Rockets: Harden, Westbrook and another math suspense

The image of total impotence against the Lakers closes the D'Antoni era and questions the proposal of Daryl Morey and the fit of two MVPs.


James Harden arrived at the Houston Rockets on October 27, 2012, at the age of 23. Since then, he has linked eight All Stars in a row (out of eight possible: 2013-20), has been MVP once (2018) and has played at the level of being able to be a few more. He has won three NBA Top Scorer titles, and has left a trail of performances (more in Regular Season than in playoffs, much more) and prodigious numbers. Literally from a video game. After three years of absence, the Rockets returned with him, in that 2013, to the playoffs and have signed an eight of eight in the playoffs with Harden. Right now, and after the end of the Spurs era, no NBA team has more consecutive appearances in the playoffs. Sustainably, James Harden's Rockets have been one of the best teams in the NBA and one of the contenders for the ring, either (rarely) as a front-line favorite on the grid or as a more or less obscure wildcard.

In 2016, after JB Bickerstaff bridged after Kevin McHale's ugly finish, Mike D'Antoni came to the bench. In full Warriors fever, the Rockets (this has merit) accepted the challenge instead of sheltering in dreams of the future and were betting on scoring more than those of the Bay. That was the maximum in the presentation of the West Virginia coach, although they ended up aspiring to the ring from the opposite premise: the defense, with specialist Jeff Bzdelik (today in the Pelicans) taking Ron Adams's proposals in the Warriors to the extreme, was what almost made the Rockets champions in 2018. Be that as it may, D'Antoni has announced that he is leaving after four seasons in which his team has been the second best in the NBA in victories (after the Warriors , the shadow that stretches endlessly over Texans). He leaves with his second Coach of the Year award (2017) and the best winning percentage in the history of a Rockets who have not played in the Finals for a quarter of a century (1995, the year of Hakeem Olajuwon's second ring) .

Because in this eight-year stretch of Harden (half with D'Antoni), the Rockets have lost three times in the first round, three times in the second and twice in the West final. Four of those eliminations have been against the Warriors, a legendary team, with heads and tails in injuries (in 2016 Stephen Curry, in 2018 Chris Paul, in 2019 Kevin Durant) and the certainty that they managed to build the best-thought team to mixing in the playoffs with those portentous Warriors that nobody really seemed able to mix with (in three years with KD they only lost the 2019 Final in the playoffs ... after the injuries of Durant himself and Klay Thompson) .

A team without answers on the big stage

If we prefer to consider the Warriors a historical anomaly, a kind of grim reaper that ended up consuming you in one way or another, let's look at the other two eliminations (four were against those of, still, Oakland) that the Rockets have suffered in the last six years: against the Spurs in 2017 and against the Lakers now, in 2020. Three years ago, the Rockets had won 67% of their games (55-27) and eliminated the Thunder. In the second round, they won very convincingly in the debut against Spurs (99-126) and ended up losing four of the next five games, the last horribly (75-114), at home and against a rival without Kawhi. Leonard, injured. James Harden scored 10 points on a 2/11 shooting to close out a series in which the Spurs concentrated on collapsing their production and letting the rest of the Rockets have to win the beans: they didn't and D'Antoni started be singled out for his lack of adjustments and low faith in rotation players.

In 2020, the Rockets won the first game over the Lakers also convincingly (97-112) and lost the next four. Again without adjustments and without answers, game after game, before the Lakers traps a lethargic Harden or before a simple 3-2 zone. After scoring 97 points in the first game, the Lakers added, before the theoretically fearsome Texas defense, 117, 112, 110 and 119. The Rockets fell perfectly progressively in scoring: 112, 109, 102, 100, 96. Trapped in many sections of the third and fourth matches, they were seen in the fifth (on the verge of elimination, they ended up losing by 23) 33-11 in just nine minutes. They did not appear on the official day of the elimination.

To that we must add the 27 triples in a row missed in the damn seventh game of 2018 against the Warriors (the Rockets' great opportunity), 10 of them from a Harden that ended with 2/13 and 12/29 in total shots . In 2015, the guard was left with two baskets and 12 losses in the final game against the Warriors. In 2016, without Curry, Kerr's men won the last game 33 by 33. In 2017 and 2020 they also ended with beatings. In 2018 they were winning by 11 at halftime and were two quarters (on their track) of a Finals in which the Cavaliers were expecting low lows. In 2019, also in their pavilion and without Durant in front of him, they could not force the seventh game although Stephen Curry did not score in the first half and managed a seven-point lead with eleven minutes remaining.

Please use this lengthy autopsy to understand that the problem is not losing in this second round to the Lakers of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, something perfectly possible. It is that no year ends up being the year, for one thing or another. It is that there are clear patterns in the defeat and it is that the rabbits in the top hat (or the calculator, in this case) may have been exhausted, of general manager Daryl Morey, the father of the statistical revolution in the NBA (the main father , at least) and a guy with the merit of always building ambitious and apparently winning projects and the possible flaw of wanting to win with what ends up looking more like an economic theory than a style of play.

Westbrook: a media ordeal ... maximum risk

Now, with the corpse still warm, it is easy to take the bet on Russell Westbrook as a tragic mistake. Actually, it was a why not within a what does it matter in a giant and if possible what. An anomaly in a franchise driven by metrics and algorithms. The certainty is that this project died when in 2019 it could not with the Warriors. Another opportunity was lost and, above all, the excuses were consumed: in 2018 Chris Paul's injury had been considered crucial in the defeat, less than twelve months later they failed to ensure that the absence of Kevin Durant had the same effect on their nemesis, the Warriors (again). James Harden did not want, that is what more or less is known, to continue playing with Chris Paul, with perspective the best partner he has had (by talent and by fit) in Houston; owner Tilman Fertitta called for an electroshock and the Rockets, with doubts about their tech core (again, that's more or less known), went blind for a media hit, a surrender to stardust. Russell Westbrook, the most inefficient shooter in recent NBA history, was acquired at a price of gold by a team built on shooting efficiency and maximizing point per possession. What could go wrong?

If the Warriors had completely closed the window on that project, perhaps only an unexpected and thunderous twist would reopen it, even if it was at the cost of tearing it apart. It was a willful thought, but perhaps also the only one possible from the scorched earth. The theoretical possibilities of the best version of the Harden / Westbrook duo (two guard MVPs together still in their best age group, something never seen) were breathtaking, enough to get all the engines running again. But the Rockets, it is worth remembering now, finished fourth in the West after reaching the bubble as sixth. There they signed a 4-4 before the playoffs, finished 44-28 with only +3 in average points difference, and were saved against the Thunder (of Chris Paul…) in the last second of the seventh game. They had been losing four of their last five games before the break on March 11. And six of the last fourteen. The departure of Clint Capela and the evolution towards ultra small ball has been one of the most commented and analyzed movements, and the one that has been most fantasized about, in recent months. But, in the real world, since the Capela trade the Rockets are 12-10 in the regular season and have been 5-7 in the playoffs. The stark reality is that the 2019-20 Rockets surely weren't that good.

The ultra small ball, from theory to practice

The fault of everything, let it be clear, is not the ultra small ball, that quintet with Robert Covington (2.01) of power forward and PJ Tucker (1.96) of pivot. In fact, this formula is what allowed the release of the best version of the Rockets and Westbrook, after the departure of Capela and the arrival of Covington (one of the most coveted pieces of the past winter market: the Rockets must be demanded based on of his plausible ambition). With the zone clear, Westbrook stopped shooting horrendous 3s and began to penetrate, taking advantage of the routes he always opens before the defensive attention that Harden concentrates. In parallel, the defense became a wall of adjustments and muscle, with similar defenders in each position; a radical dance that stunned some rivals who could no longer try to leave their bases against slow centers or their pivots against small bases.

The bet seemed optimal when he managed to impose his way of playing on the rival, create shorts from the defense and take advantage of the paths to the basket and the passes to the outside in attack in a team that, remember, absolutely despises the medium distance shot. The thing is, there was no plan B, and the Rockets always look like hopefuls when it goes well and a perfect mess when things don't go well. Black or white with no grays, and grays win playoff battles. Thus, and without adjustments between games in a harakiri only to an understandable point, the Rockets crashed with a Lakers for whom the small ball is to play with LeBron James (2.06) of base and Anthony Davis (2.08) of pivot. A team of quintets with very great players ... but with quality to play as children. The perfect nightmare for D'Antoni, who responded with sad derision when asked if it was impossible for the small ball to work in the moment of truth: "Ask the Lakers, it is with small ball how they have beaten us" .

It is very difficult to win the ring with a single plan, impossible if that plan is not pluperfect. The Rockets, a team so attached to the numbers, loyal everything to a question of volume and arithmetic addition from the triple: they needed, as a starting point, about 40 triples more than the Lakers in the tie to qualify. In the end they only added 14 more in five games, nothing next to the bleeding that the rebound supposed (227 to 163 for the Angelenos) and the annotation received in their rim in percentages that touched 80% in some games. With their sprawling defensive efficiency (eighth of eight conference semifinalists), the Rockets gave up a ton of easy points behind back door, were too easily overwhelmed in one-on-one (the first retaining wall), and appeared late to all changes.

When they tried to close the rim in the fifth game they took (they, precisely) 19 triples, the playoff record of some Lakers who played garbage minutes with Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee together on the court. Ironically, the two centers that had disappeared from the rotation as it progressed and the series was dyed yellow and purple. That ending was a caricature for some Rockets who also never seem to have the right spirit, the urge to fight, the rebellious spirit that demands to overcome the trances of the playoffs. That there always are. Because, in addition, the numbers always end up betraying: the Rockets won all 16 Regular Season games in which they made at least 40% of their triples ... and, at the decisive moment of the season, they lost three in a row against the Lakers doing exactly it.

Losing also ends up being a habit

This matter of the team's mental preparation points directly to James Harden, again off when bad hits came, canceled too easily (apparently) by the (extraordinary) defense of the Lakers. No big star wants to lose. This is obvious, but it is also true that some care a little less than others and that Harden could (compiling what he has seen in recent years) be part of the first group. There is something that prevents him from being decisive in complete series against tougher opponents, pushing his team further. And it may be the physical and mental exhaustion that his and the Rockets' style demands. His usage (number of possessions he monopolizes when he is on the track) always moves in historical numbers since he arrived in Houston. This year (36.4%) was the second highest of his career, enough to be in the top 10 all-time. Since the NBA measures each possession, only one player with a usage of 35% or more has made his team to the Finals: Allen Iverson (35.9%) in 2001. And of the other 23 who have surpassed that figure, only two have made it to the Conference final: George Gervin in 1982 and Harden in 2018, the year of the big break.

James Harden has been in the NBA since 2009. He is 31 years old and we have already seen him tire of playing with Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. His best version demands a wear that affects him (it seems) in the playoffs, his spirit is not exactly iron and he has completely unleashed himself as a megastar under the command, for better or worse, of the coach who has just left, Mike D'Antoni. One of the most fabulous attack weapons in history, Harden limits himself to shooting three or searching either the tray or the staff line in an effective formula in Regular Season (devastating, in fact) but that does not seem to punish him. enough to opposing defenses in the playoffs. Not the best. And that's a problem that advocates of advanced statistics like alpha and omega have to start tackling as soon as possible: what goes for full seasons against 29 different teams, may not do so in specific pairings where you have to win four matches out of seven. the same rival. It is not worth that your formula is infallible against 95% of the NBA if it is useless against the other 5%. Because it is precisely with that 5% that you are going to play the titles.

Harden will collect 41.2 million next season, 44.3 the following and 47.3 (player option) in 2022-23, which will close with almost 34 years. Russell Westbrook turns 32 in November and, another super max, is guaranteed 41.3 million, 44.2 and (another player option) 47 in the same three years. His 2020 playoffs have been disappointing, preceded (yes) by convalescence due to coronavirus and a muscle injury that stopped him in the first games against the Thunder. Far from physical fullness (due to these circumstances ... or over the years), he has seen how the Lakers almost literally dispensed with defending him and how his total suspensions, from any zone, remained at 28.6%. He has averaged 19.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5 assists with 42% shooting, 25.9 three-pointers and 53.8 from the personnel line. And he's thrown just ten times less than Harden from three.

Solutions increasingly blurred

A recipe for disaster that the Lakers that the Lakers squeezed with an iron fist against an opponent without answers and whose two MVPs are guaranteed more than 265 million over three seasons. If you add the contract of a 31-year-old Eric Gordon, we have during those three years 98.6, 106.8 and 113.9 million. Just between the three of them. With one of the oldest rosters in the NBA and without any youngsters emerging, the Rockets do not have a large bag of picks to renew themselves after the investments made in recent times, the main one to get a Westbrook that, finally, has not made nothing more than to vindicate Chris Paul, who has played a formidable season in OKC. They are without a coach, their owner usually runs away from the luxury tax (thus, among other things, Trevor Ariza left in the summer of 2018, for many a little mediatic but essential beginning of the end) and they have a half free rotation after this season . Among those that follow, a Danuel House very touched by the scandal that separated him from the series against the Lakers (a woman accessed his room) and PJ Tucker, a transcendental player (but already 35 years old) for what the Rockets propose and that, after lowering his claims to sign in 2017, he now expects a succulent compensation. His initial goal, 55 million for four seasons. That is, until age 39 ... 444 444

The Rockets polished their proposal to the maximum. Basically (if this is war, bullets come) what had to be done to, without half measures, launch an ordeal this season in which, finally, the Warriors were not in the way. That they will return, to top it all. But in doing so they created a roster, without centers and with hardly any pure bases, strange and conceived to play only as they have played with D'Antoni. Whoever reaches the bench, will have to face this restructuring with almost no salary margin, without market assets and with the spirit of the troops on the ground. In the wheel of names there are many exes of the house (Jeff Van Gundy, Sam Cassell ...), some who are in all the sauces (Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd ...) and a few first level assistants, of those who are in the agendas of all the major franchises. The challenge is enormous for a team that (I insist, with perspective), had its best option with Chris Paul, in no case with Russell Westbrook. And that in the questionable barter two first rounds and the right to exchange two others.

The situation is more difficult because, in short, the Rockets do not have any of the veins that are usually squeezed to improve (or try) a roster: no salary margin, no picks in the 2020 draft (and not much later), nor young players who can tempt other franchises ... not even an owner with the intention of getting into the luxury tax, from which he fled in terror in 2018 no matter how much in Houston it was sold that they were within an injury of Chris Paul to overthrow the almighty Warriors. With contracts that start to look like inflated (Gordon's extension, Westbrook's millionaire ...), players already veterans or about to be, the now vilified Danuel House as the best young asset (not such but it is the closest thing: He is 27 years old ...) and with, discounting the ten contracts that are guaranteed, just over a million salary margin in the projections that are handled for the complicated salary cap of the next season

When the fourth game ended, D'Antoni spoke openly of "lack of attitude." When asked about that emotional problem with the team, a Harden sprawled in a chair just gave this answer: "That's a good question." If you have to consider what's wrong on a mental level with the Rockets, look at Harden first. Not because of being cruel to him but because, quite simply, he is the franchise player and the piece on which the whole puzzle turns. And the veteran of a locker room that showed neither strength nor toughness when the Lakers got it really serious. It's hard to know how much of that is and how much of a mathematical anomaly, Daryl Morey's constant paradox, in another season with a bad ending for the Rockets. Or even if both factors, the psychiatrist's couch and the Excel charts, end up colluding in a wave of negativity and exhaustion, physical and mental. As I said before, the 2019-20 Rockets may not have been quite as good as you wanted them to imagine. But it's not just this season, it's all the previous ones… and the questions that remain unanswered. Or, what is much worse, that they begin to have clearer and clearer answers.

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