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Boston batters Rockets 108-90

A solar system without a sun.

Louis XIV
Heliocentric, minus the Sun King.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There’s a term making its way around NBA circles right now, that’s an apt description of certain offenses, based around a certain type of player. Heliocentric.

The comparison is that the rest of the team orbits the “sun” or key player. That player is typically both a scorer and a distributor, and in the two main examples, a rugged attacker of the basket who draws plenty of fouls. Such a player forces the defense to commit extra, sometimes nearly all, its resources to stopping him.

The “gravity” of this sun-like player, creates open shots for players in the corner, on the perimeter, for cutters, and for a pick and roll partner big man to catch alley oops and dunk the ball at the rim.

There are complaints made about this system, mostly aesthetic ones. It lacks variety. Almost every play begins with a pick and roll as the primary ballhandler/scorer attempts to get the weakest defender as a matchup.

It lacks elegance. This is because the offense is largely the same starting action, a pick and roll, and mostly the same follow up actions, every time. There are few moments of surprise, or beauty, as a clever action completely fools a defense for an easy basket. The offense knows what’s coming. The defense knows what’s coming. The fans know what’s coming. I’ve described this “heliocentric”, or “five out” offense as a grinding wheel. The wheel just grinds out points, and grinds defenses down.

The two best current purveyors of this style of play in the NBA are James Harden and Luka Doncic.

If you don’t find much beauty in sheer mathematical efficacy, there’s not a lot to love about this offense. The shine is even beginning to wear off Luka Doncic a bit, even though he’s not nearly as reviled, and has not received the same opprobrium as James Harden, despite being essentially the same player, and super whiny in the bargain.

Why are we talking about this after a Rockets versus Celtics match up?

Because the Rockets used to have James Harden as their key player, and coach Stephen Silas was the key assistant in Dallas, where he coached...Luka Doncic.

Stephen Silas was ostensibly brought in to bring the sort of wrinkles and adjustments to the heliocentric/five out offense previously seen in Dallas, when it became the #1 offense of all time, with what must be regarded as a limited cast of characters, after Doncic.

What happens when you try to run this offense without your Sun King? Without the center of gravity, the threat to score 50pts any night, because that player simply won’t stop the attack?

On the basis of the evidence 1-16 happens.

When I watch these Rockets I see talent, and I see effort. Not the kind of talent that wins 40 plus games, but the kind that wins some games. I see players that try hard, but need development, and need to do more than stand around.

Waiting for a kick out pass from a primary attacking player that simply does not inspire any fear whatsoever in the opponent won’t uncover what the other young players can really do. It’s like making young thoroughbreds into cart horses before you see if they can win a race.

That lack of fear of the primary attacker means the defense stays at home on their man, because the interior defense can handle a driver who doesn’t really threaten them, and a big man who doesn’t roll in for a lob. When the defender stays at home on his man, the pass is to a shot that isn’t really open. Or it’s a turnover, because as it happens, attacking a defense, and throwing out a dime from that coverage and traffic is really difficult.

The Rockets are a heliocentric system without the sun. Maybe one day, Kevin Porter Jr, or Jalen Green is the Sun King. The closest player to being able to make the drives, and make the passes, currently, is Alperen Sengun. He’s not there yet either. Right now, no one is in Houston, and its worth asking, is this the right approach to the development of these players? Having most of them simply stand around on offense, or set a desultory pick, and shoot contested threes?

Is this game worth the candle?

Why set up this system in advance of a player like Harden or Doncic, when it ONLY seems to work when you have that player, fully formed? (Year four for James Harden, professional season four or five for Doncic.)

I very much like Stephen Silas, but this is absurd. This is the wrong system for these players, and giving big minutes to fringe NBA players, but decent shooters like Garrison Matthews and Armoni Brooks, is basically an admission of defeat. Yes, the system will work a bit better, but in what possible way are Garrison Matthews and Armoni Brooks the future of the Rockets?

The Rockets weren’t beaten down by offense. Giving up 108 isn’t that big a deal in the NBA.

They. Can’t. Score. Enough. Because there’s no Sun in the center of this solar system.

So, the game. The Rockets played a good first half, and then the Celtics stopped the basket attacks in the second half and the Rockets wilted and died, while Boston racked up a zillion points without a timeout, or a good scoring play, being brought in.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.


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