The Houston Rockets are in a unique position this season.
Basketball is most compelling when two opposing styles meet. For instance, when a fast-breaking team that thrives on inspiration comes up against a half-court offense that uses set plays.
The ’80s iteration of the Los Angeles Lakers comes to mind, as they were so free-wheeling that just about every opponent played with a contrary style.
It was always must-watch TV.
NBA teams prefer a more studious approach these days, guided by the laws of probability, revealed to their front office through the wonderful world of stats.
For example, the San Antonio Spurs, who have been playing an entertaining brand of basketball in recent years, use a strategy that centres on rapid ball movement, and which often culminates in three-pointers. This is by design. In fact, no team has attempted more corner threes than the Spurs, according to ESPN’s Great Analytics Rankings.
More than a few stats junkies in the media appreciate this, especially because as far as basketball shots go, three-pointers have become a logical favourite. Though I’m sure if every free throw was suddenly worth one-and-a-half points, we’d soon see the folks at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference spinning on the floor like Homer Simpson.
While the Spurs’ staff are said to pore over the numbers as diligently as analytics leaders like the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, you might not know it. I didn’t, not until I saw ESPN’s list of NBA teams that are really into the numbers – especially the newer ones, often referred to as ‘advanced stats’.
The Spurs were in the top five, which to my mind was a highly improbable placing, mainly because they play such beautiful basketball. What I mean to say is, since when is splendid passing borne from numbers on a page?
The Spurs’ style sees the ball pushed to the hands of open teammates with such conviction that it seems as though all five players on the court have memorised a sort of choreography, which is certainly different to playing probabilities. That’s more about moving into a position based on the likelihood of an outcome. But won’t the likelihoods change each trip down the court?
Over in Houston, the Rockets have a more explicit fascination with the numerical side of basketball, and I say that because – at least in the columns of media outlets – it’s a far more popular story. Led by general manager Daryl Morey and his calculator, the Rockets are also greatly concerned with probabilities. Morey recently said that the basketball data his team uses is granular but rich.
His wealth of numbers sound interesting and presumably show the Rockets trends that can be used in any future contest, and against any opponent – even perhaps the Harlem Globetrotters.
The trouble, however, is that no amount of study about trends is likely to ever stymie a club like the Spurs, who, despite their own penchant for analytics, really seem to hit spots on the floor and find spaces based on what’s presented to them.
Yes, the Spurs might also use numbers, but there’s something different about their application of them. For San Antonio, the game appears to always return to instincts – a kind of improvised magic – which might look choreographed, but clearly involves quick thinking and athleticism as well.
Of course, good basketball teams do some planning, and even some after-midnight analysis, but any former player or fanatic of the game knows that plans, or set plays, or indeed the study of probabilities, shouldn’t be used frequently but based on the given situation.
This was really at the heart of Charles Barkley’s recent complaint about the rise of stat geeks in the NBA. Chuck was a great improvisational player, so why would someone with his skill level care about probabilities? Such talents drop their head, plough forward and score. Simple.
This brings us to the most recent Spurs-Rockets contest, in which San Antonio not only outplayed Houston but outsmarted them.
The truth is, Houston could print off all the data inside their laptops, tuck torn pages of it into the shorts of their stars for quick reference, and they’d still fail to keep up with the ball when whipped around by the Spurs – from the top of the key, down to the corner, into the low post, then back to the point, and over to the foul line extended.
The Spurs attack also featured a number of long twos, which must have thrilled the Houston front office, who have practically led a campaign to rid the game of such disgusting habits. Well, wouldn’t you know it, San Antonio’s shooters connected on these ‘ill advised’ shots as if they’d been up watching Karl Malone clips all night.
Then Patty Mills chipped in a few timely threes, they shared the ball some more, and finally, there was no denying the value of their excellent team defence. The Spurs showed the Rockets the full repertoire in their 104-103 win.
So what does this all mean? Does the Spurs’ talent and depth simply outweigh the Rockets’ analytical effort? Is it possible that the two positives of the numerically inclined clubs have created a negative for the Rockets?
They better hope not. They’re facing the Dallas Mavericks in Round 1 of the playoffs after all, a team equally adept at advanced stats. The Mavs, like the Spurs, also have a few tricks up their sleeves.
And no, I don’t mean equations scrawled across their arms.