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Why Do We Want to See the Rockets Crash and Burn?

What makes the Houston Rockets such a detested team in NBA spheres? Their last championship was in the 1994-1995 season, so they don’t draw the typical envy of opposing fan bases in this regard. They don’t have the superstar who “abandoned” their previous franchise. They also have one of the games truly revolutionary offensive players. James Harden’s step back jumper demands to be considered one of the truly revolutionary moves in league history – right in line with Kareem’s sky-hook, Dirk’s one legged fadeaway and Gervin’s finger roll. These are all reasons to appreciate the Rockets rather than hope for disaster, but even the one Rockets fan I know admitted to me that he is a “begrudging fan.” Why is this?

As with countless other organizations in every walk of life, direction and identity starts at the top. Seeing as this is a basketball piece, I am referring to General Manager Daryl Morey in this space as he is the key architect relating to the on-court product fans struggle with. However, it should be noted that the team owner, Tilman Fertitta, released a book called “Shut Up and Listen! Hard Business Truths That Will Help You Succeed.” Seriously. I understand that we are in an age where at times the only way people can get noticed is pounding their chests and screaming to the world that they’re the best, but honestly telling a potential reader to “Shut Up and Listen” as your first interaction? Fuck you, Tilman.

Tilman may be the top dog of the Rockets organization, but the lead architect for the on-court product has been Morey. An MIT graduate, Morey found success in sports through his analytical approach to the game of basketball. While the revolution was already underway in baseball, Morey was a true pioneer of basketball analytics. When Morey became general manager of the Rockets in 2007, the decision was widely scrutinized. There was a belief that in order to successfully build a team, a general manager needed to have professional playing experience. How could a team’s general manager build a championship calibre team if they had never been in winning locker rooms themselves? Morey and others like Supersonics (miss you Seattle) GM Sam Presti revolutionized the general manager position and showed to owners that you didn’t need to play in the league to have great team building ability. In today’s GM ranks, one third of general managers never even played college basketball, let alone professionally. Morey has had a profound philosophical impact on the league even if he never meant to. Now it is possible to work in the NBA even if you don’t have the uber talent required to be a player.

So why does Morey create so much divide then? Part of it relates to the above praise of Daryl. There must be some level of genuine envy among other notable figures within the league. Former players seem to be extremely skeptical of advanced metrics determining the value of a player. Examining a quote from Hall of Famer and Inside the NBA analyst Charles Barkley, you are able to paint a Picasso-level picture of a lot of former players position towards analytics: “Analytics don’t work at all. It’s just some crap that people who were really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent. Because they had no talent to be able to play, so smart guys wanted to fit in, so they made up a term called analytics. Analytics don’t work.” Players like Barkley apparently feel as if the game that they love is being attacked and turned into a mathematical equation. Analytics are telling former players that the way they played the game was essentially wrong. This would undoubtedly build resentment from players who have lived and breathed the game for most of their lives. Morey, the man who invented the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, is a logical target for this resentment. 

Take what some of these legends are saying with a grain of salt. Former NBA players operate, at times, with Trump-levels of ignorant defiance. How many times did we hear that “jump shooting teams would never win the NBA title” on Inside the NBA? What about the infamous Oscar Robertson rant on Steph Curry when he claimed modern day coaches were essentially fools who didn’t understand the game and that shutting down Steph was as simple as extending your defence? Yeah Oscar, the player with unlimited shooting range, an all-time great handle and underrated passing vision can be that easily solved. Nostalgia is a real human experience, it’s the same reason that we have seen countless Disney movies and old video games remastered over the past couple of years. We all have experiences that we look back sentimentally on, and former players are obviously no exception, but some of the claims from these ex-players are just beyond ridiculous.

Daryl’s unpopularity could also be due to comments this off season that landed him in hot water because he voiced his support of pro-democratic demonstrators in Hong Kong. These protests have unfortunately turned violent, so are naturally a topic that can be difficult to address without sparking heated discussion. Seeing as it involves China, which has a questionable history regarding human rights (to put it nicely), but also is the NBA’s largest international market, reactions were naturally confrontational and divisive. On the one hand, the NBA has been a league that is a proponent of empowering its players to be more than just athletes and to speak out on social issues (think of the “I can’t breathe” movement as a direct example of player empowerment). There are those that believe Morey was well within his rights to voice his opinion, including myself. On the other hand, recently deceased former Commissioner David Stern may have summed it up best. “Believe me,” Stern told veteran hoops scribe Jack McCallum, “the China situation bothers me. But at the end of the day, I have a responsibility to my owners to make money. I can never forget that, no matter what my personal feelings might be.” This was in 2006 and the goal is still the same today: generate as much income as possible.

There was significant pressure on the Rockets and the league to fire Daryl, including from Chinese officials. However, commissioner Adam Silver did the noble and correct thing and stood behind the league employee. Only in the future will we see the true cost of Morey’s comments, but in the short term we have already seen cancelled public events and blackouts of Rockets games. Morey’s comments have already cost the league large sums of money, so the divisive General Manager is not likely to get any bonus Christmas cards from league employees this holiday season. 

The one thing that really alienates fans though is that no team whines and bitches more than Houston. Everyone has that one young member of the extended family that you would have to let win every game because they would throw a fit and claim you were cheating if they didn’t win. Houston is that person, except they don’t have the excuses of a pre-pubescent mind or being jacked up on copious amounts of sugar. The most recent example was a December 4th game where a Harden dunk was not counted as a basket. Houston ended up losing the game in overtime and proceeded to moan about the call as if the whole league was out to get them. We all understand that it was probably the most glaring officiating error in recent memory, but there are countless calls within a game that are contentious, so identifying a single call as the reason for a loss is just ridiculous. How about not blowing a lead that was as large as twenty-two points? Nothing however will top the infamous “leaked” article that somehow ended up with Zach Lowe and Rachel Nichols (two of basketball’s most notable journalists) after the 2018 Western Conference finals. The report claimed that the officiating was so egregious, that it cost the Rockets the series and then logically a championship. They voiced similar complaints after one of last year’s Western Conference Semifinals games, and honestly from an outside perspective, this attitude seemed like it really cost them game two in that series as well. Nobody has sympathy for a sore-loser and Houston plays that role better than anyone – perhaps in the history of the league. 

Morey’s analytically-driven blueprint for winning basketball has also manifested itself on the court, most notably through James Harden. There has literally never been a player in the league that combines such ridiculous quantities of free throw and three-point shots. 

SeasonFGAFG%3PA3P%FTAFT%TS%eFG%
13-1416.5.4566.6.3669.1.866.618.529
14-1518.1.4406.9.37510.2.868.605.511
15-1619.7.4398.0.35910.2.860.598.512
16-1718.9.4409.3.34710.9.847.613.525
17-1820.1.44910.0.36710.1.858.619.541
18-1924.5.44213.2.36811.0.879.616.541
19-2024.3.46113.5.38312.3.860.642.567

The above table illustrates Harden’s ever increasingly analytically-driven game. There are consistent increases over a seven-year period in three-point attempts and free throw attempts, which are deemed the two most desirable shots by analytical minds. While in raw efficiency numbers, like field goal percentage and three-point percentage, he is not remarkably efficient, he takes such a heavy volume of three-point shots which translates to favourable returns on advanced shooting measures like true shooting percentage as this takes into account the value of a three-point shot being one and a half times greater than a two-point shot.  As Morey’s vision for the Rockets took hold and he acquired the players necessary to execute that vision, the team found ever increasing success, so much so that the Rocket finished the decade as the third-ranked team in terms of win percentage. Harden has been at the forefront of that team success, which resulted in two Western Conference Finals appearances and the only consistent Western Conference challenger to the Warriors dominance over their five-year NBA Finals run. 

Harden’s style is highly polarizing in much the same way that Morey’s managing style is. This is a deeply personal appreciation, but the reason that I love basketball is because individual expression can exist and is celebrated within a sport that is so deeply rooted in working as a team. Because there are only five players on the court representing their team, it demands individual brilliance. Harden walks along the knife’s edge constantly with this. Harden has three of the thirteen highest individual usage rates for a season in the history of the league. Additionally, Russell Westbrook has two of the four highest usage rate seasons, so if there was ever going to be a case study for  “not enough ball to go around” then this would be the team to watch. 

This season Harden ranks third in average seconds per touch and average dribbles per touch. This is while playing alongside Westbrook, who was first and third in those respective categories last season. The Rockets game plan for years now has boiled down to let Harden dribble at the top of the key and either use a Capela screen and roll or take a step-back three, while everyone not involved stands there and watches. It is exasperatingly repetitive to watch. He also creates and exaggerates contact more than any other player in the league, while being the one who initiates the contact much of the time. There are sentiments around the league that Harden is not making a play to score the ball, but is in fact playing to get fouled and this is not in the spirit of basketball. Thank God the internet chastised him so relentlessly that he actually started playing defence. 

Harden has had some exceptionally bad playoff performances as well. Unfortunately, there is no way to hide from some of the absolute duds he has put out over the years. In no order, here are the four most notable:

NBA Finals 2012

After averaging 18.5 points per game off the bench in the Western Conference Finals, he averaged just 12.4 points on 37.5% shooting during the five-game, championship-deciding series. Overall, he shot 18-for-48 (37.5%), including 7-for-22 (31%) on 3s. 

2015 Western Conference Semifinals Game 6

Sat on the bench, completely emotionally removed from his teammates. Only after the miracle shot making of Corey Brewer and Josh Smith did Harden begin to re-engage with the game. The Rockets won this game, but Harden’s actions may be more informative than any other single game. He just does not appear to have the dog in him to keep fighting.

2017 Western Conference Semifinals Game 6

The Rockets are playing the Spurs without MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and on their home floor. Should be an easy win, right? Harden drops an all-time dud of a game. 10 points (season low) and fouls out with three minutes remaining. The Spurs end the Rockets season by blowing them out 114-75. This is one of the worst performances ever by a superstar.

2019 Western Conference Semifinals Game 6

Not a particularly bad game as Harden finishes with thirty-five points, but after talking all the trash in the world about how they are the better team and they would have won last season if Paul wasn’t injured, here was the opportunity. Game 6. At home. Fully healthy. No Durant. Season over. The all-time greats win those games. They must.

Recently on the Bill Simmons podcast, Zach Lowe suggested that Harden “might be this generation’s Karl Malone.” Meaning that he might be the player that puts up the unbelievable counting stats, but is never there when you need him to come through the most. The lights shine a little too bright. The moment gets a little too big. Personally, I am not quite there yet, but at age thirty we need to really start seeing evidence to counter that label.

The league is without doubt a better product when there is variation between playing styles of teams. In this respect, the Rockets are as important to the league as any other team. Unfortunately, their style is so polarizing that unless we see a championship soon, Harden and Morey will be remembered more for what they missed rather than what they delivered. Tick Tock Houston, the clock is ticking.

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