To slightly paraphrase a famous bard from Stratford-upon-Avon, “Is this a stepback dagger which I see before me, the handle towards my hand?”
Other quotes Shakespeare has made in support of James Harden’s MVP candidacy (sadly, he wasn’t given an official ballot):
- “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the Beard of war.” (Julius Caesar Act 3, Scene 1)
- “To Beard or not to Beard: that is the question.” (Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1)
- “The course of true championship contention never did run smooth.” (A Midsummer’s Night Dream Act 1, Scene 1)
Never has there been a more accurate quote for what Mike D’Antoni did with Harden this season than “Let slip the Beard of war.” Harden was installed as the full-time point guard, and the rest is (literally) history. Harden showcased a monster playmaking and facilitating ability in addition to his scoring prowess, got his defensive level back to can-live-with-it and for my money, delivered the single most dominant performance in the league this season on New Year’s Eve, dropping 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds, and coming reasonably close to Todd Whitehead’s fabled Tenochtitlan Triple Double.
I remember meeting Daryl Morey earlier in the year, and he showed us a slide showcasing the complexity of the trade which brought the Beard to Houston. The final move to ultimately acquire Harden involved six trades with 17 teams and 36 players. What we have seen this season, the idealized, nirvana-attained version of the Moreyball Rockets, has been in the works long before this season.
And yet, like Shakespeare said, the course of true championship contention never did run smooth. After coming in as the MVP runner-up two seasons ago, the Rockets imploded last year and opened themselves up to criticism from all angles. The D’Antoni hire only fanned the flames. As did the acquisition of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two shooters not exactly known for playing defense. As many outsiders wondered out loud why the Rockets were doing everything except fixing their most glaring weakness, the Rockets doubled down on their strengths and decided to test the limits of analytical basketball.
I wrote about the infamous Harden Zone early in the season, a meld of high free throw attempt rate and high 3-point attempt rate. I wrote that no other high usage player was even comparable to the physical embodiment of the Moreyball philosophy. Well, let’s check back in on that combination, now that the season is over. In the shot-clock era, here are the players in the Basketball-Reference database who have a FTAr over 0.5, a 3PAr over 0.45 and played at least 20 minutes per game, sorted by usage percentage:
Cool, so four of the six seasons on that list play for the Rockets now.
We know what the Rockets strategy is going to be this postseason. They’re going to blitz their opponents under a storm of 3s, wear them down at the rim and at the free throw line, and trust that over a large enough number of attempts, the typical variance in jump shooting percentages will be rendered moot. TV experts say jump shooting is unsustainable, right?
Per Wikipedia’s definition of the Law of Large Numbers from probability theory, “according to the law, the average of the results obtained from a large enough number of trials should be close to the expected value and will tend to become closer as more trials are performed. The LLN is important because it ‘guarantees’ stable long-term results.” The Rockets this season shot 40 3s a game, around six more than the second place Cavaliers. They ended up with shooting over 500 3s more in total than Cleveland. They were/are an exercise in the Law of Large Numbers. While some see their incredulously high 3-point shooting as a perversion of basketball itself, the Rockets are simply trying to remove luck from the equation altogether, placing their full faith in the system, in math and in their indomitable superstar.
"He set the foundation for a new breed of basketball. We don’t go out and try to take a particular number. It’s how it works out. We shoot open 3s. We shoot them fast. We’re confident. The coaching staff is confident in our abilities.– Patrick Beverley on Head Coach Mike D’Antoni"
Now they come across a team in the first round of the playoffs led by its own buzz saw of a player, the Brodie himself, Russell Westbrook. While the Rockets were stretching the limits of shot selection, Westbrook tested the limits of usage like a British literature lecture tests the limits of my attention span, registering a 41.7 usage percentage this season, higher than any of Kobe’s, Jordan’s or Iverson’s masterpieces.
Though Houston went 3-1 against Oklahoma City this season, only the last game in March was decided by more than three points. The Thunder have a stable of talented, versatile defenders and showed over the course of the regular season matchups against the Rockets that they weren’t simply going to get run off the court. And if they get past the Thunder, they’ll face either the Grizzlies or the Spurs, two of the top 10 teams in defensive rating this season, before a potential probable date with the Warriors, the 2nd highest team in defensive rating this season, only behind the Spurs. The point is: This isn’t going to be easy.
In a West playoff field loaded with teams that range from defensively sound to lid-on-rim level (six of the eight are top 12 in defensive rating), the Rockets and Trail Blazers stick out like sore thumbs. The difference between the two is, of course, that the Houston is one of the best offenses in NBA history, and Portland — bless Damian Lillard’s heart — is not.
The Rockets have made no attempts this season to pretend that they will be doing anything other than riding that historic offense to a deep playoff run. And why should they? So fire away, fellas. One step back dagger at a time, one deep 3 at a time, one free throw at a time, the squad from H-Town is here to stake their claim, coming for the field with the repetitive precision of a surgeon, the ruthlessness of John Wick and the shamelessness of Leonardo DiCaprio filming an Oscar-bait movie, led by a superstar who is efficiency personified, not just in his numbers but in his every movement — deliberate, calculated and utterly devastating.