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The Failure of the Houston Rockets Experiment

17 May

What the Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey attempted to do with his NBA franchise was nothing short of brilliant. He attempted to revolutionize basketball by proving that any sport could be conquered by analyzing its statistics. He attempted to build a team philosophy in professional basketball that was based solely on advanced metrics. He attempted to turn the Houston Rockets into a championship team by putting efficient players in the most analytically sound offensive system that the National Basketball Association has ever seen. However, the Daryl Morey experiment has failed horrifically. Though Morey has put together a team that has recognizable stars and enough talent to regularly reach the NBA playoffs, his teams routinely exit the playoffs after being humiliated by squads with comparable talent. Though the ideology by which Morey builds his team and the strategy that he pushes onto his coaches is sound in theory, that ideology does not work in application. Morey is a stats geek and a dreamer who does not fully understand the game of basketball, and his team suffers because of it.

The basic tenets of Morey ball are finding ways to get layups and high percentage three point shots. Strictly by the numbers, layups and three pointers – especially corner threes – are the most efficient ways of scoring in basketball, so Morey hoped to construct an offensive system and team philosophy that exclusively utilized those shots. Each layup is worth only two points, however the league as a whole shoots 62.4% from 0-3 feet away from the rim and about 40% on two pointers out to 16 feet. Therefore, teams make more of the shorter shots, and consequently score more points near the rim. Because field goal attempts taken behind the three point arc are worth one more point than those shots taken inside the line, three point shots that basketball players can hit more regularly have more value. Corner three pointers are the second highest shots in efficiency according to advanced metrics since the shot is about a foot shorter, and players hit a higher percentage of them. Morey theorized that by creating an offense that only took high value shots and played a game of high possessions, he could build a champion. He added players like the high-scoring guard, James Harden, and a physical specimen under the rim, Dwight Howard as his core pieces. Then, he sought after the free agents with the best statistical efficiency and hired coaches that would acquiesce to his system. The Houston Rockets have competed well enough to reach the playoffs in 5 of the 8 seasons with Morey in the general manager’s office and have been one of the better teams in the National Basketball Association during that period, however the best teams in the league beat them regularly in the playoffs. And, there are two clear reasons why this happens. One, the players that the Rockets have added do not fit the system that they are trying to implement. And two, an offense that only takes layups or three pointers is inherently flawed.

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The first major problem with the current construction and philosophy of the Houston Rockets is that the players do not fit their proposed strategy. In order to have a team that shoots a lot of three pointers, you have to sign good shooters to maintainable contracts and put them in positions on the floor where they can score. The only shooter on the basketball court on any given play for the Rockets is James Harden – the man who creates shots for the other players - and he is a volume scorer who only shoots 44.3% from the field on his career and 36.8% from three. Dwight Howard has been incredibly efficient in the paint, but he has become more limited on the offensive end of the floor and rarely scores in isolation. He has never shot under 59.1% from the field in Houston, however he has never scored more than 18.3 points per game either. And in arguably his most efficient season as a Rocket, Howard only averaged 13.7 points per game. The analytic savvy Houston Rockets are completely dependent on an inefficient James Harden playing well to be successful. When Harden penetrates and kicks the basketball out for scoring opportunities, he depends on mercurial shooters like Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer to knock down shots. Ariza and Brewer have career averages of 35.2% and 28.7% from the three point line (the league average this year was 35.4%). If these players convert long range shots, the offense looks fluid and efficient because Harden is a force on the offensive end. But, when they miss shots the offense looks stagnant and predictable. And, if Harden is missing his shots, then the Houston offense looks forced and disjointed. Because James Harden needs the basketball to be an effective scorer, he stifles the efficacy of the point guard position and often alienates his other wing player except on spot-up opportunities. By putting the offense in the hands of one player, the Houston Rockets have sacrificed team chemistry and limited their offense. Good offenses have good spacing, excellent ball movement, and a shared belief in creating and making open shots. Their stars facilitate the offense, but those stars only dominate the basketball in the most crucial moments of the game. By having Harden control the basketball during most possessions of the season, and because his teammates are not suited to play the type of basketball that the franchise desires to play, the Houston Rockets are ill-equipped to face the best teams in the NBA.

The second major error that the Rockets made with their franchise was adopting this experimental offense in the first place. The base principles of their experiment were sound. Every general manager should attempt to get the best athletes available for his team and any decent coach should be attempting to get his best players open shots as close to the basket as possible on every possession. But, when a team expands those principles to the three point line, there are several factors that play into each situation. The likelihood of a shot being made depends on who is taking the shot, the area of the floor that the shot is being taken, if the shot was assisted on or not, and how well-defended the shot is. No one can fault Daryl Morey for wanting to put an emphasis on certain shots. Open shots are easier to convert at any distance than well-defended shots. However, basketball can not be confined to certain places on the court. NBA defenses have become so nuanced and well-executed that on some possessions, especially in the playoffs, the best shot that a team can get is a long two pointer (the nemesis of advanced metrics). The Rockets have suffered in the post season because defenses are dedicated to slowing Harden and his teammates can not capitalize on the opportunities that are given to them. Because of the Rockets’ offensive philosophy, defenses know to crowd the three point line when Harden is on the perimeter and to send help to the rim when he gets inside the arc. If he is not fouled in the paint, he rarely scores over the help defense. The good defenses dig into the half court, stop any penetration into the lane, and run three point shooters off their spot when Harden does pass the ball. Good shooters take a dribble, set their feet, and make a long two pointer. But, because of the offensive philosophy of the Rockets, their players often over-penetrate and throw up an errant shot, pass the ball out to a defended teammate with a few seconds on the shot-clock so they take a hurried shot, or dribble into a double team and turn the ball over. When they do take that long two pointer – including even James Harden - the Rockets can not make the shot because they have spent the entire season avoiding it.

Daryl Morey should be applauded for thinking outside the box. He took an idea that must have seemed so obvious to a business man and applied it to sports. He created a sports icon in “The Beard” (James Harden) with his system, and he took his franchise to the playoffs in most of his seasons at the helm. Morey’s tenure as the general manager of the Houston Rockets has had its successes. But, his foray into Morey ball and advanced metrics has been a complete failure. He failed to add the type of basketball players that can have an impact in his proposed system, he was unable to build team chemistry because he clung to analytics over substance, and honestly the system was flawed. Daryl Morey gave a valiant effort, but a basketball philosophy built solely on minimizing the sport to layups and three point shots was doomed to fall short, and it is time for him to adopt a new philosophy.

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