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Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Updated: April 5, 1:05 PM ET
The Rockets are ready for liftoff

By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com

James Harden
Things are looking up for James Harden and the Rockets after three straight playoff-less seasons.

You'll find it hanging from the chins of children barely old enough to walk and on Twitter, where it has more followers than dozens of NBA players. You'll find it nodding on commemorative bobbleheads and in pun-laden headlines. Yes, James Harden's beard gets all the attention.

And why not? It speaks to the delightful eccentricity of Harden's story -- the onetime sixth man who got his shot and, as he so often does on the court, took advantage of the opening.

But beneath the preternatural skill and the goofy grooming is something rarely associated with entertainment: cold efficiency. Harden's appearance and swagger belie a game that is as mathematically sensible as it is thrilling to watch.

In that way, Harden's unkempt face-warmer is a tidy metaphor for the Houston Rockets' unique rise into the national conversation. Yes, they play a fast-paced, ventricle-bursting style, but it's not some happy accident. These aren't kids on a playground. This is big business. This is the numbers telling you unexpected things your eyes might miss. This is analytics in action.


The prologue of this story stretches back a few years prior, but 2011 is when the Rockets began working in earnest toward their current incarnation. When Kevin McHale was hired to replace Rick Adelman as head coach of the Rockets, it raised more than a few eyebrows around the league.

That a living legend like McHale would be hired by an NBA team is nothing unusual. But the man who hired him, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, has made his living by exploiting just these sort of conventional decisions.

Morey, dubbed "Dork Elvis" by Bill Simmons, has been the face of advanced statistics' ascent into the NBA mainstream. He is a former statistical consultant with STATS Inc. who rode his development of statistical analytics up the ranks of the Boston Celtics organization and later with Houston. Perhaps as much as anyone, Morey has promoted the notion that a deep understanding of sabermetrics can yield sports success.

Daryl Morey
Daryl Morey's aggressive roster reshaping has paid off for the Rockets, who are seventh in the West.

Little about McHale suggested a statistical leaning. When he was becoming one of the game's greats as a player, McHale, in the words of Morey, "wasn't on the floor worrying about the analysis of his hook shot."

That's Morey's game, worrying about the analysis. To some it seemed a doomed pairing, but there was a method to the madness of hiring a coach with a 39-55 career record whose clipboard instructions were once described by a former player as, "like a little Etch and Sketch. Like a kid just messing around."

Whatever he lacked as an obsessive tactician in the mold of Tom Thibodeau, McHale was known as a fun coach to play for. Before he left Minnesota in 2009, budding star Kevin Love remarked, "Everybody likes him and would love to play for him again."

See, McHale wasn't a system coach brought in to lead a specific team. He was a hoops generalist hired to coach a specific process.

Since McHale was officially hired on June 1, 2011, the Rockets' front office has flipped the roster not once, but twice. Only two players, Chandler Parsons and Greg Smith, remain on the team from training camp at the start of McHale's first season. Only eight of 15 players currently on the roster were in training camp this season.

Despite all the activity, it was unclear at first if Houston was moving in any direction at all. While the front office constantly reshuffled the roster in an attempt to free up cap space and acquire the kind of assets that could be packaged in exchange for a superstar replacement after the departures of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, a couple of years of shrewd maneuvering amounted to finding different ways to finish ninth in the West.

But unlike many franchises, in which the coach and GM are both trying to keep their jobs -- often one at the expense of the other -- the Rockets consistently projected a unified understanding of their short- and long-term goals. Houston's odd couple achieved something precious in the NBA, something Morey likes to call "alignment."

The ideal of the crucial relationship between the general manager, coach and star player is the mind meld between R.C. Buford, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan. What happened in Orlando, between Otis Smith, coach Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard, serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when the tectonic plates of an organization move in different directions.

Despite their differing basketball upbringings, there's a mutual appreciation between coach and GM in Houston.

"[McHale] doesn't necessarily see the game through our analysis," Morey says. "But he's very smart, and he believes in a lot of things that our analysis says how the game should be played."

Morey quickly capitalized on an unrecognized value in McHale -- a smart, credible coach who would be willing to endure an unstable roster. Finding that third man in their GM-coach-player triumvirate was more difficult.

The Rockets struck out on a number of franchise players. Chris Bosh and Howard chose other locales. The three-team trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers and Pau Gasol to Houston in December 2011 was called off.

Then, after years of reorganization, clearing cap space and targeting top players, the moment Morey had waited for finally struck. A few days before the start of the season, the Rockets traded for Harden, an open-court thunderbolt and the top pick-and-roll scorer in the NBA.

Harden in many ways represents the ideal Morey player. Young and a bargain, even when the five-year, $80 million extension he signed shortly after arriving in Houston kicks in next season, Harden has an instinct for seeking the absolutely most efficient scoring opportunities. As of March 20, the 23-year-old Harden is second in the league in free throws made and is in the top seven in both attempted layups and 3-pointers.

When Morey swung his trade for Harden, he didn't just find a superstar, he found his superstar.


Even before the Rockets bagged Harden, they planned on pushing the tempo -- and McHale knows a thing or two about playing fast. The Celtics of the 1980s, on which McHale built a Hall of Fame career and won three championships, played at a slower pace than their contemporaries. But they played at a much higher tempo than any current NBA team; today, no team plays as fast as even the slowest teams from that era. But between McHale's playing heyday and the beginning of his coaching career in 2005, the league changed.

"Coaches became a lot more control freaks," McHale says of the grind-it-out NBA of the 1990s. "I thought when they wanted to hold everything down, possessions down and all that stuff."

Kevin McHale
Kevin McHale has had to resist his coaching urge and let the Rockets' offense "flow and roll" this season.

Control is attractive to NBA coaches, who have incentive to justify their salary not just by wins but also by proving they had something to do with it. When players are flying up and down the court, there's no time to direct from the bench. The coach must trust his players and the principles reinforced in practice.

This season, McHale has given his players ample agency, and it's working. The Rockets, while playing at the league's fastest pace and shooting more 3-pointers than any other team, have league's sixth-best offense. As of April 5, Houston is 42-33, good for seventh place in the brutal Western Conference and on pace to make the playoffs.

The jet-fueled offense has steadily improved throughout the season, a testament to the coaching staff's impact. If you split the season by 10-game segments, Houston's offensive efficiency failed to increase once.

Despite these accomplishments, McHale and his assistants have received little public credit for their relatively hands-off approach. It's an issue of perception. McHale's effectiveness comes almost as much from what he's not doing during games as it does from what he accomplishes in practice.

But McHale's ability to guide without yanking too hard on the reins is a crucial, underappreciated skill. You can't encourage "flow and roll" -- McHale's pet term for how Houston's offense utterly flattens the opposition in a matter of minutes -- if the coach is interjecting himself into the action.

For McHale, the trick has been to let go of his coach's instinct to control the minutiae, to make peace with a style that requires the organization, from top to bottom, to be comfortable with extremes. With Morey's support and a roster designed to play a specific way, McHale learned to stop worrying and love the 3-pointer.

Morey knows how valuable it is that McHale can translate these concepts into action, and he's "frustrated" at the lack of recognition.

"I keep seeing all these lists for coach of the year without his name on them," says Morey, "and I don't understand."


Morey/Harden
After several failed attempts, Morey nabbed his superstar in Harden before the start of the season.

The idea that finding good shots is easier early in the shot clock has been around for a while and was made famous by Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns. The Rockets' front office will tell you playing fast is the most efficient strategy given their roster and league norms.

The players will tell you running is fun.

"It's a blast," says Parsons. A self-described 6-foot-10 forward "with a ratchet" (i.e., 3-point jumper), McHale gives Parsons freedom to become a one-man fast break the moment he grabs the defensive rebound. "It's so much freedom, so much space, so much open floor."

[NBA players] all want to run until they have to run. ... Then they all want to walk.

-- Rockets coach Kevin McHale

Carlos Delfino, who played for noted control freaks Larry Brown and Scott Skiles early in his NBA career, wistfully remembers an Italian League team he played for in 2004 as the last time he had so much freedom. New Rocket James Anderson calls the style "unreal."

But playing that way requires real work and attention to detail.

"[NBA players] all want to run until they have to run. ... Then they all want to walk," Kevin McHale jokes.

Such physical exertion leads to a mental fatigue as well. The Rockets tend to get into trouble when the shots aren't falling early or a few sloppy turnovers trigger a natural impulse to be conservative in the face of adversity. McHale, though, encourages his guys to break old habits and build new instincts.

"This is their system; it's not my system," McHale says. "They've got to buy in. It's truly not a team until it's their system."


Houston is an exciting team to watch, but one of the reasons hard-core statistical analysis is not the norm in the NBA is because it's not the most inspiring way to look at the game. No motivational speech ever includes "points per 100 possessions." No impassioned fans will ever slap five in the stands and scream into each other's face "Expected shot value, baby!"

But the Rockets players articulate an iron faith in their process, a by-product of that alignment between Morey, McHale and the players. And for the guys on the court, Harden makes it easy to believe that this odd mix of talents and philosophies makes perfect sense.

"In order for us to have a chance in any game, we can't slow the ball up and try to play half court," says Harden, who's averaging 25.9 points, 5.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game and boasts the league's 10th-best player efficiency rating, 23.38. "We have to impose our will and do what we do."

What Harden does is blow past defenders with a low, sweeping crossover and pick out shooters with pinpoint passes. And not only does he shoot a high volume of high-value shots -- 3-pointers, free throws and layups -- Harden helps his teammates do the same.

"He's a much better passer than people think, much better," says Rockets assistant GM Sam Hinkie. "That ball hits you in the chest with no opponent around you at just the right moment."

The Rockets share the ball and find the open guy, the guy with feet set to shoot. The trick is creating opportunities for someone to be standing still and wide open -- no easy task in the NBA.

But as Delfino says with a smile, "Having a guy like James, it's easy."


Morey, McHale and Harden have taken an unorthodox approach and achieved something interesting and fun. But what they have thus far is hardly threatening to the best in the West.

The dramatic changes still needed to join the NBA's elite will stress and strain the current arrangement. Comfort with extremes has allowed Houston to get this far, but can that ethos survive as the Rockets look to not only improve but to preserve what they have now?

Chandler Parsons
The Rockets have built a solid young core, but more is needed.

The pieces are, mostly, in place. Harden is signed through 2017-18, and Morey recently agreed to a new contract that will take him through 2016-17. But McHale has just one guaranteed year left on his contract. Is he the right man to guide the Rockets through a new, more delicate process?

And what will this Rockets team look like if it reaches such heights? Morey knows it takes multiple stars to win big in the NBA.

"The great players understand that you need to play with other great players to win the title," he says.

Now that he has landed one young stud, Morey hopes Harden will be a useful recruiting chip in bringing in a second.

But don't expect Houston to sign just any big name. A review of previous transactions indicates it will seek out players who already exhibit qualities the Rockets value. Omer Asik, for instance, has almost never taken a bad shot in his career because all he does is shoot the shots he can make -- those right at the rim. Jeremy Lin, their other major free-agent acquisition of the 2012 offseason, is an open-court and pick-and-roll specialist. They replaced hyperefficient scoring guard Kevin Martin with the younger, more dynamic and even more efficient Harden.

The Rockets aren't in the business of fixing players, a reality that may limit their activity this summer. The two major free agents who are most likely to change locations in the coming offseason, Andrew Bynum and Josh Smith, don't quite fit the Rockets ideals of playing fast (Bynum) and at a high efficiency (Smith).

Two years of upheaval finally yielded alignment. Now that they've found some success, Morey and his front office really have something of value to risk. The next task is a complex one: The Rockets must foster stability to nurture what they have while taking the chances necessary to improve.

In a 2012 chat on Reddit, the risk-taking Morey sounded up to the challenge:

"As only one team out of 30 gets to win, you cannot play it safe."