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The Devil grants your wishes: A personal history with the Rockets’ offense

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How far can Houston’s current approach take them?

NBA: Houston Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans
Beat the Devil.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

They say the Devil grants your wishes.

This isn’t going to be a stats heavy article. In recent years I’ve moved away from that somewhat. For one thing, everyone is doing it. For another, everyone is doing it with real resources, technology and intent. At one time it was possible to do a credible job by oneself. Now it is more like an academic battle, citing sources, and studies, often to the denial of a clear arbiter: actual game results.

Those who started in the scrappy days of basketball analytics, and took it seriously indeed, are employed with basketball teams, sports media outlets, and analysis operations. I’m happy for them, but I’ve learned in my life that it’s probably wise not to turn all my sources of enjoyment into a full-time job.

We now seem to have a war of numbers in place of basketball sometimes, and in a way, it seems, a war on joy in watching a sport. Often the actual games in the NBA feel a bit like the graphical blandishments attached to a spreadsheet-based video game (you see tiny spaceships fighting and cities growing, but it’s really all happening on a spreadsheet in the background). I won’t argue it isn’t smart. I won’t argue it isn’t efficient, but at some point, it begins to feel like stats are generated for the sake of stats, and arguments about stats, rather than for basketball.

Way back in the cloudy mists of time, when Jeremy Lin toiled for the Rockets, we had an influx here of what some termed LOFs, or Lin Only Fans. It bothered some, but I wasn’t so upset. If the exploits of a particularly resonant player are how you enjoy the game, that’s great. Sometimes there was a disjunction as some struggled to understand that others follow a team, more than an individual. But whatever it was, it was interesting, and some of those fans stuck with the Rockets.

One of those commenters at TDS was often frustrated with the Rockets’ offense. It would bog down, and this person would exclaim something like “Run ‘horns’!” or some sort of play. (“Horns” is a perfectly credible offensive scheme, I use it with the middle school team I coach. )

I’d reply, however, that the Rockets weren’t going to do that. That sort of thing wasn’t what they did anymore. I’d say that I thought that the Rockets believed they had the best one-on-one players in the world, or some of them anyway. They weren’t going to do 18 seconds of choreography to generate a mediocre look, when they could just shoot a three, or drive with roughly the same odds of success. This seemed imminently sensible, and provably correct, to me, and I endorsed it.

The Devil grants your wishes.

If anything, the hiring of Mike D’Antoni, the further growth of James Harden and the addition of Chris Paul and Eric Gordon have codified and intensified that position. The Rockets aren’t going to run much of anything. They aren’t even going to run around on offense.

Instead the Rockets are going to put arguably the best one-on-one player of all time, James Harden, into isolation matchups. Sometimes he’ll pass to an open shoot, sometimes he’ll drive and kick. Often, he’ll just breakdown a defender with dribbling and shoot.

What’s the upper limit of this approach? How far can it go?

Harden’s recent run seems to be it. I’ll be frank and say I’ve never seen anything like this production from any player, let alone from one operating so often with no advantage over a defender. (Advantage (to me) being an edge to the offensive player created by movement, screens, picks, etc.) Harden simply takes the best players on earth and breaks them down. Over and over.

Here’s where the worry comes. This is a smart approach. The numbers are in favor of it, if you have James Harden. But the numbers are in the aggregate, over many iterations, and games. What happens in one game, with it all to play for, and the best offensive player, possibly ever, can’t score?

Let’s just say, that’s not a wish we’ve seen granted.

Poll

In favor of this offense?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    The numbers have spoken!
    (51 votes)
  • 10%
    The numbers have spoken, but the league is changing the numbers.
    (30 votes)
  • 4%
    It pains me.
    (13 votes)
  • 60%
    Yes, but I’d love to see a Plan B sometime.
    (176 votes)
  • 6%
    All will be made new by Luca. Mavs in a number of their choosing.
    (19 votes)
289 votes total Vote Now