The timeline isn’t the most embarrassing part of this, but it’s embarrassing enough. First the Rockets, knocked out of last year’s Western Conference finals in a soul-wrenching Game 7 loss to the Warriors, prepare an unsolicited report for the NBA, in which they audit the performance of the referees and conclude that it was the officials—and not, say, the 27 consecutive 3-pointers Houston missed—that cost them the game. Then, after losing again to the Warriors in Game 1 of this year’s Western Conference semifinals, the Rockets angrily blame the officials, and the existence of this report is leaked just in time to become a national news story ahead of Game 2.
It is sad and embarrassing that an organization as brilliant as the Rockets—a star-saturated, ruthlessly innovative NBA skills lab and probably one of the two or three best basketball teams on earth—would do this to itself. After losing to Golden State in three of the past four postseasons, Houston has become so immortally psyched out by Steph Curry and Co. that it would rather poindexter its way into PR humiliation than face the Warriors without a scapegoat. The Rockets apparently thought that penning detailed descriptions of 81 blown calls would create a groundswell of sympathy for their cause and that this groundswell would pressure the league into letting James Harden spend even more time at the free throw line than the 1,000 minutes per game he already spends there. Instead, the internet roasted them for a few days, the NBA shrugged, and the hubbub seemed to fray the team’s already fragile nerves. Harden, the player at the conceptual center of the Rockets’ campaign to sway the officials, looked jittery and erratic early in Game 2 before he left with a lacerated eyelid. He played better after he came back in the second half (though not that much better, because he had a lacerated eyelid), but the Rockets lost, 115-109.
When the dust settles on this series (hopefully not in Harden’s eye, because ouch), the worst part of this for the Rockets will be that they chose to compromise their identity. Under general manager Daryl Morey, Houston is famous for its obsession with data. The Rockets live to quantify. Think of a part of basketball that can be measured and converted into a statistic, and the Rockets have an intern following it with a ruler. The goal of a data-oriented approach to sports management is to arrive at a more accurate understanding of reality. If you see things about the mechanics of the game that your opponents miss, your superior knowledge gives you an advantage. But data is tricky. When you collect a lot of it, and when you’re used to knowing more about it than other people do, you might find that you can manipulate it to support whatever conclusion you want. The more highly processed your use of data becomes, the more you transform it into advanced stats and feed it through complex algorithms, and the more opportunities you create to misuse it. In such cases, the language of data, which was intended to help you clarify reality, threatens to become a tool for obfuscating it.
The Rockets’ report used the NBA’s own analysis of its officials in Game 7 as the basis for the report. The bad calls it flagged really were bad calls. But Houston also invented a methodology for assigning point fluctuations to those calls that was self-serving and suspect. You can’t, in a case like this, simply take the final score of a basketball game and adjust it up or down based on calls that should have gone differently, because changing a call in the flow of reality alters everything else that might happen in a game. Say a player travels before a made 3-pointer and the official doesn’t call it. To take three points off the board after the game wouldn’t give you a more accurate result, because if traveling had been called, the rest of the game you saw would never have happened. The next play would have been different. The play after that would have been different. Basketball exists in a state of contingency and flux. You can’t say “a career 66 percent free throw shooter drew an uncalled foul on a 3-pointer, therefore his team should get two points,” because sometimes a career 66 percent free throw shooter makes all three, or misses three in a row, or grabs his own rebound and makes the putback but sprains his ankle on the way down. One thing affects another thing, and statistical tendencies over a very short period of time (a half or a quarter) can’t tell you all that much. For instance, sometimes an excellent shooting team misses 27 3s in a row.
The Rockets’ report appeared very scientific and data-ish and like it was assembled by people who know the best way to track Cyber Monday deals in real time. But it also pretended this kind of probability-inflected score adjustment would produce a meaningful result (one that just happened to massively favor the people who were paying for the report). It pretended you could say things like “biased officiating cost the Rockets 18.6 points” with a straight face. The Rockets are so catastrophically shaken by the Warriors that they were willing to use the prestige of their own expertise in data analysis to prop up a conclusion that was pure, glib spin.
And honestly, if you’re going the “manipulate data to support fantasy counterfactuals for the purpose of whining pedantically” route at all, why stop at proving you’re the true holders of the 2018 Western Conference championship? Why not really flex your data mastery and prove you’re, like, the true pope? Pope Houstonus Rocketus I, known throughout the world for your benevolence and kindness. Sure, the college of cardinals picked someone else—we all saw the smoke. But what people don’t know is that the Vatican’s internal deliberations violated more than 275 obscure medieval codicils, which you have helpfully translated from the Latin, placing your translations in this laminated binder that you had printed at Kinko’s on your way back from lunch. That’s right—the Kinko’s near the freeway Chipotle.
For that matter, why limit yourself to proving you deserve awards and honors? Sure, given enough ingenuity you can use data to demonstrate that only shoddy officiating kept the Rockets from winning the 1986 Miss USA Championship, the gold medal in skeet shooting at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature. But why not use it to establish your proper dominion over all human inquiry and knowledge? No offense to the great thinkers of history or whatever, but there’s been a lot of BS pumped out over the millennia by supposedly smart people who didn’t have access to proprietary algorithms (and were therefore idiots). Why not demand that Adam Silver call them to account?
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
HOUSTON ROCKETS: Actually, Abraham Lincoln’s “father” was born in 1778—the only thing he was “bringing forth” during the Revolutionary War was dirty diapers, which our analysis shows were no more than 12 percent likely to have been conceived in liberty.
CHARLES DICKENS: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
HOUSTON ROCKETS: It was neither the best of times nor the worst of times. The best of times is the four-episode run at the end of Series 4 of Dr. Who, and the worst of times was the Winter Wonderland formal during my junior year at Choate (I apologize again about your corsage, Tiffany).
SUN TZU: Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.
HOUSTON ROCKETS: Absolutely false. My friend Neil has a katana made from polycarbonates.
In the Rockets’ defense, it’s true that NBA officials make a lot of mistakes. NBA officials are bad. But then, all sports officials are bad. Sports officials have no choice but to be bad, because high-level sport has pushed the limits of skill, athletic ability, and strategic rules quasi-adherence to a point which human perception can’t follow in real time. The price you pay for getting to watch—or, if you’re the Rockets, field—a talent like James Harden is literally that James Harden will generate tons of bad calls. This is frustrating! But the solution is not for an aggrieved individual team to transform itself into the vigilante basketball IRS.
What’s much more frustrating is that the Golden State–Houston series ought to be a joy. These are two of the best basketball teams on the planet, and two of the most talented and schematically inventive teams ever to take the court. They have three MVPs between them, they’re at the apex of a mature rivalry, and this should all be so thrilling that the roofs of our houses spontaneously fly off. Instead, the whole series feels weirdly high-strung and legalistic, as if an argument taking place on the bus while on the way to debate camp were expressing itself through the medium of high-level basketball.
The solution to (and cause of) all our problems has to be the Rockets. The Warriors are happy to glide along in emotional cruise control and smile while Houston self-immolates. This series will get good only if Harden and Chris Paul and all their teammates who aren’t Iman Shumpert go back to being annoyingly brilliant and annoyingly merciless instead of just annoying. Game 3 is tomorrow. I am calling on the Houston Rockets to save basketball from themselves, the Houston Rockets. The best part of Game 2 was the Rockets’ furious comeback in the fourth quarter, when they briefly forgot they were having a nervous breakdown in the law review office and started murdering high-stakes 3s. Let us have more of this, please. It probably won’t matter to the end result—since the Warriors could never, cough, give up a big, cough, lead in the playoffs—but it’ll be a lot more fun than exaggerated sobbing about the injustice of fate in 12-point Courier New.