The Weekside: Rockets, Sixers strategies not adding up

Dec 1, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Nerlens Noel (4) and center Jahlil Okafor (8) celebrate a score against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The 76ers won 103-91. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 1, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Nerlens Noel (4) and center Jahlil Okafor (8) celebrate a score against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The 76ers won 103-91. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Daryl Morey and Sam Hinkie used to work together in Houston. The current Rockets and Sixers GMs, respectively, each has been pushing the boundaries of how teams have traditionally been constructed in the NBA.

Morey has famously pushed analytics, pursuing players and mandating a playing style that embrace the most efficient ways to score on a basketball court. The best shots, as the numbers have shown year after year, game after game, are layups, free-throws, and 3-pointers (especially the shorter 3s from the corner). In James Harden, the Rockets’ Moreyball empire found its Darth Vader, the perfect executor of their style. Nobody, perhaps ever, draws fouls better and 64% of the shots he takes are either at the rim or from behind the arc.

The problem, however, is that he isn’t making them.

Harden has hit an unthinkably bad 29% of this 8.9 treys he is attempting per game. He hit 37.5% of his 3s last year and is a career 36.5% shooter from deep, so this cannot continue. He is in a slump and will certainly bring that number up as he gets past his early-season struggle.

The team-wide numbers are no prettier, with the Rockets collectively shooting just 30.9% from long-range (27th in the NBA) on 30.8 attempts per night (2nd). Overall, nearly four out of every five shots the team takes (78%) is either a 3 or a layup — by far the highest rate in the league. Twenty of the 30 teams in the NBA have rates below two-thirds, but the Rockets are committed to the Moreyball style even as the losses pile up.

The result is a team that made the Western Conference finals last season falling into disarray, firing its coach already and looking like it employs a rudderless roster full of players, led by Harden, who won’t put in enough effort.

Despite all the good math, the human element is mucking up the plans. The Rockets refuse to play any defense, with only three NBA teams allowing more points per possession, two allowing the opponent to shoot a higher percentage, and one rebounding worse on the defensive end.

The Sixers are also getting a hard lesson in human behavior.

While Hinkie does share Morey’s overall philosophy on 3s, layups, and free throws, his math-based gambit was much different and out-of-bounds. The number Hinkie essentially looked at was the number of players on a basketball court: five.

This makes basketball unlike baseball, football, or soccer in that one player can have such an outsized impact on winning. As onlookers, we do tend to underrate the influence of Xs and Os, team chemistry, and various other factors. But the NBA comes down to talent, and having Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, or Kobe Bryant gives you an overwhelmingly large advantage over the opponent. Having a roster with 10 very good players is less desirable than having a single Hall of Famer.

That’s just how it works when a guy who, in math terms, makes up one-fifth of your team can control the vast majority of its destiny.

So Hinkie decided to essentially have his team opt out of the league for a few years. He would make them so bad that they would get high draft picks and one of these picks, according to probability, would lead to Philly securing the Hall of Fame-level talent that it needs to really compete for a championship in a league that has guys like LeBron, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Anthony Davis suiting up for the opponent.

Unfortunately, it isn’t working. At all.

From Nerlens Noel’s limited ceiling to Joel Embiid’s injuries and work ethic questions to Jahlil Okafor running around beating up citizens in Boston, the team hasn’t appeared to make good on its Golden Tickets. Okafor, of course, is just a young kid and is showing excellent chops as a post scorer.

But it has become increasingly hard to see this working out. The once-plucky but overmatched roster is starting to just look sad. The players, when you see their frustration during games, do not seem interested in watching years of their careers go by while an experiment plays itself out.

The math and the infamous “process” in Philadelphia was sound. One Hall of Famer out of five can swing a franchise, and hitting pay dirt on a true all-time great can bring championships.

While they were plotting their strategy, however, they seemed to forget that there are actual people involved. And nobody likes losing. And this team is going to lose a lot more games this season, perhaps up to 75.

The Process can certainly survive that. It has no emotions. But will any of the young impressionable humans involved actually develop into their best basketball selves? Can this actually work.

I’m not mathematician, but I’d say the odds are against it.

Around the Association

Boston Celtics

While trying to be an international advocate of the game, playing against his former Celtics team in Mexico City, Rajon Rondo got thrown out of the game. The mercurial point guard, who we have learned stole Rick Carlisle’s parking spot in Dallas, picked up two quick techs from the ref and was told hasta mañana. This isn’t great, but of course, he also didn’t really do that much, a bit of glaring aside.

Chicago Bulls

People are starting to think the Bulls are not a good basketball team, and Pau Gasol, who is 36 years old, plans to opt out of his contract to pursue greener pastures next season. They remain in second place in the East, however, with a tidy 11-5 record despite ongoing issues throughout the roster.

Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James is not one for fun and games this year. He reportedly has his teammates cleaning up their (sorry) cavalier attitudes, making them dress nicer, ditch the hoverboards in the arena, and skipping pre-game introductions, per Chris Haynes of

“This season for Cleveland is about unfinished business,” wrote Haynes. “And the proper way to accomplish the ultimate feat is in a business-like, professional manner. You can see the off-court, on-court adjustments made. It’s a new culture and identity in Cleveland.”

Detroit Pistons

Never stop ‘Sheeding, Sheed.

Golden State Warriors

Warriors/Jazz was one of the games of the year so far this season, as Utah came as close as just about anyone has to giving Golden State a loss. At home, they hung and scored with the Dubs late. This Jazz squad is still not where it will get to, but between Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors they have something that all NBA fans should tune into as much as possible.

Gordon Hayward is a true talent and carried the scoring load for long stretches with a poise that few can maintain while watching Steph Curry and company play preposterously. Their guards are fearless as well, scoring and playing both ends well, and other than the formidable defense the thing that stands out most is simply that everyone on the team just seems good.

But, ultimately, Curry was Curry and ended their hope with a back-breaking, impossible 3-pointer. This game was a metaphor for the whole 2015-16 NBA season. Other teams will be good and have good showings against Golden State. Everyone else is just playing for second place, though. Abandon all hope, ‘ye who enter.

Houston Rockets

What do you even say about this dude anymore? I guess minutes are the issue

Indiana Pacers

Paul George won the East player of the month award for good reason: He averaged 27.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game while the Pacers won 11 of 13 games. They got outclassed last night to the Trail Blazers, losing to snap a six-game winning streak, in what was PG’s worst game of the year. But he has otherwise been simply unreal this year and has to be in the top five currently in the MVP race.

Los Angeles Clippers

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks continue to disappoint and this would be a really sad sack situation if not for Giannis, who is at least continually doing stuff like this. That should help entertain the Wisconsin faithful during what looks like it will be a long, cold winter.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder offense was stagnant, uncreative, and flat last night in the waning minutes of a loss to the Heat. It all looked very Scott Brooks-ian, and the team simply hasn’t yet gotten to a point of dominance that many expected them to be in all season.

Some of that is certainly due to Durant’s absence early on, so it was phenomenal to see him make this incredible move and dunk earlier in the evening. Thunder, indeed.

Orlando Magic

The Magic don’t have any uber-intriguing young players like the Wolves, Lakers, and Bucks, so their rebuild is seemingly less interesting. But they are looking like a potential playoff team already on the strength of a top-1o defense so far this year.

With about 21 percent of the season completed already, the Magic are ninth in the league with a 99.3 defensive rating (points against per 100 possessions),” wrote David Iwanowski of Orlando Magic Daily. “If the team is able to stay in that range or even improve, it would be a huge improvement over the past three seasons.”

Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers are having trouble finding consistency, but they are outperforming the expectations, with a respectable 8-12 record. They have also found gold with C.J. McCollum, a third-year guard who is averaging 20 points a game this year in 35 minutes a night after just 7 ppg in 16 mpg last year. He also made Dirk look 74-years-old this week and is the current favorite to win this year’s Most Improved Players award.

Sacramento Kings


San Antonio Spurs

Kawhi Leonard hit 7-of-9 shots from 3-point range last night. No word on whether he went with mashed or baked.

Washington Wizards

Currently, the only teams worse than the Wiz in the East are the woeful Sixers and Nets and the underachieving Bucks. Worse than the 7-9 record, which is obviously salvageable, is the way they have been losing.

Washington has some truly awful losses this year. After getting annihilated by the Pacers, losing by 17 on their home floor while allowing Indiana to hit a franchise-record 19 triples, they allowed the Hornets to come back late in the following game. Charlotte closed the night on a 25-2 to erase a double-digit deficit and end up winning by 14. That is insane, and just days later they got outscored 22-14 by the Raptors in the final period before losing on a last-second 3 by Cory Joseph.

The Wizards are not good throughout the game, but they have been particularly awful late.

In fourth quarters this year, they are scoring just 94.2 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the league after the Nets, and shooting 41.3% while playing the second-fastest pace after only the Suns. Now, their offense is bad and fast all game long, but it gets even worse in fourth quarters.

Compared to the less-drastic small-ball transition that the Pacers and Frank Vogel are making, the Wizards and Randy Wittman’s attempts to change have been a disaster. To his credit, John Wall — who is scoring a career-low 18.4 ppg and hitting a wretched 32.9% of his 3s — is putting the onus on himself. “Until I start playing better, we’re not going to do well. It’s as simple as that,” he told Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post. That is probably true, but it’s the whole team, playing a style that isn’t working, and failing in the final period.

In and Out of Frame

What would the NBA be without GIFs and Vines? It’s hard to remember watching the sport without a flood of media popping up each night on Twitter of the best dunks, blocks, stepbacks, and crossovers. And sometimes — the best of times — we get imagery of people literally popping up.

Here are three of the best, with one being an NBA-meme take on some King of the Jungle sadness.

3. Lance Pops In

lance stephenson
lance stephenson /

Lance Stephenson’s time in Charlotte will be forgotten by most. It is actually somewhat of a throwback since so few people actually watch(ed) the Hornets play. All most saw was the inexplicably shallow box scores and the humorous GIFs of him standing around doing nothing or, worse, trying to do everything. But other than fans of the team, there is only one thing worth remembering, and that of course is when he inadvertently photobombed Derek Fisher.

2. Sad MJ as Megatron

Crying MJ should no longer be funny but it most definitely is and I will continue to retweet every topical instance of Crying MJ I ever see. I don’t live by many rules, but this is one that cannot break.

1. Obstructing Admiral

admiral photobomb
admiral photobomb /

David Robinson is at least 7’1″, but sometimes that isn’t tall enough. Sorry, Admiral.

Words With Friends

This week’s five must-read articles about the NBA. Excerpts here — click through to read the full piece.

1.  Stephen Curry changes the entire way we watch basketball
by Seth Rosenthal, SB Nation

Stephen Curry doesn’t just excel at basketball. He affronts our customs for presenting and enjoying basketball. If Steph wrote a movie, the good guy would kill the bad guy in the opening credits. If he made an electronic dance jam, the beat would drop after two seconds and everyone at the rave would faint. Steph dismantles the structure on which an entire production is built. He breaks every rule the rest of us are trained to follow and flourishes just the same. It’s not fair.

2. My high school teammate, Kobe Bryant
by Sam Laird, Mashable

There was a moment — a brief moment — when a teenage Bryant existed on the brink between hometown hero and worldwide celebrity. It’s the instant before everything goes boom and nothing is the same. It’s the last fateful step the Beatles took onto The Ed Sullivan Show stage. For Bryant, that moment was his senior Lower Merion High School season, just before he announced his intentions to jump to the NBA. This is the story of that moment, as remembered 20 years later by those around Bryant — his 1995-96 Lower Merion state championship teammates and coaches.

3. Celtics-Kings meeting in Mexico is latest matchup in NBA’s next hotbed
by Chris Mannix, Sports Illustrated

The NFL has a crush on Europe, one it isn’t bashful about promoting. Regular season games in London, the league’s tentacles extending into Germany, whispers of planting a team (hey ya, Jacksonville) across the Atlantic growing louder by the day. The NBA? They like Europe, too. Training camp trips to France, Italy and Turkey have become routine. Yet in recent years the NBA has directed more and more resources south, to Mexico, to a densely populated, Spanish-speaking market the league believes has limitless potential.

4. Kobe Bryant made announcement on website Derek Jeter helped to establish
by David Wharton, Los Angeles Times

The producers at The Players’ Tribune knew they had a big story when Kobe Bryant chose their small but emerging website to announce his impending retirement. Then, as readers flocked to read Bryant’s poetic farewell, the screens went blank. “The volume was so high we crashed,” said Gary Hoenig, the editorial director. “I was furious.” Only later, as his site got back online, could Hoenig appreciate the significance of the moment. In the year since former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter helped establish a digital platform for athletes to publish first-person essays, The Players’ Tribune has made national news on several occasions and seen its readership grow fivefold.

5. Lopez Twins Say They Won’t Live Together Because Their Cats Fight Too Much
by Patrick Redford, Deadspin

Brook and Robin Lopez are notoriously tight. They hosted an NBA blooper reel show for Disney this summer, once skipped out on Stanford practice together to head to Disneyland, and they are apparently writing partners who are working on a pilot or two. So you’d think that they would want to live together once Robin moved to New York this summer. Rent’s pretty bonkers in NYC and if the two are more or less inseparable, why not just live in the same place? Because Poupin and Prince Edward Zephyr, their cats, won’t let them.

What to Watch For

Tonight is an evening of sadness. It would be harder to come up with a slate of games that included more disappointment.

Nets vs. Knicks is the low-hanging fruit, even if New York fans are ecstatic over the arrival and ascendance of Kristaps Porzingis. Still, the Nets are occupying the other bench and no game involving Brooklyn — a franchise with even less hope than Philadelphia, as delusionally placed as their hope may be — can be anything but depressing.

When the Nets moved to the city, every meeting between these two teams was supposed to be large. Instead, it is just a game that nobody wants to watch.

We have a similar, although less-dire, situation in Texas. Houston vs. Dallas should be a marquee event. But oddly, the Rockets are the side not holding up their end of the bargain to make this intriguing. They have already fired their coach and that has done little to stop a slide in play that has a reigning final four team looking like it might miss the playoffs.

The Mavericks, and good on them, are doing their part. They were supposed to be the lone bad squad in a state that puts three teams in the postseason annually after losing out on the DeAndre Jordan. But here they are in fourth place in the West, trailing only the Big Three contenders: Golden State, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City.

The game will still be worth watching — these are true, geographic rivals after all. But it really lacks the punch it should have.

Worst of all, though, is the Cavaliers vs. the Pelicans.

This was supposed to be a main event, a heavyweight fight between a four-time MVP and a guy who was going to win a few of his own soon. But the Pelicans have been destroyed by injuries and Anthony Davis has not been keeping up the Halley’s Comet-like play he had always shown to this point in his career. The team is 4-15 and Davis is frustrated.

So we will just likely get to see a beat down, with LeBron and his 13-5 Cavs heading down to New Orleans and dismantling a team that can’t get anything going.

It was supposed to be an excellent slate of games. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It’s just full of sadness.