Monday, December 9, 2019

Are the Houston Rockets Ruining Basketball?

By Ross Lancaster

Through a little more than a quarter of the 2019-20 NBA season, there can be no doubt about it anymore: in the post-Warriors era, the Houston Rockets are the undisputed villains of basketball.

This past week showed off this new reality perfectly. In a game against the Spurs last Tuesday, the Rockets were coasting to a fairly pedestrian win, up 22 late in the third quarter. Houston failed to close the game out effectively, put up bad shots late in the fourth, was torched by sparingly used San Antonio reserve Lonnie Walker and fell in double overtime.

It's tempting to want to read into Houston blowing the game with a glance at the Rockets' dubious playoff history the last few years under James Harden and Mike D'Antoni, but it was a game just six weeks into a six-month regular season. Comebacks happen in the NBA.

But coughing up a big lead wasn't why the game led off SportsCenter that night. With a little less than eight minutes in the fourth, Harden "scored" on a breakaway dunk. The ball astonishingly went through the hoop, shot right back up and then bounced away off the right side of the rim. The refs missed the call and didn't allow D'Antoni to challenge it.

These are particularly egregious officiating errors, but is this one functionally much different than a missed foul in the act of shooting? No. And yet, the Rockets' win probability was still north of 96% after the "missed" dunk.

So, it was especially ridiculous to wake up the next morning and find out that Houston was demanding to replay the final 7:50 or, preposterously, have the game awarded to the Rockets entirely.

I might be willing to give any other team a relative pass on those demands, but the Rockets have a history of this kind of post-facto re-litigating of a game officiated by and played by humans (and not orchestrated by simulations on a database or spreadsheet).

Furthermore, in that San Antonio game, both Harden and Russell Westbrook shot more than 30 times, and each made fewer than 30% of those shots, going a combined 18-for-68. We haven't even touched on the Rockets' style, which, even with Westbrook now in the fold, involve a whole lot of Harden isolation plays, drawing foul calls and step-back threes.

Make no mistake about it: the Rockets are frustrating to watch, have a loathsome front office, and have taken a baseball-esque "three true outcomes" — threes, layups, and free throws — offense to a new level, even as the analytics revolution has seen three-point attempts per game to new highs each of the last nine years.

But are the Rockets and Harden ruining the sport? No.

Let's look at the Rockets' next game after the San Antonio debacle, played last Thursday in Toronto against the defending champion Raptors. Harden had "only" 23 points, about 15 below his season average, and had less than half of his usual field goal and three-point attempts. That's because the Raptors often picked up Harden full-court and/or doubled him across half-court.

The result was a 10-point road win, with the Rockets hitting 40% of their threes and 29 assists on 40 made baskets despite another dire Westbrook performance.

The Rockets don't run the offense they do because everyone on the team, coaching staff and front office has some natural proclivity to heroball offense, running isolations, and unassisted threes. They run it because Harden is really, really, really freaking good at running it.

Take a look at this chart. Harden has no equal when it comes to getting points from isolations. LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kawhi Leonard don't even really come close.

And then look at this chart. First, notice how the Rockets' points per 100 possessions for the last three seasons is lower than the Harden chart, meaning we can deduce that the Rockets themselves are actively worse when running a non-Harden iso.

Also, notice that little Knicks data point for this season down at the bottom. The Knicks have run a lot of isolation, but because Marcus Morris (?) and Julius Randle (??) are running those plays most often, the Knicks have been garbage at it, are the league's worst team, and now don't have a coach.

It seems like a copout to say that Harden is so unique that you can't extract league-wide conclusions from his style and skills; but that's exactly the case. After all, if running that many isolation plays was easy for elite players in this league, most every perimeter superstar would be getting as many shots and points as Harden — and that's far from the case.

Nineties and early 2000s-style heroball isn't really back for the whole NBA, but it is in Houston. It's not fun to watch and the Rockets are still a frustrating team for a number of reasons, but they and Harden aren't ruining the fun of the sport.

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