Live & Die by the Analytics

The GM of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, thinks the only way to defeat the Warriors is to barrage them with a lot of threes. 

A computer science major, Morey is one of the first NBA GMs to be heavily reliant on analytics, adopting the "MoneyBall" style from baseball. Morey built the Rockets to be one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league. Since trading for James Harden in 2012, the Rockets have ranked no less than third in three-pointers made, finishing top in the league twice, and knocking down 3,457 (35%) during that span. 

We want to win the title, and obviously that’s probably going through the Warriors at some point...And we absolutely figured the only way we’re gonna beat ’em is with a barrage of 3-pointers, and it’s probably gonna be a 124-120 affair if we’re gonna get past them.
— Daryl Morey via Slam Magazine

This season the Rockets are on pace to become the second team to convert 1K three-pointers, the 73-9 Warriors being the first to achieve that feat last season. Rockets are currently sitting at 912 threes to start the month of March. They knocked down 20 three-pointers in their 122-103 victory against the Clippers -- the third time doing so since returning from All-Star Break -- attempting 50 threes for the ninth time this season. 

The Rockets leads the league in three-pointers (14) made and three-pointers attempted (40) per game, but are 14th in three-point percentage (six teams ahead of the Rockets average at least 10 threes per game). 

For Morey and head coach, Mike D'antoni, this high-octane long-ball style of offense is the remedy for the Golden State Warriors. 46% of their shots are coming from behind-the-arc, also a league's best. After the Clippers game, D'antoni said he want to see the Rockets average 50 attempts per contest, especially after acquiring potential Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams. The addition of Williams gives the Rockets five players with 100+ three-pointers this season, the most in the NBA. The most important piece in this analytical offense is James Harden. Harden is leading the league in assist and majority of those dimes are going the three-point shooters. Doc Rivers compared Harden to Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, for the way he can slow the game and see the floor. Harden's offensive prowess makes him the perfect player for Morey and D'antoni ideology. 

The question is will this ideology win a championship? 

There are two problems I see with this formula; lack of emphasis on efficient shooting and defense. 

Morey put a heavy emphasis on three point shooting but efficient shooting has not come up much. With the number of threes the Rockets convert, they also miss a lot. In their last ten games, the Rockets averaged 29.3 missed threes per contest. For the season, they average a league-high 25.8 misses game. The high number of misses hasn't affected them but what will happen in the playoffs when the game slows down? 

The number that scares me is 48%. Almost half of the Rockets shots are coming from three-point land. After Morey and D'antoni comments, it seems like the Rockets are going to be shooting from the three-point land more often. More attempts also mean more misses. Against the Clippers, the Rockets knocked down 20-threes by the end of the third quarter, but they went 0-13 in the fourth quarter. They were still able to win big, but they will have those stretches where the ball won't bounce in their favor, and in the playoffs, stretches like that will be detrimental.  

What will happen when they will have to match up against the Warriors or Spurs, who can shoot threes but also rely on scoring from other areas on the court? What made the 73-9 Warriors special is their ability to create transition three-pointers. The Warriors were one of the best defensive teams in the league, and mixing that with their three-point shooting, they were able to suffocate teams. A bad stretch of misses against the Warriors could put a team on the wrong side of a quick 18-0 run. 

The Warriors proved that a shooting team could win a title in the NBA, debunking the mantra "live by the jumper, die by the jumper". The Warriors lived by defense too, something the Rockets have not adopted fully. D'antoni's coaching style has always been to outscore and outrun the opponent, but when you add a GM that isn't big on defense and your best player is probably the worst defensive player in your starting lineup, it gives an indication that defense won't be apart of the plan. 

Patrick Beverly and Trevor Ariza are the Rockets defensive stars, but in order to defeat the Warriors, they will need a full team effort. The Rockets are allowing 108 points per contest, fifth-most in the NBA. The Warriors, on the other hand, are leading the league in scoring with 118 points per contest; three more points than the 2nd place Rockets. Morey has done a great job building a contending team in the Western Conference, but he should re-evaluate the numbers and not the "sabermetrics". Also, he should look at the history of his head coach, who has only one trip to the conference Finals under his belt with his more-offense-less-defense coaching style. Analytics have found a place in professional sports but not in a championship setting. Sometimes it's better to focus on the basic numbers.