That’s Why I Can’t Stand the Houston Rockets

I grew up in Seabrook, TX, just a stone’s throw from NASA. On a good day, I could probably from run my childhood home to Mission Control.

I grew up a huge fan of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and the only guy who brought championships home to Houston, the beloved Hakeem Olajuwon. Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals happened when I was 15. It was during the OJ/Bronco chase. No one remembers Sam Cassell, Robert Horry or Olajuwon leading the Clutch City comeback against the Knicks except Houstonians, and even most were still watching the Shakespearean highway chase in Los Angeles. The Rockets defended that title against Orlando the next season. Nick Anderson of the Magic missed all those free throws on my sixteenth birthday. Two years later, my graduating class was so big that we had to move the procession to the University of Houston. I came out of the tunnel to see the retired numbers Olajuwon and his Rockets and Houston Cougar running mate, Clyde Drexler. To this day, I still get goosebumps thinking about what I saw when I walked out and looked up.

You’d think with that kind of history in my formative years, the Houston Rockets would be one of my favorite teams that I carried over into adulthood. However, I quickly fell out of love with NBA after college. To me, the NBA season is excruciatingly long, and it lacks the drama of March Madness. My biggest complaint has always been that it’s an eight-month slog to reach the inevitable. But even with that, you’d still think I have a soft spot in my heart for the Rockets.

I confess that I don’t. Not anymore, and a lot of it has to do with who they think they are. Who they are, in reality, is a now a good organization with above-average results. That’s commendable. But that’s not what the Houston Rockets braintrust believes. The Houston Rockets think they are The Smartest Guy In The Room. And that’s what pisses me off.

The Rockets are engineered by general manager Daryl Morey. Morey is the Godfather of basketball’s analytics revolution, and a co-founder of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on the campus of MIT. He is largely credited with reinventing how the NBA is played now, by mostly focusing on shooting a higher percentage of three-pointers and easy layups. His focus has been to largely eliminate the mid-range jumper because, in his view, that shot is inefficient.

To be fair, Morey is a smart guy. He graduated with his MBA from MIT, and the Rockets have never had a losing season while he’s been the general manager. He’s so beloved in the statistical community that his nickname is Dork Elvis. But he has a humongous blind spot that was just exposed to the world tonight. Daryl Morey understands the quantitative quite well. He has no concept of the qualitative, however.

His best player is James Harden who once rejected the opportunity to start when he was in Oklahoma City. Last season, Harden showed up out-of-shape, and seemingly more interested in romancing a Kardashian. That same season, the Rockets second-best player was Dwight Howard, an underwhelming coach-killer whose best season was in 2009. Not surprisingly, coach Kevin McHale didn’t make it through the season.

McHale’s replacement was the well-traveled Mike D’Antoni, a man whose legend overwhelms his actual accomplishments. D’Antoni is from West Virginia, but he played and coached in Italy, even earning dual citizenship in the process. He took over the Phoenix Suns in 2005, and lead them to back-to-back Western Conference Finals. He even had a book written about those teams called Seven Seconds Or Less.

Since those Western Conference Finals, though, he’s bounced around the NBA with middling success. He’s coached the Knicks, Lakers and now the Rockets. He’s missed the playoffs completely three times in ten years. He’s only made two Western Conference semi-finals in that time period. His biggest flaw as a coach is that he only knows how to win one way. He plays a fast-paced style that tends to give up a lot on defense. If his teams aren’t shooting well, they are particularly vulnerable to simply being outscored. He failed in Los Angeles primarily because he didn’t have the necessary pieces to run his offense, and had no clue on how to adapt to his players, and what they were capable of doing.

On paper, Harden, Howard and D’Antoni look great, though. On a spreadsheet, they should be outstanding. Harden had an MVP caliber season this year. Howard will eventually go to the Hall of Fame. D’Antoni may end up in Springfield as well as a contributor to the game. On paper, the Houston Rockets should work.

But the Rockets along with so many other stat geeks simply have no concept of the qualitative aspects of a team. Data is important, but behaviors matter. Character matters. Being flexible and adaptable matters.

A guy who didn’t want to start for Oklahoma City shot 2–11 from the field tonight. A guy who last season didn’t take care of his body, and was in the tabloids for fooling around with the most foolish family in America, shot 2–9 from three-point range and committed six turnovers tonight. A guy who missed the playoffs three times in 10 years just lost to a five-time champion coach, Gregg Popovich, because he couldn’t adapt a different style on the fly once Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs figured out his gimmicky offense.

The Spurs punished the Rockets tonight 114–75. Somewhere tonight in Houston, a bleary-eyed Daryl Morey will stare at all his data, all his spreadsheets, and all the information he’s compiled and wonder where it all went wrong. Tonight, Morey will fall asleep blissfully unaware of an entire world he never considered. Tonight, Morey will dream of his next analytics conference in Massachusetts, far away from the summer heat of Houston, far away from the heat of pissed-off Rockets fans suffering through the indignity of a colossal beatdown.

At least he dominates the conferences, though. Tonight, Dork Elvis can’t wait to leave the building.