Houston’s problem is not analytics, it is their philosophy

There is a thought circulating that the Houston Rockets second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors is a referendum on analytics that is wrong. It is a referendum on the Rockets’ offensive philosophy instead. In the last few years, they have geared their offense towards three-point shots, layups, and free throws with an aversion to midrange shots making them easier to defend in the playoffs.

Team president Daryl Morey found if the team were willing to take a large number of threes while sacrificing midrange shots they would gain a competitive advantage.

So the Rockets attempts began to tick up starting from the 2012-13 season. But didn’t take off until 2016-17 under new head coach Mike D’Antoni. They launched 40.3 attempts a game, 10 more than the season before. As more teams began adopting this philosophy it was dubbed Morey Ball and the numbers advantage began to dwindle.

Morey ball has provided regular season success, they had the top seed in the playoffs last year and James Harden won his first Most Valuable Player award after being runner-up in consecutive years.

The playoffs, on the other hand, have been a different story for the Rockets. There is no shame in losing to the Warriors but they certainly had their chances to take them down. Their cracks began to show before ever facing them. It was the San Antonio Spurs in the 2017 playoffs that exposed their flawed thinking.

The Spurs executed a game plan designed to hound Haden all around the three-point line and meet him at the rim on his drives betting he would not attempt a midrange shot. The Rockets only averaged 3.6 midrange points per game. Eventually, Harden wore down and the Rockets exited the playoffs with a whimper.

That offseason the Rockets countered their failure by trading for the midrange king, Chris Paul. In his last season with the Los Angeles Clippers he averaged 5.3 midrange attempts in the regular season and 7.1 in the playoffs, as a team the Rockets had 7.1 attempts in the regular season and 6.7 in the playoffs that season.

2016-17 Midrange AttemptsRegular SeasonPlayoffs
Houston Rockets7.16.7
Chris Paul5.37.1

In Paul’s two seasons as a Rocket though, his attempts in the midrange have fallen considerable, averaging only 2.8 in the regular season and playoffs. The Rockets are completely ignoring the midrange while teams like the Warriors are attacking it averaging 19.6 midrange attempts in the playoffs so far this season. In the series, they outscored the Rockets 92-18 in that range.

Morey ball has made it easier for teams to defend the Rockets; besides Paul teams do not have to worry about any other Rocket pulling up for a midrange shot. The opportunities were there in game six, Harden comes off a screen and Andrew Bogut is waiting for him in the paint. He has plenty of room to pull up for an open jumper but opts to dribble around a bit more and settles for a contested three. Austin Rivers has his man beat when he attacks the closeout and should pull up at the top of the key but instead steps back then drives right into a contested floater. The same thing with Eric Gordon, who has a wide-open free throw line jumper but attempts a floater against Draymond Green.

The midrange opens up a lot of opportunities for the Rockets, on back to back plays at the end of the third quarter, Paul’s threat in the midrange forced the Warriors defense to have to come up higher than they would on anyone else leaving Capela open for two lob dunks, give the Rockets a five-point edge.

Houston is ignoring a large portion of real estate on the offensive end by refusing to attack in the midrange and the worst part is teams know that. Once Harden gets within the three-point line, they know he’s either going to attack the paint or retreat back to the three-point line. The Milwaukee Bucks used this to their advantage when they swept the regular season series.

It is not that the Rockets philosophy cannot be successful; it just gives Houston such a small margin of error. If they suffer any sort of drought, which tends to happen to all three-point shooting teams from time to time, they will struggle to score.

Last season in game seven against the Warriors, they missed 27 consecutive threes en route to their loss. The Warriors got 18 points in the midrange, to the Rockets two.

Another scoring drought hit the Rockets in game six this season. Tied at 97-97 with 6:31 left in the game, they missed layups and threes until the 2:47 mark when Harden finally knocks down a three. The three-point and layup hunting caused that drought and allowed the Warriors to send the Rockets home despite not having Kevin Durant.

Houston does not have to revamp their offense at all; they just have to be willing to take a few more midrange shots. That will open the floor more either at the rim when the help defense has to step up higher or create more open threes when teams have to rotate to take away the rim. Hitting midrange shots is what can bend and ultimately break your opponent’s defense.

Instead of three-point or layup hunting, they need to go good shot hunting regardless where on the court that shot is. Analytics did not let the Rockets down, their interpretation of the numbers did.

Follow me on twitter @MoDakhil_NBA and you can support the Jump Ball, on Patreon – patreon.com/TheJumpBall

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