goal shooting, plus seven rebounds and seven assists. He was one of just two Rockets who had a negative plus/minus number (-3).

Anthony Davis (32 points and 13 rebounds) and LeBron James (18 points, 15 assists, nine rebounds) each displayed a remarkable ability to put up gaudy individual numbers that had little impact on team success. Why did James attempt eight three pointers and just one free throw against a team whose starting center was at least two inches shorter than he is? Why did James focus on racking up assists when there was not a player on the court who had a prayer of stopping him from scoring in the paint? Is leading the league in assists more important than helping his team develop the necessary habits to win in the playoffs? James may surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time regular season scoring list, so it is beyond dispute that James is one of the greatest scorers of all-time, yet James seems intent on trying to prove that he is not primarily a scorer; do you think that Abdul-Jabbar--a six-time NBA champion--would have focused on racking up assists if he were being guarded by players who stood 6-6 or less?

Meanwhile, Westbrook joined Oscar Robertson and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history who have amassed at least 20,000 points, at least 7000 assists, and at least 6000 rebounds. Westbrook's gaudy numbers have tended to correspond with team success (and some of his post-Kevin Durant Oklahoma City Thunder teams were just awful unless Westbrook posted 30 point triple doubles) Westbrook was the best player on the court--an All-Star reserve outshining three 2020 All-Star starters--and he is a borderline Pantheon player, but he is not close to being recognized as such, and he will not actually cross that threshold without adding a few more deep playoff runs to his resume (which includes four Western Conference Finals appearances and one trip to the NBA Finals).

The Rockets do not have to revolve around a gimmicky James Harden show. If the Rockets let Westbrook take the lead offensively and if they collectively play hard on defense then they could surprise some teams. Westbrook's rebounding, particularly on defense, is very important for Houston.

Even before the Capela trade, we saw a glimpse of how good the Rockets can be when the focus is not on the Harden show. On Monday January 27, Harden sat out due to a leg injury, Westbrook sat out the second game of a back to back set, and Capela sat out due to a heel injury. You might have thought that the Rockets did not have a chance, but the Rockets beat the Jazz in Utah, 126-117. The Jazz had been 18-3 at home prior to this game. Without Harden dribbling the ball until he created potholes in the court, Eric Gordon scored a career-high 50 points on 14-22 field goal shooting. The Rockets shot 15-40 (.375) from three point range, putting the lie to the notion that Harden is surrounded by a bunch of scrubs who cannot score without his help.

The Rockets have several talented, scrappy players, and on any given night they can beat anybody. That is not the issue, though. The issue is whether or not this style of play with this group of players is the optimal approach if the goal is to win a championship. This is the culmination of the way Morey has built this team for over a decade, and the final evaluation of his impact on the sport may depend on the result of this small ball experiment. Morey has held this job for 13 years, which is a long run for someone whose teams have failed to advance past the first round for more than half of his tenure. My basic take on Morey has not changed: "If you ran an organization and Morey showed up in your office offering to sell you his expertise/his proprietary analytics would you buy based on those results?"

Going all in on small ball is Morey's swing for the fences attempt to wipe out the memories of nearly a decade and a half that has not seen Houston able to sustain an elite level of play despite having Morey's "foundational player" (Harden) and despite supposedly enjoying the advantage conferred by Morey's analytical perspective.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM



At Saturday, February 08, 2020 12:12:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

It's been nice to see Westbrook play very well lately and it's doubly a shame that the Rockets seem like they're squandering a resurgent year from him because I don't see this team going far in the playoffs as constructed now.

Zach Lowe recently suggested Westbrook shouldn't even be picked as an All-Star reserve and there was "no case" for him to be in the All-Star game this year.

At Saturday, February 08, 2020 12:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Westbrook's talents are being wasted in Houston, and that will continue to happen until the team changes its philosophy, which will not likely occur with the current GM/coach combo.

Regarding Zach Lowe and others who write without understanding what they see, I think about it this way: there are clear differences between being a lawyer, a chess Expert, and a published writer for large, mainstream media outlets.

To be a lawyer, you have to get a good LSAT score, graduate from law school and pass the Bar Exam.

To be a chess Expert, you have to win a high percentage of chess games in rated competition.

To be a writer for large, mainstream media outlets, you have to...curry favor with certain people who are not required to objectively prove that they have any idea what they are doing.

So, if I meet a lawyer, I understand that this person has objectively demonstrated at least a minimal level of competence. If I meet a chess Expert, I understand that this person has objectively demonstrated at least a minimal level of competence. If I meet a writer for large mainstream media outlets, I understand this person did not have to objectively demonstrate a minimal level of competence; this writer may be very competent, completely incompetent, or somewhere in between.

At Sunday, February 09, 2020 1:50:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Time will tell whether this smallball 24/7 gimmick offense is a genius move or doomed to be relegated to the dustbin of history like Nellie ball in the early 90s.

The logic of this move is as follows: without playing a legitimate bigman, the Rockets are forcing teams to give up a three point shot if they rotate the ball enough to find whoever the opposing team's big is supposed to guard. Instead of playing a bigman on offense, they are rolling out three point perimeter defenders. Having five perimeter defenders will make it difficult for opposing teams to get a quality three point shot off consistently throughout the game. The Rockets are leaving the middle wide open, and that baits other teams into scoring the easy two point shot inside.

Now that the Rockets have mitigated the opposing team's three point offense, they have a greater urgency to jack up even more threes of their own. They are pushing all their chips in the middle of the table with this style, the smallball 24/7 once pioneered elsewhere, but only in spurts. It makes sense for the current era and rules that allow for freedom of movement.

However, the question is whether they can actually control the pace of games. Will opposing teams be tempted to funnel their offense inside for easy shots? They will have to hit 70 to 80 percent of their shots if the Rockets manage to hit half of their threes. Perhaps the Westbrook-juiced offense will be sped up enough to get extra possessions and shots per game, and that forces the opposing team to go small and goose their pace just to keep up.

Perhaps this won't be as successful in the playoffs cuz the game slows down and teams switch much more on defense.

On Friday I wasn't sure whether the many shots the Lakers missed had more to do with the Rockets' swarming defense or that they were just surprised and disconcerted at the new approach that they missed layups. I watched LBJ and Westbrook closely. Westbrook was giving 110% as usual, but LBJ looked like he was cruising with nary a bead of sweat.

At Monday, February 10, 2020 10:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Some of the innovations that Don Nelson tried (including the "point forward," and using a big man to shoot three pointers to spread out the opposing defense) are still used today, but I am not sure exactly what you mean by "Nellie ball."

I understand the thinking behind what Houston is doing. Two important factors, as I mentioned in this article and have mentioned before, are (1) Using Westbrook properly, and (2) being consistently engaged on defense. If Westbrook is used properly then he will be a monster with this style of play, as we have already seen over the past 25-30 games as the Rockets have started to understand how to best use his skills. An interesting side effect of going small is that Harden will be guarding post players (which he is both better at and more engaged with than guarding perimeter players), and it will be very obvious if he is not putting forth sufficient effort, because that will result in easy layups.

Playing this way is taking the ball out of Harden's hands to some extent, and is also forcing him to play defense or be exposed as the weak link, because in small ball it is critical that all five players are very active and engaged on defense.

I don't think that this will work long term, and I definitely don't think that this will work in the playoffs, but it will be interesting to watch.

I have always said that the Rockets need to have Harden dribble less and defend more, and the Rockets seem to be finally trying to accomplish both tasks.


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