Here is Daryl Morey’s chance to tell the Chuckster to go (bleep) himself. I’m putting it on a tee for him.
This was last Thursday, in the hallway outside the Houston Rockets’ locker room at Toyota Center -- the locker room with the yuuuuuge HD video screen in front, and the ribbon of player stats that scrawl over each player’s spacious cubicle. They’ve been there for years, but amenities seem to matter more when a team’s winning big, a sign that they spare no expense in search of more success.
Which is a crock, of course.
Houston is winning this season because it has one of the league’s best players in James Harden, playing the way he dreamed he could, in the system Morey has dreamed of since owner Les Alexander brought him into the organization in 2006, setting him up to inevitably become general manager and implement his ideas.
Over the years, Morey, the Rockets’ GM, has settled for hybrid versions of his dream: he inherited Yao Ming, in whom the Rockets had invested so many millions of dollars and man hours over the years; there was no way they were walking away from the big man. But after Yao’s foot problems prematurely ended his career, Morey still went big, bringing in Dwight Howard as a free agent in 2013 to try and meld his 3-point emphasis with traditional, low-post feeding -- in which his coach at the time, Kevin McHale, obviously believed.
We know how that went.
Wait -- that’s not fair. That forced marriage had some big ups, too -- the unexpected run to the Western Conference finals in 2015, after coming back from a 3-1 deficit to the Clippers in the semifinal round. But it did ultimately collapse last season, which led to Morey firing McHale early last season and Howard leaving for Atlanta via free agency last summer. There were rumblings that Morey had better get both the next coaching hire and roster constructions right, for they could be his last in Houston.
But as we reach the halfway point of the season, things are, as Morey, an aficionado of the Great White Way, would surely recognize, coming up roses.
Morey hired coach Mike D’Antoni, and D’Antoni has unleashed Harden on the league, giving him the ball and officially making him the Rockets’ point guard in name and job description. Morey finally got the roster he wanted, loading it with shot-makers in free-agent additions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, and the Rockets are raining 3-pointers, unrelentingly and unapologetically, sturdy in their belief that this way of playing can produce a championship team. As we all know, despite the Golden State Warriors’ run to the title in 2015, this is not our friend Charles Barkley’s position. And he and Morey have exchanged some not-so-subtle jabs at one another through the media.
This morning, though, after beating the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre Sunday, Morey’s Rockets are a colossus, owners of a 30-9 record and an eight-game winning streak. They have wins at Golden State, at San Antonio and, now, Toronto. Harden is, again, a short-list Kia MVP candidate, leading the league in assists (11.8 apg) while also ranking fourth in scoring (28.2 ppg). D’Antoni gives him the ball, but with no Howard to have to feed inside, and shooters all over the floor, Harden’s game is now on full display. His willingness and ability to sling the ball all over the floor, or destroy defenses that stay at home on all those shooters, makes Houston impossible to stop for very long.
The Rockets average 114.6 points per game, second only to Golden State and their Offensive Rating of 112.5 is third in the league, behind Golden State and. Houston is on pace to shatter its own single-season NBA record for average 3-point attempts per game, 32.7, set in 2014-15. The Rockets have only shot fewer than 30 threes in one game this season, the season opener. They’ve gotten up at least 50 threes five times, including a hard-to-process 61 against the New Orleans Pelicans in December. They don’t think they’re anywhere near their apex of threedom.
So the Rockets are winning, winning big, fun to watch and a definite threat in the West. And, thus, Morey is now being given the chance to verbally slay the Chuckster, any way he likes.
“I think Charles is a fantastic entertainer,” Morey says in response. “I can respond to specific comments of Charles. But I’m not a big ‘go (bleep) yourself’ guy.”
“Last year wasn’t a fun year for anybody. This year, he feels like more of a leader, and he’s having more fun. We all are. I think that’s the biggest key to our success, and his.”
He can afford to be magnanimous. Both on the micro and macro level, Morey is winning. The Rockets are the league’s best turnaround story this season. And from 30,000 feet, Morey’s ideas have won. The NBA plays his way now, the way the analytics community has argued is the best, most efficient way to play, with 3-pointers coming from every spot on the floor, the game now five-out, none-in, other than the occasional roll to the basket by a new-age center like Houston’s Clint Capela.
And Harden is smiling again through “The Beard”, his unfulfilling and unsuccessful relationship with Howard forgotten. After a slow start, and despite injuries to Capela (a broken leg will likely keep him out another month), Houston is carving up the league.
“It’s fun,” Harden says. “As you can see, the Warriors play like that now, and the last few years. It’s fun. It’s exciting. The crowd’s into it. You’re knocking threes; you’re getting layups. We have the right personnel, we have the right guys for it. It fits what we’re doing.”
There is a reason the Oklahoma City Thunder now ask their bigs, like Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, to get down in a defensive stance and go check stretch fours like Anderson: adapt, or die.
Morey continues to insist that it was as much Alexander’s ideas as his own.
“From the moment I interviewed here, to the people that were here before, like Dennis Lindsey (now the Jazz GM), and Rudy (Tomjanovich), they’ll tell you this is how he always felt like basketball should be played,” Morey said. “Obviously, I agreed with him, and we’ve been working towards that.”
It’s not hard to find the genesis of Alexander’s philosophy. His Rockets won back to back titles in the Grab-and-Clutch era of the NBA in 1994 and ’95, leading league in 3-point attempts both seasons. The only difference between then and now was that Houston’s center, Hakeem Olajuwon, was the de facto point guar. “The Dream” would get the ball on the block, see the inevitable double coming or otherwise draw attention, and the ball would ultimately find the open guy on the perimeter -- Kenny Smith or Mario Elie or Robert Horry or Sam Cassell. It’s not much of a squint to see that game morphing into today’s, with Harden orchestrating instead of the Dream.
The irony, though, is that even D’Antoni was still holding out a little.
Even as Steve Nash dropped dimes all over creation in Phoenix, and Raja Bell and Shawn Marion and Leandro Barbosa were pumping 3-pointers, D’Antoni still had a foot in the game he often eschewed. He still wasn’t totally convinced himself that you could go all out by going all in on threes and layups. He still felt a need to feed Amar’e Stoudemire and keep some balance. The echoes of the old ways still reached the ears of Mr. Seven Seconds or Less.
“That came up in our interview with him,” Morey said. “He came to the MIT conference (the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference) that we do, and he was quite excited that there was this group of many people -- not just the Rockets -- who were able to show, this was the way to play. Leslie knew it all the way back, through intuition. We were able to give him data. They traded for Shaq, for example. They did a lot of things that were counter to what Mike really believed. Sometimes, data isn’t just about telling you the way to do things; it gives you confidence in what you’re doing.”
Now, D’Antoni is a full-blown acolyte. Defensive concepts like tagging cutters who came through the lane used to bug him; they messed up the flow. Now, that just means a chance to shoot more 3-pointers.
He knew Harden was talented. But coaches need to know more about their best players in order to trust them.
“I’ve never seen him practice before; I’ve never seen how he is on the floor; I’ve never seen if he likes to play,” D’Antoni said. “I’ve never seen all the intangibles you have to have to win a championship, and he’s demonstrated that. He’s taking guys out to dinner; you don’t know that (beforehand). I like that he loves to play basketball, and that, to me, is a key to any great player -- they have to, when they come to the gym, they can’t wait to play. And he has that.”
The Rockets desperately needed some of Golden State’s joie de vivre after cratering on and off the floor last year. Not only did Howard and Harden not get along, but the Rockets never really replaced the good stank that Josh Smith and that unlikely bench provided in ’15. There was a cloud over the team, as if Bad Luck Schleprock had put down roots at Toyota Center.
It’s easy now to say it was all Howard, but that’s not fair. It takes two to not communicate. But Harden’s smiling again.
“They get on me quite a bit, like, ‘what are you doing, Ryan?’ Most of the time it’s ‘why did you take that shot?’ On this team it’s, ‘why didn’t you take that shot? Or ‘why did you pass that up?’ ... In this system, an open shot, an open three, especially, is the best shot for this group.
“I think he’s having more fun,” teammate Trevor Ariza said. “Last year wasn’t a fun year for anybody. This year, he feels like more of a leader, and he’s having more fun. We all are. I think that’s the biggest key to our success, and his.”
The Rockets were frequently unsentimental about players. Guys came and went out of Houston as Morey amassed talent that could be flipped for better players. But the plans are to keep the core together for a while, even as the search for another superstar to play with Harden will continue undisturbed next summer, as it has since his arrival. Houston’s already given Harden a $118 million extension through 2020 and he would be in line for the new veteran designated player exception in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2019, the year before his current deal expires.
Said Anderson: “the chemistry is there. We really enjoy being around each other, coming into practice every day is like, fun. It’s a light atmosphere, obviously, with Coach D’Antoni just giving us freedom and really giving us confidence to just go out and play our games. We’re built together as a group, certain pieces were put together, especially around James. It’s just, let’s go out and play and see what our group does. The chemistry is there. It feels good.”
In Phoenix, D’Antoni and assistant Alvin Gentry were known for getting on guys who wouldn’t shoot when they were open. That’s also the case in Houston -- “especially with me,” Anderson said.
“They get on me quite a bit, like, ‘what are you doing, Ryan?’ Most of the time it’s ‘why did you take that shot?’ On this team it’s, ‘why didn’t you take that shot? Or ‘why did you pass that up?’ They want us to be aggressive.
“In this system, an open shot, an open three, especially, is the best shot for this group. If you pass up a wide open three, if you move it to the next shot, it might not be as high percentage a shot or it might be more contested. So that’s kind of the system. And we have so many shooters, so many guys who can take advantage of that.”
The Rockets had been obsessed with Anderson over the years and had gotten close to acquiring him from the Orlando Magic and kept trying to do so after he went to New Orleans in a sign-and-trade deal in 2012.
“We just felt like he was the best spacing big man in the league,” Morey said. “If you want to win the title, it helps to have the best of ‘x,’ whatever it is.”
Houston wasn’t the only team that coveted him, of course, as Atlanta and Washington were among many hot on his trail over the summer. And the Rockets didn’t offer him the most money, even though they offered him a lot -- $80 million over four years. But when the Rockets met with Anderson, they were able to show him exactly what kinds of shots he’d get playing with Harden, and that he shot almost 50 percent on 3-pointers when he was open -- and that with the Pelicans, he got the fewest open shots of any stretch four in the league.
“James and I have been talking for years about how dangerous of a dynamic that would be for us, going into pick and rolls,” Anderson said. “Just me being able to spread the court. Some teams hug up on me. Sometimes I’m standing five feet off the 3- point line, and they’re hugging up on me. But that gives James so much more space to work. And that itself is a dynamic I know I can bring. There may a night where I get eight shots or something. But I’m enjoying that game, because I know that I’m doing something that really helps this team.”
Equally important was getting Gordon. His game had withered in New Orleans, the victim of expectations and a slew of injuries.
(It’s no coincidence that Houston has had some good fortune to go along with its talent. The oft-injured Anderson and Gordon have stayed healthy, and 2015 first-round pick Sam Dekker, who lost almost all of his rookie season last year to back surgery, has played in every game so far this season.)
The Memphis Grizzlies came at Gordon hard and the New York Knicks were interested, too, but it was also engaged with Courtney Lee. That hesitation made Gordon’s decision easier. And, obviously needing people who could help him extend his career, Gordon was also impressed with the Rockets’ medical staff -- “it’s like they know my body better than I do,” he said. “I haven’t felt this good since I was with the Clippers.”
Gordon started the first part of the season, while Patrick Beverley was recovering from preseason left knee surgery. When Beverley returned, though, Gordon could have taken umbrage. Instead, he took a seat on the bench, and allowed assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, in charge of the Rockets’ defense, to put the team’s top defender back on the floor with the starters.
“From what we experienced in the preseason, it was like James had his unit, and I had my unit,” Gordon said. “And it just worked out better. During the summer, I just wanted a better situation. I just wanted to win. And when we started testing it out and trying it out, I was like, why not?”
Shooting 41.1 percent on 3-pointers, Gordon’s scoring average of 17.8 per game trails only the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lou Williams among non-starters. “That guy over there, Eric Gordon, he’s playing at a high level,” Harden said. “He doesn’t get a lot of attention. He’s kept quiet. But he’s one of the reasons we’re in the third spot.”
Nene and Montrezl Harrell are doing more than hold the fort in the middle, but the Rockets will ultimately need Capela’s rim protection and his rim runs as he is sixth in the league in paint touches. The Rockets’ normal starting lineup with Capela at center ranks seventh in the league in five-man units that average 10 or more minutes a game in field goal percentage, at 51.1 percent.
Morey doesn’t buy much into narratives, even the ones that favor his team. There’s too much luck, good and bad, that factors in; narratives are lazy and easily disproved. Yet the redemption narrative is a well-worn one because it’s easy. The Rockets were awful last year; now they’re fun. Harden was universally clowned for woebegone and awful defense; now … is that Harden taking a charge Sunday against the Raptors?
Yet a successful season, with a long playoff run, would give him quite a story to tell prospective free agents next summer.
“Guys are coming up to me and saying ‘man, it looks like you’re having fun out there,’” Anderson said. “Sometimes you take that for granted. You go in or you might let some frustrations get in the way, little things. And I think about it. Really, I’m having a blast. And it’s really cool to have those guys come over and see that that’s such a change. It’s a noticeable difference.
“It is a fun style of basketball. It is an unselfish style of basketball, where we really just, each time somebody shoots the ball, each time somebody makes a play, we really believe that that’s the best play. And we have faith that that guy’s going to convert, or make a big shot, or make a big stop defensively. Defensively, we have our backs. We’re communicating well. It’s just a really good, like well-oiled machine right now.”
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