It’ll take more than Texas-sized stats for the Rockets to beat the Mavs and Spurs

JP Pelosi Columnist

By JP Pelosi, JP Pelosi is a Roar Expert

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    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.

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    The Crowd Says (7)

    • April 18th 2015 @ 9:07am
      joe said | April 18th 2015 @ 9:07am | ! Report

      The Spurs players have a far higher basketball IQ than the Rockets players ,that will trump any other statistic if those two happen to meet up in the 2nd rd of playoffs

      Houston has 2 key players who aren’t the brightest in Dwight Howard & Josh Smith.In addition both players are complete liabilities at the FT line,as is Dorsey who gets minutes off the bench for the Rockets.

      Popovich will gladly hack Howard,Smith & co & disrupt the Rockets offensive flow,taking Harden out of the game to a certain extent.
      I still think Dallas can beat Houston in the opening round.Dallas has a great coach in Rick Carlisle & players with championship pedigree.They’ve been inconsistent this past 6 weeks but veteran teams like the Mavs can often flick a switch,get maximum focus from key guys & make a playoff run.
      Regardless of who wins,Rockets/Mavs will be a great series,arguably the best of the opening round matchups.

      • April 18th 2015 @ 12:33pm
        Greg Taz said | April 18th 2015 @ 12:33pm | ! Report

        Agreed joe. Rockets weakness is the likes of Howard and smith or more so their head space. Watching both Howard implode against bogut and smith mentally explode inter same game this year was a highlight for me. Harden and his ensemble cast should be able to defeat the mavs but this is no certainty. I cannot see them beating the Spurs who will be forever relentlessly in Howard’s and smith’s face.

      • Columnist

        April 18th 2015 @ 1:59pm
        JP Pelosi said | April 18th 2015 @ 1:59pm | ! Report

        I tend to agree Joe – it’s the best series of round one for mine. I’m interested in how Howard goes ….and we know Harden can turn a game on its head. But I’d love to see Dirk have another run at it and it’s a savvy group around him this time, which should see them at least get past the Rockets. Watch out for Rondo – he might take it up a notch.

    • April 18th 2015 @ 9:33am
      Swampy said | April 18th 2015 @ 9:33am | ! Report

      I would think that houston’s chances in these playoffs will rely very heavily on Dwight Howard. Houston is so predictable outside of Dwight. He is their only x-factor. If the Mavs adopt the hack strategy it could make for a horrible series to watch. For a team that is so focussed on numbers it’s hard to work out how they even leave smith or Howard on the floor in the 4th quarter

    • April 18th 2015 @ 12:28pm
      joe said | April 18th 2015 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

      Well, Dallas will go to the hack a Howard (&/or Josh Smith) strategy from time to time in this series.It just depends on the situation of the game as to when it will occur.
      Its smart strategy.
      As far as Howard being a key player,Dallas is a predominantly jump shooting team,which somewhat nullifies Dwight Howard’s shot blocking & defensive presence in the paint.

      • April 18th 2015 @ 3:18pm
        Swampy said | April 18th 2015 @ 3:18pm | ! Report

        I was actually referring to Howard on offence. For Houston to be successful he will need to command double teams. If Chandler can restrict him and play Howard one on one then Dallas will be able to do better on the perimeter coverage.

        • April 19th 2015 @ 11:21am
          Greg Taz said | April 19th 2015 @ 11:21am | ! Report

          The Mavs will concentrate on Harden and not Howard. Chandler is a formidable matchup for Howard on his own and a double team will be unlikely.

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