After delivering an hour-long seminar about how to use SQL, a programming language used for powerful databases, Houston Rockets vice president of basketball operations Monte McNair was mobbed by — what’s the politically correct word for nerds? — inquisitive computer geniuses.
At the 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, McNair has no complaints, as his team sits comfortably at third place in the Western Conference with a 44-19 record.
“Our guys have really come together. Obviously, James [Harden] is playing at an MVP-level. With the additions of Eric [Gordon], Ryan [Anderson], Lou [Williams], and Nene with other guys stepping up, we have a great fit around James. And obviously with Mike D’Antoni coming in, he’s obviously been able to put it all together and make it work.”
Every projection system, even their own in-house computers, pegged the Rockets as a team capable of winning about 45 games, according to McNair. The most optimistic models had them at around 50. They’re currently on pace for 57 wins, one off their all-time record of 58, set in their first title season.
The Rockets have been able to outperform their expectations because of their “great fit,” an intangible difficult to quantify, even at a conference with hundreds of the brightest data minds in the sports industry.
“It’s definitely a difficult thing to do within the data,” McNair said. “We certainly rely on our scouts a lot for that. So it’s not all numbers. We try to confirm some of their beliefs with numbers, but we certainly rely on them a lot for that part.”
“With the SportVU data, there’s a lot more we can do with fit and what types of skills compliment each other, so we’re continuing to do more and more with that,” McNair added.
According to SportVU, the Rockets average 15.5 post touches per game, which is good for 18th in the league. Their style lends itself to three-pointers and layups, which they generate mostly with high pick-and-rolls and lateral ball movement off drive-and-kicks. They are the prototype for the modern NBA.
Some NBA observers believe some players, mainly those who operate in the post and are too surly to defend quicker players on the perimeter, are becoming obsolete. McNair disagrees.
“I don’t think anybody’s obsolete,” he said. “I do think the game is shifting a little bit. We certainly don’t have a traditional post guy like we had with Yao, but there are still guys — Karl Anthony-Towns, Demarcus Cousins — who still do good work in the post.”
Surprisingly, the Golden State Warriors, not the Pelicans or Timberwolves, lead the league in post touches with over 22 per game. They and the Bucks are the only teams to feed the post more than 20 times a night. As a league, post touches have significantly declined since the NBA began tracking the statistic in 2013, when seven teams averaged more than 20 post-ups per game.
“I think teams are moving towards ‘pace and space,’ or whatever you want to call it, but I think there’s room in the game for post-players,” McNair said. “As people move away from one type of player, then maybe that just creates an inefficiency where another team can take advantage.”
McNair references potential first round playoff matchups, specifically Oklahoma City and Memphis, as traditional teams who could possibly give the Rockets trouble with their bigs.
Since the league is trending towards “pace and space,” some critics argue teams will eventually be too similar stylistically, killing the creativity of the NBA. Commissioner Adam Silver is moderately concerned, but says that the league is not yet too monotonous and the product has never looked better.
“If our game evolved into just dunks and three-point shots, I think we’d have to take a second look at that,” Silver said during an interview with FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver.
The “layups, threes and free throws” strategy the Rockets have implemented can be party attributed to head coach Mike D’Antoni, who brought the style to the modern NBA. McNair says that D’Antoni is great at maximizing players’ potential and fitting players of varying sizes and skill sets into his system.
“You look at our roster this year, we have a lot of different types of players,” McNair said. “But I think what Mike does is fit guys where maybe other teams wouldn’t see them fitting.”
Montrezl Harrell, for example, was initially thought of as a power forward, but has blossomed as an undersized center under D’Antoni.
“Mike’s system kind of moves everyone down a position spectrum,” Daryl Morey’s deputy added.
McNair, Morey and the Rockets are searching for the next breakthrough in analytics at the Sloan Conference. If only there was a panel that could magically transform Clint Capela into an 80 percent free throw shooter. Although he’s already begun to to do that himself.