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Under the Influence of Moreyball

From Brooklyn to Milwaukee, teams are employing the 3-happy tenets of Houston’s architect

Daryl Morey (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Daryl Morey (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There’s a 3-point revolution happening in the NBA this season, with a record 30.9 percent of shot attempts being launched from behind the arc. The Paul Revere team of the distance movement is the Houston Rockets, who are run by general manager Daryl Morey. “Moreyball” is a style of play that generates 3s and layups, and uses the midrange as a last option. If you stopped watching basketball in 1999 and are just getting back into it now, you’d experience the same shock as a hippie falling asleep in the 1960s and waking up in the middle of a Rage Against the Machine mosh pit at Woodstock ’99. Times have changed. Quickly.

Like it or not, the Warriors, Rockets, and their ilk are transforming the league. Floor spacing and ball movement are keys to success in today’s NBA. From top to bottom, teams are building their systems around those ideas. That’s why the Nets brought back only five players from the 2015–16 squad, and hired head coach Kenny Atkinson, whose philosophy is heavily influenced by the Hawks and Spurs.

Atkinson ain’t a miracle worker. The Nets are still an eyesore, possessing the league’s second-worst net rating (minus-7.7), but this season is about process over results in Brooklyn. Atkinson was hired to install a culture and a system, and the numbers suggest he’s successfully doing that. Gone are the isolations and post-up plays, replaced by a fast pace, spot-up 3s, and transition-focused offense; per SportVU, the Nets ranked 20th in passes made last season and are fourth this season. Anytime they grab a rebound, they’re looking to push, whether it’s with a guard like Sean Kilpatrick or a forward like Trevor Booker.

As a result of its new style of play, Brooklyn is shooting 18.4 percent more 3s and 14.4 fewer midrange jumpers than it did last season, with a slight uptick of attempts at the rim. Atkinson might be a once-removed disciple of The Popovich Coaching Tree, but the Nets are getting their inspiration from elsewhere in Texas: Brooklyn is playing Moreyball.

Here’s how Brooklyn’s shot distribution compares to Houston’s:

The Rockets attempt more 3s than any other team (as of early Tuesday, December 7), but the Nets aren’t far behind at 40 percent; Houston also attempts 36.5 percent of its looks at the rim, compared to 34.1 percent by the Nets. The Nets aren’t having the same success because they don’t have the same talent. They aren’t just missing a James Harden, they need a Donatas Motiejunas too.

Brooklyn’s shot distribution has evolved more than any other team in the NBA. Behind the Nets? The Bucks. This is Jason Kidd’s fourth season as a head coach, and his third with Milwaukee (he’s been retired as a player this long already!?), and compared to last season, his young Bucks are attempting 10.4 percent more shots from 3 and 7.4 percent fewer from midrange.

The Bucks are firing more 3s, but they aren’t quite playing Moreyball. They’re just below the league average with 29.1 percent of their attempts from 3, but they are attacking the rim at will, with a league-high 39.1 percent of their shots coming from the restricted area. This isn’t surprising if you’ve watched the Bucks at all this year because Giannis Antetokounmpo does something jaw-dropping on a nightly basis and it usually happens at the rim.

Sometimes Giannis takes the ball coast to coast and dunks off a Euro step. Other times he needs just one dribble to drive the ball from the 3-point line to the rim. Sometimes … Giannis just gets mean, methodically dribbling the ball toward the rim, until he’s close enough to swing up his long arms to throw down a dunk.

The Pistons are zigging while almost everyone else is zagging, trying 6.7 percent fewer 3s and 7.8 percent more shots from midrange than they did last season. (Only nine teams are attempting a lower percentage of 3s than they did in 2015–16). The new Van Gundy Ball is the anti-Moreyball. Here’s how the Pistons’ shot distribution looks compared to the Rockets’:

Stan Van Gundy’s Magic teams emphasized floor spacing around one big man (Dwight Howard), so you’d expect his Detroit teams to play similarly, but that hasn’t been the case. That could all change as Reggie Jackson works himself back into game shape after recovering from a knee injury. Jackson attacks the rim with the ferocity of John Wick, so by having better lane penetration there could be more drive-and-kick opportunities, leading to more 3-pointers.

Every team in the NBA has its own unique personality, but as is the case in all entertainment mediums, trendsetters lead the way. For the foreseeable future, teams may start playing a style that looks a lot like Moreyball.