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(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

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The Houston Experiment

The player-coach-GM trio of James Harden, Mike D’Antoni, and Daryl Morey seem made for one another, and that’s because they needed one another. An inside look at the Rockets’ blistering start to the season.

One thing you learn pretty fast when you hang around the Houston Rockets for a few days is that they take their numbers seriously. An LED board wraps around the Rockets locker room, above each player’s stall. But it doesn’t flash motivational quotes from Vince Lombardi or Jack Ramsay; it shows stats: offensive rating, defensive rating, effective field goal percentage, and quality-shot percentage. You get the feeling you’re in a mad scientist’s lab — a stat geek’s man cave, not a sweaty locker room for alpha males.

After firing Kevin McHale 11 games into last season and going through the death throes of the Dwight Howard experiment, the Rockets finished the 2015–16 campaign at 41–41. General manager Daryl Morey was reportedly "under the microscope" while Rockets owner Leslie Alexander conducted a "comprehensive evaluation of all facets of the organization." Morey came out unscathed, but his brand of high-octane, super-efficient basketball was on trial, setting up 2016 as a prove-it campaign. The team’s superstar, James Harden, cut a miserable figure, and Houston looked to be falling away from title contention before it ever really got there.

Fast-forward six months, and the Rockets are a legit contender with the league’s fourth-best record at 27–9 and its fourth-best net rating. They’re averaging 120 points per game over their last 20 contests. "We’re just on a nice, virtuous cycle of success breeding more camaraderie, breeding more success," Morey told me on Thursday at Houston’s Toyota Center. There was not a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

Houston’s change in fortune was sparked by some new faces: two sharpshooters imported from the Pelicans — Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon — and new head coach Mike D’Antoni. These weren’t obvious moves.

The player-coach-GM trio of Harden, D’Antoni, and Morey seem made for one another, precisely because they needed one another. After last season, Moreyball was under attack, D’Antoni had yet to shake his previous failures in New York and Los Angeles, and some wondered whether Harden’s style of play was conducive to winning team basketball. But it’s worked: D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less tactics have fused brilliantly with Morey’s axiom of layups and 3s being the most efficient shots in basketball. And in Harden, the two have found the perfect avatar for their basketball philosophies.

Houston, We Have … No Problems

James Harden closed out 2016 with a 53-point, 17-assist, 16-rebound effort against the Knicks on Saturday. These are numbers the NBA hasn’t witnessed since Wilt Chamberlain. But the game Harden is playing looks almost totally different from the one Wilt the Stilt played decades ago.

Even with the rest of the NBA unloading 3s at an unprecedented rate, the Rockets are still far above the pack, with 45.7 percent of their shot attempts being 3-pointers. Harden, Gordon, Anderson, and Trevor Ariza combine to attempt 31.4 3-pointers per game, which is more than every other team in NBA history besides the 2014–15 Rockets and 2015–16 Warriors.

The ease with which Harden racks up numbers is a testament to the Beard’s otherworldly talent, but also to the organizational stability. "This season so far has been unbelievable," Harden said after the game on Saturday. "The chemistry, the wins feel really good. Just the vibe around here helps for us to go out on the court and just have fun with each other." This is big for Harden, who’s coming off a season in which his relationship with Howard was described in the press as "cordially bad."

The Rockets’ chemistry is obvious at practice: There are no cliques, no egos. The players joke around. "The character of each guy in that locker room — it’s just off the charts," said D’Antoni as we sat in his office, which looks like what you’d expect from a coach, with whiteboards replacing photos on the walls. "We have tough guys, we have nice guys. … They just keep working, keep working, and keep working. It’s a lot of fun coaching them."

According to Anderson, the key to Houston’s harmony is players understanding who they are: "I think that a huge thing I’ve learned over the years is: To have a successful team, you have to have guys who accept their roles. … There’s gonna be nights where it’s Trevor’s night, there’s gonna be nights where it’s my night, there’s gonna be nights where it’s Eric’s night; obviously all built around James."

Harden is unselfish despite touching the ball more than any other player in the league. "James Harden is not the typical superstar player," Anderson told me as we sat courtside before Rockets practice. "You don’t see guys like him very often that play this game. … He has such great court vision, he sees so many angles, he can obviously score the ball like crazy. But the way he’s passing it, moving it, and rebounding — doing things to sacrifice for the team — is pretty ridiculous."

Harden’s volume statistics of 28.5 points, 12 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game alone are MVP-worthy, never mind when you factor in his 53.7 effective field goal percentage. Only Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Chris Paul, and LeBron James have even come close to sniffing Harden’s season so far, per Basketball-Reference. Harden’s game is so smooth, it looks easy. Even his 53–17–16 night felt like it sneaked up on us despite the outrageous numbers at the end. He’s like a predator waiting for the perfect moment to strike and use a devastating crossover for the kill.

"I honestly can’t tell you what I’m thinking," Harden said when I asked what he’s looking for from a defender in an isolation situation. "I just need one advantage and I’m gonna take it. My game is all naturalistics. I don’t predetermine anything. It’s just whatever the defense gives me, I take it, and greatness happens after that."

Harden might touch the ball more than anyone else in the NBA, but he’s also a major threat when he’s not handling it. The Beard is shooting over 40 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s for the third consecutive season. "That’s why he’s so good. He doesn’t have a weakness," D’Antoni said. "It’s a matter of what’s open, and what he feels the team needs at that point."

Harden’s face is plastered on Houston billboards, Rockets social media accounts, and even candy, but the team isn’t all about James.

The new summer additions as well as the development of players already on the roster have enhanced both Harden and the collective team’s performance. "I knew coming here, obviously playing around James we would have a dynamic that’d be really difficult for teams to guard," Anderson said, adding that he and Harden have talked over the years about how dangerous of a combination they’d be.

Morey said the Rockets were "obsessed" with Anderson and tried to trade for him multiple times over the years. Once the former Pelican was a free agent, Houston set its sights on him.

The Rockets got what they were looking for: Anderson has only enhanced Harden’s already-dominant scoring abilities. Harden has a 55.8 effective field goal percentage when Anderson is on the court compared with only 46.5 when he’s off of it. This is largely due to Anderson’s gravitational pull as a floor spacer. Anderson scores an elite 1.4 points per possession when he shoots a no-dribble jumper out of pick-and-rolls, per Synergy, and shoots 42.8 percent from 3 on passes from Harden.

If defenders don’t help off Anderson, then Harden is driving the ball to the rack, where he’s either finishing, drawing a foul, or kicking it out for an open 3. If they do, then Anderson will be wide open for a 3, a shot he hits at a 45.8 percent clip, per SportVU, like he does above.

As detailed last month on The Ringer, teams are finishing possessions using the pick-and-roll more than ever over the last decade. That’s certainly true for the Rockets. It sometimes feels like they run a pick-and-roll every time down the floor. "He’s so good in the pick-and-roll, why do anything else?" D’Antoni said of Harden. "It doesn’t make any sense." The pick-and-roll was the cornerstone of D’Antoni’s half-court offense with Steve Nash, just like it is today with Harden. "There’s really no way to guard it," said Morey. "It involves everybody. Whatever choice the defense makes, it’s gonna open up a different person."

Lob City in the Lone Star State

Due to the Rockets’ rep as 3-point cowboys, it’s easy to forget about their centers. But as D’Antoni told me, "Other than the point guard, it’s the most important piece." That’s because they directly impact the team’s success in key areas. D’Antoni’s centers must have the following core skills: defending the rim on pick-and-rolls, running the floor "consistently, not every once in a while," and having soft hands to finish or pass out of the pick-and-roll.

"You see a pattern in all our guys," Morey said, referring to Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell, and Nene Hilario (and even rookie Chinanu Onuaku). Nene and Harrell are holding down the fort while Capela is out with a fractured left fibula. The two are stifling on defense, both ranking in the 90th percentile or better in points allowed per possession, per Synergy, and score at an efficient rate in the pick-and-roll. Since Capela got hurt, Harrell has averaged 15 points per game, and had an explosive 29-point performance last Friday against the Clippers. If Anderson is like Harden’s hypeman, then Harrell is his bodyguard, setting all the screens to spring him loose.

Harden and Harrell are developing chemistry, but the Rockets are at their best when Capela is on the floor, since he’s a far superior rebounder and causes anxiety for defenses when he’s rumbling down the lane. Morey calls Capela the prototypical center for their system, scoring an elite 1.3 points per possession in the pick-and-roll while allowing only 0.7 when he’s defending pick-and-rolls, per Synergy.

Harden has assisted on an enormous 56 percent of Capela’s makes, with three connections per game. They’re like the Lone Star State version of Lob City — an alternative Chris Paul–DeAndre Jordan combination. Harden scores a ridiculous 1.22 points per possession when he receives single coverage in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy, so the defense naturally looks to pressure him by cutting off or containing penetration with the defending big man. The problem is that leaves the screening big (like Capela) wide open for an easy dunk.

Layups and dunks are the highest-percentage shots in basketball, so when the Rockets are getting easy buckets at the rim, defenses often make an adjustment by overplaying the rolling big to prevent a lob. That just allows Harden to score with creativity at the rim.

It’s not that the Rockets don’t care about posting up their bigs. It’s just not a priority. "It just doesn’t happen to be the best shot in our arsenal. It’s down the list. We don’t want to go straight to there; it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense," said D’Antoni. The Rockets score a measly 0.69 points per possession on post-ups, per Synergy, and use them the least frequently in the NBA. This has been the case nearly every single season of D’Antoni’s coaching career this century.

This is how the NBA is played today. When the Rockets get a mismatch, usually after a switch in the pick-and-roll, they’ll sometimes feed the post with the hopes of getting a double-team. "A lot of times if you do have a mismatch, they will double, so it’s the best of both worlds: If they don’t double, we’ll score; if they do double, we’ll try to hit a 3," said D’Antoni.

Ironically, teams finish possessions in the post against the Rockets more than any other team. This is what happens when you play Ryan Anderson — not known for his stout interior defense — at the 4. The Rockets will take that all day. After all, the post is a low-percentage area to shoot from. Unless you’re a bulldozer like Shaq or a magician like Kevin McHale, the shot is probably being contested, which makes it a more difficult shot than open jumpers off the catch or off the dribble.

With and Without the Beard

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

While D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Suns teams were changing the NBA in the mid-2000s, Eric Gordon was still a top recruit playing at North Central High School in Indianapolis. Gordon was giddy about watching those Phoenix teams. "Coach D’Antoni always had good athletes and great shooting. It was just a fun style to watch. You’d see all them dudes running up and down the court shooting 3s from everywhere," Gordon remembered as we sat courtside before a Rockets practice. He noted that actually playing for D’Antoni is "as smooth sailing as ever."

The nine-year veteran is averaging 17.3 points with a 42.5 3-point percentage on 8.7 attempts per game, but Gordon’s most important minutes occur when Harden is on the bench. For the first five or six minutes of the second and fourth quarters, Harden takes a breather and Gordon transforms from a role player into a superstar, averaging 29.2 points and 4.7 assists per 36 minutes. "When James is off the floor, having [Gordon] on the floor is just massive," Morey said. Gordon’s success is exemplified by his efficiency as a scorer in each individual play type, whether it’s pick-and-roll, spot-up shooting, or pulling up off the dribble. Overall, Gordon ranks in the 83rd percentile of half-court scorers, per Synergy.

D’Antoni’s offense requires heavy use of the pick-and-roll, so when Harden is off, Gordon must pick up the responsibility. The Rockets score 1.06 points per possession when Gordon shoots or passes out of pick-and-roll actions, per Synergy.

Gordon is especially potent pulling up over defenders to drain 3s, with a 58.9 effective field goal percentage on dribble jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. "I’m just having the confidence with the ball in my hands, knowing when to have it and knowing when to give it," Gordon said. Anderson was a bit more direct with his response: "This is just scratching the surface of how good he is. The guy’s an All-Star. … He’s a ridiculous talent and he adds such an awesome dynamic to this group."

Beating the Stereotype

The chart below shows how much of an outlier the Rockets are by visualizing the 3-point-attempt rate versus the league average for every team in league history. For example, the 2016–17 Rockets attempt 45.7 percent of their shots from 3, which is 14.4 percent above the league average.

What the Rockets are doing is unparalleled. They’re the lonely dot in the top right corner. This weird style of play doesn’t make them better. It just makes them different. Of the 12 squads that have attempted 10 percent or more 3s than the average team in their respective season, five of them are Stan Van Gundy’s Magic teams.

"My Orlando days were so valuable to me," said Anderson, who played three seasons with the Magic. "The way I’d describe it was: a well-oiled machine. I haven’t felt that way until I’ve come back here." The thing about those Magic teams? They were an accident. Van Gundy planned to start a traditional frontcourt in 2007–08 with Dwight Howard and Tony Battie until Battie tore up his shoulder in a pickup game prior to the season. Rashard Lewis slid to the 4, and suddenly the Magic were playing modern small ball from 2007 through 2012. "I remember very early on in my career with Stan, him breaking those stats down," J.J. Redick recalled to me after the Rockets beat the Clippers last Friday. In his best Van Gundy impression, J.J. continued, "‘Here’s what a corner 3 is worth on average. Here’s what a midrange is worth. This is worth 1.8 points, this is worth 1.5. This shot is shit.’ And so a lot of our strategy, our offensive schemes were just based on having a lot of shooting on the floor and having Dwight roll."

That looks a lot like what the Rockets do today, and what Phoenix did in the mid-2000s under D’Antoni — a high pick-and-roll, tons of floor spacing, and a big rim runner collapsing the defense. Those teams faced scrutiny from the media, though, and sometimes within their own organization. Redick heard the same "jump-shooting teams can’t win" criticisms that D’Antoni has. "It was the national vibe that you can’t win this way. We had to beat that," D’Antoni told me. "I think it wears down after three years of trying it and almost getting there but not getting there; [we] gave into the national thing that you can’t win that way."

History Repeats Itself

D’Antoni’s basketball résumé before coaching in the NBA included four seasons playing in the NBA, and 20-plus years as a point guard and head coach in Italy, where he won multiple domestic and European league titles. But even he wasn’t sure the style of play would work in the NBA.

"A matter of fact, my first job in Denver I didn’t know, so I coached like everybody else," D’Antoni recalled; his Nuggets went 14–36 during the lockout-shortened season. "Then I went to Italy after that and did it again, and it was really good. So I went, ‘You know what, if I ever get a chance, this is how I wanna do it.’ Then in Phoenix, where the owners, the general manager, Bryan [Colangelo], all wanted to do it … we got Steve Nash."

Nash, of course, is the player who made it all work, just like Harden does today. Nash was a devastating pick-and-roll playmaker, a composed orchestrator in a sea of chaos. But Nash didn’t do it alone either. They had a forward willing to play the 4 in Shawn Marion, and a bouncy 5 in Amar’e Stoudemire that would complete the league’s best pick-and-roll combo with Nash, and the complementary shooters to space the floor. "All the pieces fit," D’Antoni said. But the Suns never got over the hump, and D’Antoni began to question if it could ever work. "We kind of blinked when we shouldn’t have," he said. "We were kind of tiptoeing in Phoenix. We didn’t know what we were, in the sense there was no one out there saying we could win like that, saying we could shoot 30 3s — that’s too many. And it’s like, ‘Maybe it is. Maybe we need the post-up.’"

D’Antoni was then hired by the Knicks and, later, the Lakers, where he was unable to replicate the success he had in Phoenix. Carmelo Anthony wouldn’t buy into the system or relinquish more of a role to Jeremy Lin, and then the personnel in L.A. wasn’t at all a fit for the system. "When you have the right personnel fit with Mike, it really takes off," Morey said.

When the Seven Seconds or Less Suns were getting started, Morey was still a front-office assistant with the Celtics, who hired him in 2003 to work on the business side of the organization.

The Celtics soon shifted half of Morey’s responsibilities to the basketball-operations side, and Morey hired an intern by the name of Mike Zarren. Together, they did forward-thinking statistical research about the game. Morey said working with Zarren was "unbelievable" and that he "for sure should be a GM somewhere. … He’s sort of a hidden gem up there."

The duo found the league was undervaluing the 3. But this wasn’t like baseball, where the analytics guys came in claiming everything was wrong. In the NBA, Morey said, many of the traditional ideas about the game were already right, so it was easier to make suggestions on what could be done better. "A lot of the great coaches, of the 10 decisions they were making on how to build their team, they were making eight of them right," Morey said. "A lot of what we’ve done is taken what a lot of great coaches have done and said, ‘OK, but there’s still these two areas we can push the envelope even farther.’"

Neither Morey nor Zarren worked full-time in basketball operations with the Celtics. Morey split his time with the business side, and Zarren still worked a full-time gig as a law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The league was about to change, though.

Rockets owner Alexander was looking for a new approach and had his headhunter pursue Morey in 2005. "I didn’t think I was ready. I probably wasn’t. It was just to get ideas," Morey said. "After about a year [the headhunter] said he wanted to meet with me. … It was after a bad year with the Celtics. I thought I had no chance." In October 2005, the Celtics hired Zarren full time, and he still serves as assistant general manager and lead in-house counsel. Months later, in April 2006, the Rockets hired Morey as assistant general manager, and one year later promoted him to GM.

Now it’s normal for teams to play like D’Antoni’s Suns. After the Warriors won the title in 2015, then-Dubs assistant coach Alvin Gentry (a former Suns assistant under D’Antoni and, later, a Suns head coach) said D’Antoni was "vindicated" since a so-called jump-shooting team without a low-post presence won the title.

Rebranding Over Rebuilding

After last season’s disaster, Alexander could’ve torn down the house. Instead, he assessed the situation and rebooted the brand. It was the right choice — keeping Morey and tinkering with the staff and roster. It’s an approach that could serve as a valuable example for other teams.

Look at the Bulls. They’re on the verge of imploding. They’ve failed to meet expectations for the second consecutive season after hiring Fred Hoiberg as their coach. But is Hoiberg really at fault? He wasn’t the one who traded three draft picks for Doug McDermott. He didn’t sign Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo for a team that’s supposed to play pace-and-space and shoot the 3. Hoiberg has done the best he can with the impossible hand he was dealt by Gar Forman and John Paxson.

D’Antoni himself was in a similar situation with New York. Linsanity was a magical time for Knicks fans, but it cooled off once Carmelo Anthony returned from injury and fatigue set in for Jeremy Lin. D’Antoni admitted on The Vertical Podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski that the resentment toward Lin was real. "Amar’e, Melo, whatever … have to play a certain way to be really, really good," D’Antoni said. "They could coexist if Melo went to the 4, which he really didn’t want to, and Amar’e came to back up, like, Tyson [Chandler], which he didn’t want to." So D’Antoni shockingly resigned due to "conflicting visions" of the club’s future.

Since D’Antoni resigned, the Knicks have posted a 173–211 record, the 12th-worst record in basketball, and Melo has started to decline at age 32. The Knicks chose incorrectly. At the time, they could’ve dealt Melo for a king’s ransom and built around a new core. The organization is obviously fortunate to have Kristaps Porzingis as its centerpiece, but perhaps the alternate path would’ve led to an even greater prize.

It makes sense that Morey and D’Antoni should be united. They’ve both dealt with skeptics for most of their careers. Since Morey was hired as assistant general manager in 2006, the Rockets have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs five times, and they got smoked 4–1 by the Warriors in the 2015 Western Conference finals. D’Antoni’s Suns were annual playoff roadkill for the Spurs and never managed to reach the Finals. Morey told Michael Lewis in The Undoing Project, "There’s an intense feeling among basketball people that I don’t belong."

Maybe it’ll take the Rockets winning it all to show that a radical style of play can indeed translate to the playoffs. Maybe it won’t change the minds of the Charles Barkleys of the world, but it’ll at least make ’em hush. "The game is the most entertaining and fun to watch it’s ever been," Morey said. "Charles Barkley doesn’t agree, apparently."

Besides, Morey has bigger things to worry about than old-timers who don’t like his team’s style of play. He’s worried about who could be gaining on him. "Someday, there’s gonna be … something that’s better than anything we’re doing," Morey said. "We haven’t won anything. We haven’t won the title. … If there’s something different, I think that threatens anything, including myself."

All stats current as of Monday morning, except for the Rockets’ record, which is current as of Tuesday morning.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Rockets had the league’s third-best record and third-best net rating; they are fourth in both stats. Also, the piece misstated the timeline for when the Celtics hired Mike Zarren and when the Rockets hired Daryl Morey. Boston hired Zarren in October 2005; Houston hired Morey in April 2006.

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