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The Rockets Are Either Fun to Watch or Proof That Science Is Ruining the NBA

Forget about whether Houston’s brand of basketball can win a title. It’s time to not-so-analytically answer the question that’s tearing this nation apart: Are James Harden, Chris Paul, and the Rockets entertaining?

Chris Paul and James Harden Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As someone who watches almost exclusively college basketball for five straight months every year, I always find it jarring to start closely following the NBA after the Final Four ends. The college and NBA games are both technically basketball, but they feel like two completely different sports. (I’ve always loved Fran Fraschilla’s analogy: College basketball is to the NBA as Portuguese is to Spanish.) That’s become especially striking in the NBA’s modern era, when seemingly every team features a 7-footer who can bring the ball up the court, cross guys over, and hit fadeaway 3-pointers as if defenders aren’t even there. College basketball is doing all it can to catch up to the pace-and-space movement, but even a team like Villanova—the closest thing the NCAA has to an NBA team—has a long way to go. There are just too many factors keeping college basketball from evolving to that extent, the most notable being the significant drop-off in individual talent (as well as a 30-second shot clock, a shorter 3-point line, stubborn coaches, bad coaches, young players, and the fact that most college basketball fans don’t want the college game to resemble the NBA anyway).

It makes for a pretty intense form of whiplash to jump right into the NBA playoffs after spending half a year submerged in the college basketball world of zone defenses, 25 percent 3-point shooters, and final scores in the 40s. That’d be true no matter which teams I watched, as the Suns taking on the Grizzlies would still provide a completely different viewing experience than, say, Villanova facing off against Duke. So you can only imagine what it feels like for a college basketball fan to watch the Houston Rockets, who play a brand of basketball that’s so far removed from what I’ve always thought to be basketball that my brain can hardly comprehend it.

I mean, the logic behind the Rockets’ approach makes total sense. A bunch of nerds got together at MIT or something, sifted through countless data points, and ran millions of simulations. When the dust on their extensive, decades-long study settled, the algorithm they built calculated that 3-point shots are worth more than 2-point shots. I understand that. What hurts my brain is that the Rockets have taken this information and applied it to an extreme I didn’t realize was possible, averaging an absurd 42.3 3-point attempts per game during the 2017-18 regular season.

And it works! The Rockets entered the playoffs with the best record in the NBA (65-17) and the presumptive runaway MVP (James Harden), and they represent the league’s best chance at derailing the Warriors’ dynasty in the weeks to come. I know that the Jazz just handed it to Houston by beating the Rockets 116-108 in Game 2 of their second-round series Wednesday, and I know that the Rockets have to at least make the Finals for their model to be truly validated in the eyes of many. But no matter what happens from here starting with Friday’s Game 3, I think it’s fair to say Houston’s strategy of shooting nothing but 3s, layups/dunks, and free throws is viable.

Forget about whether Houston’s style can win an NBA title, though. We’ll know that answer soon enough. What isn’t quite as clear is a debate so hotly contested it’s bound to tear this country apart: Are the Rockets fun to watch? Does their manifestation of math and statistical probability create a visually appealing brand of basketball? I don’t mean to suggest that Houston should stop trying to win and make its primary focus entertaining idiots like me. I just think it’s time to ask the tough questions. Are the Rockets good for the game? OR HAS SCIENCE GONE TOO FAR?

I’m not even sure where I stand on this. Let’s break it down point by point.

FUN: The Rockets emphasize 3-pointers and plays at the rim. Those are the two scenarios that produce the most highlights, and highlights are very good.

This is the best argument for the Rockets being fun to watch, and it’s also the reason NBA Jam was one of the greatest video games of all time. I don’t care how analytically minded or fundamentals-oriented you are—there isn’t a soul among us who doesn’t love watching guys dunk on each other and make it rain 30-plus-feet from the basket. The Rockets’ strategy is built to optimize their chances of winning; if their strategy was simply to generate the most highlights, I’m not sure how much they would change.

NOT FUN: There’s flopping in the NBA, and there’s whatever the hell the Rockets do.

The downside to Houston’s offensive approach of hunting 3s, layups, and free throws is that “hunting free throws” is the most ridiculous three-word phrase in the NBA lexicon outside of “Evan Turner’s contract.” I mean, if you really think about it, purposely trying to draw fouls in any capacity goes against the very spirit of the game. I know that sounds ridiculous given that basketball players are taught from a young age to be aggressive and/or go at defenders who are in foul trouble. But isn’t the perfect game one in which there are zero fouls? In hoops utopia, the offense solely tries to score field goals, the defense legally tries to stop it, and the only reason fouls ever need to be addressed is on those rare occasions when someone accidentally makes too much contact.

This, of course, is not a perfect world. Instead, it makes a ton of sense for offensive players to attempt to draw fouls. And so I get why the Rockets do that bullshit move where they snap their heads back upon encountering even the slightest contact. I get why they do that other bullshit move where they come off of ball screens and purposely stop on a dime to lean into the defender fighting over the screen, create contact as they attempt a 3, and get awarded three cheap free throws. I understand why all sorts of flopping occurs; I concede that the Rockets would be idiots to stop doing it; and I get that this is a leaguewide problem that isn’t specific to Houston.

But it is a natural byproduct of the Rockets’ philosophy to exploit loopholes in the NBA rule book. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t like it one bit.

James Harden
James Harden
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

FUN: Harden and Chris Paul iso-ball possessions, during which they size up opposing defenders and methodically determine the most humiliating ways to ruin their basketball lives, make for a delightful viewing experience.

My favorite Rockets’ possessions are the ones in which Harden or Paul lead a delayed fast break, dribble into the paint, realize there’s nothing there, and pull it back out. Inevitably, the rest of Houston’s players spread the floor and spot up on the 3-point line as some unlucky defender draws the short straw and has to saunter out to the top of the key to get roasted. Then Harden or Paul dribbles between his legs approximately 10,000 times before surgically destroying the poor sap who never stood a chance.

The jolt of anticipation that comes when Harden and Paul bring the ball out, take three to five seconds to let the moment build, and give the crowd one last opportunity to recognize what’s about to happen is so damn fun. And yes: I understand that the Rockets did not invent the concept of going one-on-one. I just think that many isolation possessions around the league are derived from some sense of desperation. For Houston, allowing two all-time-great one-on-one players to do their thing is part of a carefully cultivated strategy. And it’s glorious.

NOT FUN: It’s maddening to watch iso-ball that leads nowhere.

The Rockets’ heavy reliance on iso-ball has ramifications. Namely, it means each of their games also include a handful of possessions in which Harden and Paul start feeling themselves too much and ultimately go nowhere with their dribbling. This seems to be most common when Houston is blowing an opponent out, leading me to believe these occasions have less to do with a given defense succeeding and more to do with Harden and Paul growing bored. They focus on trying to make their defender fall down rather than worrying about putting the ball through the basket.

I’m all in favor of seeking out humiliation when a game gets out of hand, but only if there’s a backup plan when the defender doesn’t get cooked as badly as expected. Because for a college basketball fan, watching a player dribble 40 times in a row, gain no ground whatsoever, and then chuck up a contested prayer off of one leg is enough to induce an ulcer.

FUN: Harden’s footwork is orgasmic.

This isn’t specific to the Rockets’ style of play, but it needs to be mentioned nonetheless: Harden has the best footwork I’ve ever seen. At first glance, it makes no sense how he not only drops 40-plus points on any defender tasked with guarding him, but also makes it look effortless. It’s more sensical, though, if you watch nothing but Harden’s feet as he goes about his business. (I know what you’re thinking—we’ll get to that in a second.) He always keeps his shoulders above his toes; he’s always on the balls of his feet; and he’s crafty as hell in figuring out how to create room for himself. Throw in his tight handle, smooth stroke, quick first step, and muscular 6-foot-5 frame, and it’s amazing that Harden doesn’t average a million points per game.

Every time I watch Harden play, I thank God that he rose to prominence after I had already grown up. Because if I were a 12-year-old today, I can’t even imagine how many times I’d go to an empty gym, try to add Harden’s moves to my arsenal, and trip over my feet and fall straight on my ass.

NOT FUN: There are people on this earth who think Harden’s stepback move isn’t a travel, and far too many of these people are NBA referees.

This is the single most infuriating thing in the NBA right now. What makes it especially frustrating is that Harden knows exactly what he’s doing. Even he knows this move is a travel. He has to.

The man is a damn footwork scientist. There’s no way he spent his entire life perfecting how to move his feet on a basketball court without first learning the laws of what he was trying to master. I swear this whole thing started when Harden went to do a stepback once, accidentally forgot to take his final dribble, didn’t get called for a travel, and just decided to keep doing it until refs started blowing their whistle.

I’m generally an open-minded person who isn’t dumb enough to think I’m 100 percent right on things, but this is a rare exception. I have no time for anyone who contends this move isn’t a travel. For God’s sake, look at this screengrab from Game 1 of the Rockets’ first-round playoff series against the Timberwolves.

A screenshot of Harden holding the ball inside the 3-point line

Harden hit a 3 on this play and took ZERO dribbles after this screenshot was taken. You read that correctly: The next time the ball hit the ground after this moment was after it went through the net. No travel was called. In what world does that make even the slightest bit of sense?

I know that everyone in the NBA gets away with traveling, especially the superstars. There are two distinct differences when it comes to Harden’s stepback. One, it’s a signature move and not a series of isolated incidents. That makes it feel more egregious, if not outright malicious. It’s one thing for Russell Westbrook to get away with dragging his pivot foot as he drives to the basket every so often; it’s another for Harden to essentially say, Let me just bust out that illegal move again for a quick three points.

And two, Harden’s traveling happens with him moving away from the basket instead of on a fast break and/or drive to the rim, which makes it all the more jarring. LeBron and Giannis can get away with traveling as they drive to the basket because part of our brain thinks, “Hey, maybe they’re so long and athletic that they can pick up their dribble at half court and still dunk.” But the instant Harden does his stepback, it’s obvious he travels.

Oh, and just to be clear—I don’t care about all the technicalities in the NBA rule book. I don’t care that the league allows guys to get a gather step, then two and a half more steps, then an extra half-step for every MVP trophy they’ve won, and then a bonus step if their team is playing at home. I’m here to tell you that if the rule book suggests Harden’s stepback isn’t a travel, then it’s time for a new rule book. This shit is driving me bonkers, mostly because Harden is so good that I wish I could appreciate his genius without wanting to throw things at my TV in a Walter Sobchak fit of rage.

FUN: It works!

The whole premise of this exercise is to ignore assessing whether Houston’s system is the best way to win an NBA championship and instead focus on determining whether the Rockets are fun to watch. But I must point out that winning is most definitely fun. And I don’t mean I want to jump on the Rockets bandwagon and ride them to glory or anything like that. I mean that Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff was onto something when he said, “Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.”

Any team can run a system in which it chucks up a ton of 3s and tries to outscore its opponent. In fact, handfuls of college basketball teams do exactly that. And none of those teams are relevant on a national stage because they don’t regularly win games. That the Rockets can pour in so many points—50 in the third quarter of Game 4 against Minnesota is outrageous—and still post the best record in the NBA definitely adds to the enjoyment of watching their games. And the idea that they’re being hailed as the league’s one true threat to the Warriors makes even their stumbles compelling. Utah’s Game 2 win felt like a massive deal; it wouldn’t have carried the same weight if the Rockets went 49-33 and not 65-17.

VERDICT: The Rockets are fun, but not as fun as they should be.

There are a ton of things to hate about the Rockets, so I wouldn’t blame anyone one for rooting against Houston for the reasons listed above. As someone who hasn’t watched Harden constantly flop and travel for the past six months, though, I think the good still slightly outweighs the bad.

But there’s one important caveat to my verdict: I hope this style doesn’t become a thing that other teams start emulating. I’m not talking about the 3-point revolution, which started years ago. I’m talking about the extreme to which these Rockets have taken it, where decisions are driven by calculus far more than everything else. A huge part of why I love college basketball so much (aside from being brainwashed into loving it from birth) is that a ton of different styles can be successful. Basketball was invented to serve as a competition of athletic and intellectual prowess, but I consider it a form of art. And as such, I hold variety and individualism in high regard.

If the NBA reaches the point where every team follows the Rockets’ lead and essentially tries to find glitches that can be exploited, the league might as well just let computers simulate all of the games. And that, my friends, would certainly not be something that I would classify as fun.