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Rockets in revolt

12/20/2013
The young and brash Rockets are helping to redefine what a "good shot" means in the NBA. Scott Halleran/Getty Images

If there were a Power Rankings for "Boisterous Locker Rooms," the Rockets might top that list. Upon beating the Warriors on a Friday night, Houston players loudly revel in the visitors' quarters. Crosstalk floods the ear, but you can hear Francisco Garcia curse while fist-bumping energetic assistant coach Kelvin Sampson. "[Roy Hibbert's term for reporters]," Garcia spits.

Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard giddily debate the looks of their dream Hollywood starlets. James Harden and Terrence Jones yell and laugh about something, but who can hear it amid the sudden distraction of Dwight singing and dancing in his underwear?

The Spurs, these aren't. Youth dominates the leadership in Houston, and it's not the kind of youth that expresses itself as deference. "Looks like you have somewhere to go," a reporter knowingly teases in the direction of Harden's beard and accompanying resplendent wardrobe. Harden pauses, then confidently proclaims, "I ALWAYS have somewhere to go." And with that, he's off into the night.

Blessed with the vigor of youth and a good deal of talent, this team can go places far beyond what its 17-9 record would indicate. These guys also might be more inclined to set their own boundaries.

"Only thing we're shooting in practice are layups and 3s," starting point guard Patrick Beverley explains. "We don't like midrange," Garcia and Beverley say in unison.

The two of them have a firm grasp on Houston's mission, but I want to know just how extreme their team's approach is. "Did you know that LaMarcus Aldridge has shot ..." Beverley interrupts my question with the exact number of midrange shots Aldridge has hoisted relative to the entire Rockets team. As of Friday, the Portland power forward has attempted 98 more midrange shots than everyone on the Houston roster combined. That's a startling statistic, but it's not especially novel to Beverley, who "keeps up with everything," as he puts it.

Beverley responds with, "What would you rather shoot, a 3 or a 2?" Now that he's won locker room "Jeopardy!," he turns the tables and quizzes me. All I can manage in return is, "I think you guys might be on the forefront of something."

Houston's three most commonly used lineups employ a four-out approach (four 3-point shooters, one non-shooting big man). The style has gained popularity since Mike D'Antoni and the Suns redefined NBA offense in the mid-aughts.

The Rockets are a threat to go further, to get even bolder from beyond the arc than D'Antoni ever dreamed. As Kevin Pelton and Zach Lowe have detailed, Houston is heavy on D-League experimentation. Their Rio Grande Valley Vipers affiliate shoots 3s at a ridiculous 46 per game clip. The big brother Rockets are at a mere (league-leading) 27.2 3-pointers per game, but look for that gap to close. Houston isn't even notably proficient; it manages only 35.7 percent from deep.

Still, 35.7 percent on 3-pointers translates to 53.5 percent from 2-point range, so all the chucking represents a solid investment. Houston currently ranks third in offensive efficiency. The Rockets are using the smart approach, but subjectively, something about it just feels decadent if not wrong. "Only thing we're shooting in practice are layups and 3s," is enough to make a basketball purist feel as if he just swallowed Naismith's peach basket.

Basketball at its most elemental is "finding the open man." But as we learn more about basketball, we learn more about the folly of good intentions. Passing up a moderately contested 3 to get your teammate an open midrange look is often more generous to the opposing defense than to your offense.

Last season saw the record for most 3-pointers by a player in a season and most 3-pointers by a player in an NBA Finals. Now that the analytics movement is popularizing the shot that counts for 50 percent more, "the good shot" as we know it may have an expiration date. Obviously, a team will doggedly seek open 3-pointers and open dunks, as those are the most valuable attempts in basketball. But not every possession can end that way. Drives are stymied, passes are bobbled, screens are eluded. With a finite amount of shot clock, there's a fair argument for just hurling it up from deep if you can't get what you want out of early offense. There's actually just a fair argument for hurling it up from deep regardless.

The Rockets haven't publicly admitted that they've embraced the contested 3-pointer. Beverley said the strategy is more, "If you're open from midrange, take a step back." But the Rockets are fourth in pace and first in 3-point attempts. They're 23rd in assist rate. This is a team of chuckers, and calling them such isn't even an insult. Their subversive strategy is working, even if it doesn't look like basketball as we've loved it.