On May 11 the San Antonio Spurs ousted the Morey Ball Rockets from the playoffs in a 39-point blowout sans their MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. The Rockets entered the series against the Spurs as the favorite despite the lower seed and lack of home court advantage. The Spurs were viewed by many as “Kawhi Leonard and Friends” versus a run-and-gun rebirth of seven seconds or less offense with a penchants for the long ball. But as has been the case for many a Mike D’Antoni team in May, they faltered against the Popovich wall. Daryl Morey, the architect of the association’s new geometry has built a team around three-pointers and three footers, but has the NBA’s greatest coach figured out the solution?
The Houston Rockets epitomized the logical conclusion of the three-pointer, and the styles of coach Mike D’Antoni’s former Suns teams. The goal is pure mathematics: threes are worth more than twos, so if you’re going to shoot twos, they best be high-percentage shots. General Manager Daryl Morey worked with D’Antoni to recruit players who fit this vision, like the oft-injured but sharp-shooting pair of Pelicans Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and mid-season acquisition Lou Williams. The team shifted James Harden to run the point and surrounded him with shooters and rim-runners, jettisoning Dwight Howard along with his attitude and calls for post touches. In theory, it worked: in the 2016-17 season, the Rockets paced the league in three-point attempts with 3,306 – over 700 more than the next most. 46.2% of the Rockets field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, while another 32% came from within three feet of the basket. They also slogged to a last place finish in attempts between 10 feet and the three-point line – just 9.3% of all field goal attempts.
The Rockets are hardly the only team moving in this direction. Both the Cavaliers and the Warriors attempt roughly two thirds of their shots from either beyond the arc or from within three feet of the basket. Brad Stevens’ Celtics lean this direction as well, accounting for four of the league’s top five teams in the 2016-17 season embracing Morey-Ball. The outlier, of course: Popovich’s Spurs.
The top offenses in the NBA today are predicated on ball movement, making the extra pass to go from good shot to great shot. The Warriors, Rockets, and Celtics were three of the top four teams in assists in addition to pacing the league in Morey Ball shot selection. But the quality of those assists matters. If the goal is a clear three-point attempt, and the Rockets’ attempt numbers certainly suggest it is, then creating an open attempt via a pass should be the ultimate cog in the offensive game plan. The Warriors – the greatest assisting team of the decade – assist on 83.1% of their three-point field goals. The Celtics, the Morey-Ballers of the Eastern Conference, assist on 83.7% of theirs. Yet the Rockets, architected by Morey and D’Antoni finished dead last in the league assisting their long distance shooters at only 76.9%.
This is the compromise for playing James Harden at the point. He’s a guy who can create his shot as well as anyone in the league, and in an offense that stresses threes he creates a high number of them himself. Gordon, Anderson, and Patrick Beverley can be utilized as spot-up shooters, but Gordon and Beverley are called in for on-ball duty in the minutes Harden is off the floor. Lou Williams, who only spent half the season in Houston, plays similarly to Harden and likes to create off the dribble even if a catch-and-shoot opportunity arises. Houston’s assist rate inside the arc is in the middle of the pack among NBA teams. Unlike their outside shooters, bigs like Clint Capela, Nene, and Montrezl Harrell are reluctant to put the ball on the floor. This is one of the reasons Houston has so often been linked to passing big men like Pau Gasol and Chris Bosh – guys who can get the ball in the post and pass to the open three-point shooter after drawing the help defender in the paint. Absent a pass-first big and with Harden creating the majority of his shots on his own, the Rockets are unlikely to sprint to the top of assists on three-point attempts. It’s an interesting dilemma for the Rockets, who just gave up on a big in Howard who would demand the help defender and create that passing lane. Howard was an ill-fit for the D’Antoni system, as are most back-to-the-basket types, but having that option opens up more high percentage threes. It’s one of the reasons Popovich was reluctant to move away from the aforementioned Gasol in the series as he created better opportunities for a Spurs team that doesn’t attempt many threes, but assists on over 87% of them.
Enter Greg Popovich, basketball savant and interview extraordinaire. The strategy seems simple enough, guard the three-point line with your life and live with the mid-range jumpers and floaters. The Spurs allowed the entry passes into the paint and let their defenders go one-on-one against the Rockets’ bigs. The lack of a great passing big hurts more when no help defender comes and gives up a passing lane, but what hurt the Rockets more was playing a brand of basketball that they looked visibly unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. Throughout the season, the Warriors have intentionally played un-Warrior like possessions, ceding minutes at a time to Kevin Durant isolations and lineups where Ian Clark is the lone three-point option alongside non-shooters like Shaun Livingston in the backcourt. It’s the difference between good teams and great teams. Morey Ball has outlined the Rockets strategy for the future, and perhaps they’re only a few pieces away from transforming it into a championship winning game plan.