Nylon Calculus: Early returns on Moreyball

Nov 19, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket against Utah Jazz center Jeff Withey (24) and forward Joe Ingles (2) in the second half at Toyota Center. Rockets won 111-102. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 19, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket against Utah Jazz center Jeff Withey (24) and forward Joe Ingles (2) in the second half at Toyota Center. Rockets won 111-102. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports /

When James Harden joined the Houston Rockets in 2012, Daryl Morey had finally gotten his guy. Here was a bona fide superstar ready to burst onto the scene, a fruit come to bear for Morey’s crafty asset collection efforts. Fast forward to the present day, and Harden has not disappointed. He’s brought to life the analytically driven “Moreyball” offensive philosophy more than any other player, and the Rockets have taken shape around that image.

Moreyball is simple – it emphasizes the two most efficient areas of the court, close to the rim, and behind the arc, while almost completely eschewing the midrange. Some critics see it as a math-driven perversion of the game, but for James Harden and his Rockets, Moreyball has been the key to an offense that in many ways set the standard for how a modern NBA offense can maximize efficiency .

Now with Mike D’Antoni and his famous ‘seven seconds or less’ brand at the helm, Houston is looking to push the limits of the 3-point shot even farther than Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. And the rest of the league is following suit as well.

Read More: From Reggie, to Ray, to Steph — Weaponizing the 3-pointer

Two factors are typically considered when examining Moreyball – free throw attempt rate (FTA rate and 3-point attempt rate (3PA rate), like in this chart from Positive Residual on Twitter. FTA rate is a measure of the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt, and 3PA rate is the same, but for 3-point attempts instead of free throws. Below is a graph of how teams are performing in these two key Moreyball statistics about a month into the 2016-2017 season.

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One thing immediately stands out – there’s a lot more variance in 3PA rate, as compared to FTA rate. Most NBA teams get to the free throw line at a reasonably similar clip (though, from game to game, it certainly may not feel that way at times). And of course, we’ve got the Houston Rockets, as expected, leading the pack in 3PA rate, followed closely by the Brooklyn Nets (!) and the Cleveland Cavaliers. On the other side, the Atlanta Hawks, who have become known for their 5-out spacing-intensive lineups under Mike Budenholzer are middle of the pack this season in 3PA rate, no doubt at least partially an effect of replacing Al Horford (a good shooter at the center position) with Dwight Howard, who brings strengths in other areas (although shooting is decidedly not one of those areas).

While the LA Clippers lead the league in FTA rate (no surprise, with their talented guards and DeAndre Jordan’s basic existence), interestingly enough, the Rockets aren’t doing that well in FTA rate, ranking a fairly mediocre 21st so far this season. In previous seasons since Harden got to Houston, they’ve never ranked outside the top 5 in the league in FTA rate. So what gives? Very likely, it’s a combination of personnel changes and coaching.

moreyball-vs-mda /

The famous Mike D’Antoni Suns teams never ranked above 20th in the league in FTA rate. By looking at the differential between FTA rate and 3PA rate versus the respective league averages in those years for the signature Suns and Rockets teams, we can see their Moreyball performance relative to the rest of the league. And in fact, not only did the Suns never finish outside the bottom third of the league in FTA rate, their differential was never positive. They were consistently worse than average in terms of getting to the free throw line.

The Rockets, by contrast, have always maintained a positive differential in FTA rate in the Morey-Harden years. Spearheaded by Harden and surrounded by players like Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard, they were the perfect Moreyball team, a merciless combination of FTA rate and 3PA rate. In an offense designed for Harden to be the alpha and omega, there isn’t too much allowance for other players to draw fouls as creators and penetrators.

Obviously, it would be unfair to completely pin the Rockets’ decline in FTA rate on Mike D’Antoni alone. Personnel changes have also played a big part, especially with the departure of Dwight Howard and his Hack-a-Dwight free throw attempts. Howard in the 2015-16 season had an incredible FTA rate of 0.79. Players like Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones also sported FTA rates of over 0.25, and this season they’ve been replaced by players who are primarily jump shooters. The Rockets’ main roster changes in the summer were the additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two shooters with FTA rates under 0.2.

However, we can also expect a small correction in the Rockets’ FTA rate, seeing as players like Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell, who last year had a FTA rate over 0.5, this season have FTA rates of 0.25 and 0.184, respectively. Although neither of them are comparable to Dwight Howard, those numbers should still be expected to climb, especially for front-court players that tend to stay around the rim.

The Rockets aren’t alone though. There are not really any teams in the league yet this season pushing the envelope on both free throws and 3-pointers, and we can probably expect it to stay that way, barring trades or unforeseen roster shakeups. As researched by Andrew Johnson, it’s extremely hard to draw shooting fouls on jump shots. Most players generally adhere by the rule of never fouling a jump shooter. As such, naturally there will be a tradeoff between how many 3-point shots a team or player can take versus how many times they can get to the free throw line. That tradeoff is reflected even more starkly in Moreyball statistics for individual players so far this season as well, as shown below.

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Even amongst the Rockets, it’s pretty clear to see the paucity of players with strong FTA rates. In fact, Nene has the highest rate amongst Rockets big men, but has played half as many minutes as Capela. Rudy Gobert is the most proficient player in the league at getting to the stripe, with a free throw rate of 0.92 thus far, which given that he’s converting at a career high 66 percent from the stripe, gives him an incredibly valuable offensive dimension in addition to his defensive prowess. DeAndre Jordan sits at a FTA rate of 0.73 but in contrast, shoots an inferior 51.5 percent from the free throw line.

Given the shift in league-wide offensive tendencies, it comes as no surprise that there are more players with 3PA rates above 0.5 than there are players with FTA rates above 0.5. And even then, there are very few players in Moreyball’s coveted “Harden Zone.” Surprisingly enough, the only player in the league (minimum of 40 minutes played so far) who has above a 0.5 FTA rate and 3PA rate is Jonathan Gibson, point guard for none other than the cellar-dwelling Dallas Mavericks. And the advanced stats lend credence to his emergence as a two-way Moreyball player as well. Gibson’s Offensive Box Plus-Minus is a solid 3.5, and thanks to his forays to the free throw line, his true shooting percentage is a sterling 60.5 percent this season. According to RotoWire, in every game in which Gibson has played at least 10 minutes, he has had multiple free throw attempts.

And just like with Gibson, the individual examination of 3PA rate versus FTA rate allows us to parse other potential hidden gems, two-way Moreyball players who may be overlooked or low-usage but offer a very valuable offensive dimension to any team. The other players in the Harden Zone are not big-name superstars: Ricky Rubio, Juancho Hernangomez, and Danilo Gallinari. It should say something for the Nuggets that they are the only team with multiple two-way Moreyball players. Unsurprisingly, Denver as a team is also second overall in the NBA in FTA rate. They may be young and inexperienced, but there are also already several positive takeaways for the Nuggets so far in what is undoubtedly a developmental year.

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The only star who’s really even near the Harden Zone is Kevin Love, with a 3PA rate of 0.389 and a FTA rate of 0.464, which really shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. Love is one of the league’s premier inside-out players and made a name for himself in Minnesota by being a rare stretch big who possessed equally lethal scoring abilities near the basket. After some time spent drifting around more and more on the perimeter following the trade to Cleveland, Love has finally settled in this season and the result is a resurgence which far more resembles the player he was in Minnesota. He’s surrounded near the fringes of the Harden Zone by unassuming but ascending youth like Norm Powell of the Toronto Raptors and PJ Tucker of the Phoenix Suns.

However, ultimately given the meld of FTA rate, 3PA rate, and usage, it’s clear that James Harden is incomparable. No other player in the league can match the patterns of the singular physical embodiment of Moreyball, patterns predicated on an unerring dedication to efficiency and optimization, with not even a single wasted muscle twitch. Keep calm and beard on.

*All research and statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference. Statistics current through 11/30.