In the prediction thread before the post-season began, I posted that the Rockets would lose a heart-breaking game 7 to a buzzer-beater by Lillard and that Lin would be traded in the off-season [close_enough.jpg]. That post got me unceremoniously banned for supposedly trolling. Nevertheless, this series was extremely eye-opening for the Rockets - that goes for the players, the front office, and the ordinary fans like you and me. So here are the lessons that I've observed from the series.
1. Basketball analytics and Goodhart's Law
Daryl Morey's analytics-based approach mirrors the one portrayed in the movie Moneyball. In that movie, Brad Pitt's character also used analytics to identify and trade for undervalued players. The team was then utilised in the manner that optimised the lineup's strengths, going on a 19-game winning streak to qualify for the MLB playoffs after an early slump. The team went on to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
It is perhaps poetic justice that the Rockets went out in similar fashion, losing to a team that most would consider to be the underdogs in the match-up. So how is it possible for the Rockets to lose, when the way we played should have been optimal and more efficient than the Blazers'?
"Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes." - Goodhart's Law, 1975 (also see the Lucas Critique)
The concept behind Goodhart's Law and the Lucas Critique is that a statistical relation only holds true under the conditions that said relation was observed. If we end up changing the underlying conditions in an effort to reproduce that relation, then the condition may not hold anymore.
We began to observe this concept early in the series, when our playstyle was completely muted by Portland. Analytics and common sense show that shots around the rim and 3-pointers lead to the most points on average. When the Rockets start limiting their shots exclusively to those two types, however, then competent opponents will start to react accordingly. The Blazers packed the paint and double-teamed our guys at the end of drives precisely because they knew that the Rockets never shoot mid-ranged shots. This in turn means that the previous concepts of efficient shots no longer hold. A contested shot near the rim while being double-teamed is certainly less efficient than a mid-range jumper that is challenged but not contested. Props to the Rockets for adjusting their strategy after the first two games, but it was all too little too late after losing both at home.
2. Coaching and expected wins
Daryl Morey was credited with a quote that the best coaches provide only a small increase in expected wins over a season. I've seen numbers ranging from four to seven, but the overall take-home message of the quote is that players matter much more than coaches.
This series highlights the problem with expected wins. Statistics tend to even out over a large sample due to the law of large numbers. By going against good teams and bad teams over 82 games in the regular season, the Rockets achieved close to their expected wins. Unfortunately, the playoffs aren't like the regular season. Instead, you face the same (usually competent) opponents in a best-of-7. There is no next game once you lose a series. Unpredictable events can and will occur, which makes every game important, and as we have seen in this series, every possession is important, which is where coaching comes in.
Most of us would agree that Stotts outcoached McHale in this series with his rotations, adjustments, and sets, as well as the overall leadership that he provided for his players. Needless to say, I believe McHale's contract won't be renewed next season. I hope we manage to get Thibs, but that's probably a pipe dream.
3. Offense wins games, defense wins championships
A lot has been said about the Rockets' leaky defense, and this is epitomised especially by James Harden. There has been a lot of flak over the season about Harden's lack of effort on defense, but most of it has been brushed aside on TDS, on the basis that his offense more than makes up for it. There have been several excuses being thrown around, such as Harden maybe conserving his energy on defense in order to make plays on offense. This series has thrown all of that out the window.
Offense is always going to be streaky. There will be days when our players get hot, and days when they're absolutely cold. But defensive effort must be consistent if the Rockets are to get anywhere, especially on those days when your shots are not falling. With his shooting percentage at unprecedented lows, and with the foul calls not going his way, Harden should have amped up his defensive intensity to make up for it. Instead, he compounded his scoring woes with even less effort on defense over the two expensive losses at home, giving up several easy baskets to his man.
The Blazers always clawed their way back into the game in spite being down by double digits because the Rockets always wound down their defensive intensity after going up. Whoever takes over as the Rockets head coach MUST enforce discipline on defense, no exceptions to anyone.
4. The regular season is for experimenting
During the pre-season, the consensus was that the best lineup for the Rockets would be: Lin, Harden, Parsons, Howard, Asik.
In this series, it turned out that the Rockets' best lineup was indeed: Lin, Harden, Parsons, Howard, Asik.
The Rockets moved Lin to the bench at the beginning of the season since "Harden and Lin cannot play together". Asik was benched after only 8 games when the twin towers lineup was no longer working.The postseason became a whole different game. The ball stagnated in Harden's hands when the Blazers' defense collaborated to take his game away, and nobody else was able to direct the offense. LMA was torching TJones completely. It became apparent that we needed Lin and Asik's contributions, and while the lineup performed better, it was far from perfect since they barely played together all season.
All of these issues should have been ironed out during the regular season. If our best lineup is having problems, then find a way to make it work. Furthermore, to some extent, bone-headed plays have to be tolerated and then corrected in the regular season. Let the players make mistakes in those games so that they don't make them anymore during the playoffs. The Blazers came out of the blocks looking like a well-groomed Secretariat, taking full advantage of their past experiences against the Rockets in the regular season. The Rockets never recovered.
5. There is no I in TEAM
At the end of this post, I have to end with a tribute to the Blazers, no matter how much I hate to do it.
"Teams that play together beat those teams with superior players who play more as individuals." - Jack Ramsay
Grats to the Blazers on the win, and best of luck in the next series.
As for the Rockets, our players have lots of time to rest and reflect over the offseason. Patrick, hope your knee recovers. Jeremy, practise your midrange. James, train up your defense. Chandler, spend less time talking and more time on layup drills. Dwight, work on your free throws. Omer, work on your finishing. Terence and Donatas, put on some bulk. Troy, keep working on your game.
Us fans will be back next season to support you, and we expect to see great things then.