• Print
Wednesday October 29, 2008 3:02 AM

Higher Learning

 


Seeing the game through the eyes of an expert

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

HOUSTON - “I’'m probably pretty boring to watch a game with because I’'m all about expected values. I don'’t even care if it goes in or not, I’m all about, '‘Should it go in?’' I can live with randomness. I mean, if it’'s a close game in the end, yeah, I’'m just like anyone else. But I just want us to play the odds all the time.”  

- Sam Hinkie, Houston Rockets Vice President of Basketball Operations

I love that quote. The second I heard it, I knew there was no other way to begin this story. As far as thesis statements go, it'’s nearly flawless; primarily because it took Hinkie a mere sixty-six words to unveil a point which will probably take me 3,000 (or more) to unravel. But while his statement does provide a perfect glimpse into the essence of what makes the Rockets’ front office unique, it'’s also wrong on one account: If you’'re a hardcore basketball fan, “boring” is the last word you'’d ever use to describe the experience of watching a game with Sam Hinkie - unless you'’re referring to the dry, plain burger he ate just before tip-off.

But perhaps I’'m getting ahead of myself. I might as well start at the beginning.

*******

Much has been made about the Rockets'’ seemingly avant-garde approach to team-building. When Daryl Morey took over as general manager seventeen months ago, most people saw his background in statistical analysis and immediately labeled him the prophet (or pariah) destined to usher basketball into the “Moneyball” era.

Now that conclusion isn'’t necessarily false, it’'s just that, like most generalizations, it’'s overly simplistic. Morey and the rest of the men who make up the Rockets front office absolutely employ a rational, analytical approach to assembling a roster, but the image of them as stat geek automatons subservient to the whims of their spreadsheets and databases couldn'’t be further from the truth. These guys not only love the game of basketball, they know it, too.

It'’s the latter point which explains why I found myself sitting down inside Hinkie'’s office last Thursday night to watch the Rockets final preseason game. A couple weeks prior, I had reached the conclusion that one of my goals for the upcoming season would be to watch at least one game alongside each of the team’s chief architects -– Morey, Hinkie and Gersson Rosas - in an effort to see the game through their eyes, or at least as much as my limited cognitive abilities could compute. The hope being that by hanging around the people who truly know basketball and pull the trigger on the big deals, I might learn a thing or two about the game, this team and the rationale behind its construction, –and in turn be able to pass that insight along. After all, if you’'re going to be writing a year’'s worth of stories about the design, development and realization of Fallingwater, you’'d better make sure you pick the brain of Frank Lloyd Wright and his assistants as much as you can, right? So that’'s the idea, anyway.

(Note to the reader: Yes, I just compared Daryl Morey to the greatest American architect of all time and, no, you’'re not supposed to take it too terribly seriously. It was done for literary effect, nothing more. Please discard the outraged emails now. Thank you)

*******

When you first enter Hinkie'’s office, it's the walls which immediately grab your attention. Opposite the doorway is a giant flatscreen TV but, believe it or not, that'’s probably the least interesting decorative device in the room. Far more intriguing is the wall behind his desk, filled as it is with magnets featuring the names of every NBA player –organized by team –and their current salary. Meanwhile, the adjacent wall doubles as a giant dry-erase board currently littered with a bevy of concepts and strategies for playing against (and hopefully defeating) the Utah Jazz. It’'s none of my business and only half of it is actually decipherable, but it’'s sort of like the hoops junkie version of Halle Berry - you know it's not polite to stare, but you go ahead and do it anyway.

As for the man himself, Hinkie works hand in hand with Daryl Morey while, among other things, overseeing the team’s analytics, managing the club’'s salary cap and traveling around the world to scout basketball talent. How does one person have time for all that (and a family)? I have no idea, but I suspect Doc Brown'’s DeLorean might be prominently involved. Just a hunch. Far more amazing, however, is the complete absence of hurried agitation which typically accompanies someone possessing such a hectic schedule. On the contrary, Hinkie couldn’t be easier to talk to. Good thing, because the game was about to tip-off and we had much to discuss.

As with any conversation involving the Rockets these days, it didn’t take long for the name Ron Artest to surface. Specifically, I wanted to know how he compares to the Rockets’ other defensive ace, Shane Battier.

“"I think Shane'’s one of the better defenders in the league and one of the very best team defenders, without question," says Hinkie. "But I also think Shane and Ron are very different and they actually provide us with more breadth in exactly who we can guard. One of Shane’'s big benefits is he can guard twos, he can guard threes and at times he can guard ones. He can even slide over in a pinch and guard fours. His strengths are focused on his overall basketball IQ, staying in front of drivers without fouling, contesting jump shots without fouling, fighting over screens and really, really being smart about the other team’'s gameplan and using that to his advantage. That’'s what really makes him special.

“"Ron is special, too, and different. Ron’'s defensive capabilities, to me, are much more about creating havoc, being physical, keeping people out of the post, using his length to really disrupt, deflecting passes, stripping guys with that great left hand that he'’s got and being so big and strong while still being able to move his feet so well. Could each of them guard the same guy? For sure, but they would each do it differently. And while Shane might be better at the margins at chasing a guy off pin-down screens, Ron, I think, will be better at the margin on chasing a guy on flex screens coming across the lane.

"So take for example a bigger, heavier, stronger, more physical three: I think Ron can do things against that type of player that Shane hasn'’t been as strong at. And I think a lighter guy who is consistently running a pin-down offense and coming off of screens for jump shots, I think Shane has already proven to be very, very good at guarding that type of player.

“"So having the two of those guys in combination, I think really makes us interesting in that, if they’'re both healthy – and we hope they both will be -– there won’t be many nights when we say, ‘'Oh no, this guy on the wing -– we don’t have a good answer for him.'"’”

Moments after the conclusion of that conversation, Artest went on the offensive, backing down a defender before dishing to an open teammate beyond the arc. Swish. “"That’'s something Ron is going to be really good at and I don’t think people are counting on,” said Hinkie. “"He'’s a really willing passer, and a great passer out of the post.”"

Over the next ten minutes or so, not much was said beyond Hinkie'’s impassioned pleas for players to move on their feet on defense and exclamations of approval like, “'Great pass!”' or '“Good cut!'” Every once in awhile he'’d volunteer interesting tidbits such as this one on Brent Barry: "“During the preseason he had one of the best assist rates of any guy in the league at any position. He’'s invigorated because he wants to be more than a spot-up shooter; he wants to be an opportunistic playmaker and a great passer, and he’'s getting the opportunity to do that in this offense. His basketball IQ is just off the charts." But for the most part, we watched in relative silence.

And that'’s probably what prompted the quote which led off this story. I'’ll save you the trouble of scrolling up by providing it once again. Besides, I’'ve taken such a liking to it that I’'m more than happy to give it a second glance.

“"I'’m probably pretty boring to watch a game with because I’'m all about expected values. I don’t even care if it goes in or not, I’'m all about, '‘Should it go in?'’ I can live with randomness. I mean, if it’'s a close game in the end, yeah, I’'m just like anyone else. But I just want us to play the odds all the time."”

Hinkie then proceeded to expand upon his point.

“"Sometimes it’'s even important to live with randomness because too often we all decide whether a play was a good play or bad play only after we'’ve watched whether the ball went into the net," he says. "I think that can be misleading. Of course any shot that goes in we'’ll take, but over time I want our players to continue to make smart decisions over the long term, and to do that you really have to take out whether the shot goes in or not, and you have to focus more on whether it should go in and whether it'’s a good shot for our offense. That’'s pretty critical, otherwise you end up chasing what you just saw —which might have been pure luck— versus constantly focusing on the future and what you'’re most likely to see."

This was perfect; exactly the sort of education I was hoping to receive. Eager to dive further into the curriculum, I quiz Hinkie about the makeup of this year’s Rockets team.

“"It’'s ironic to say since we'’re not a team which has really gone anywhere in the playoffs – Ron and Brent are the ones who have been past the first round –- but we’'ve got a bunch of winners; a lot of players who have won at various levels," he says.

"“If you look at our roster, we have a bunch of guys who have a lot of winning characteristics and we have a bunch of guys who have won a lot. Those aren'’t always correlated. Like a lot of teams, we believe in guys who have winning characteristics; guys who care about winning, are competitive and want to play, practice and get better –- guys who don’t want to take plays off and do want to consistently help their teammates by doing the little things that every coach in basketball wants their team to do like sliding over and taking a charge, making the extra pass, getting out and running in transition even if you'’re not the one who gets to score, making the right defensive rotation, and just sort of consistently following our gameplan.

“"Those things are all important to us and the problem is they'’re not often well-measured. But I will say, in aggregate, they'’re all measured and they’'re all measured by watching how much they win. How much they win titles, games, quarters, matchups. While we'’re working hard to measure many of those little things that coaches have forever wanted to have on their teams, you can always measure them in aggregate. So by measuring them in aggregate, with enough patterns and over enough time, you can grow confident that the winning of a player like Shane Battier - who won a national championship in college and state championships in high school - or the winning of a player like Luis Scola - who won at many levels of international basketball - will continue. The same holds true for many of the players on our roster.

“"Now if that was your sole focus when acquiring talent, you could really make big mistakes. That said, if that winning background exists in combination with some of the other things you'’re looking for in a player, I think that'’s a really powerful marker, and it'’s something we'’ve used in the past."

It’'s the fourth quarter now and Carl Landry has started to dominate. The second-year forward was one of the shining lights of the Rockets’ preseason; this, on the heels of his shocking rookie season in which he gained national attention by ranking as one of the most startlingly efficient players in the NBA. I asked Hinkie if he was as stunned by Landry’'s debut season as many were.

“"We drafted him because we thought he’d be good,"” he says. "“He was a better player at Purdue than a lot of people thought. We liked him as a rebounder and a guy who had a bit of an offensive game, but I couldn'’t have predicted how well he would have played that early because he played at a near historic level for a rookie in limited minutes. The way he played last year, with some blind analytics, you would come to the conclusion that his ceiling is ridiculously high. I'’m not sure he can keep that sort of production up, but it’'s been interesting to watch him develop. His athleticism has really improved and he consistently plays harder. He’'s always been a naturally strong player. I also think he undershot last year what he can shoot as an NBA player. He was also the best offensive rebounder in the league last year and amongst the best handful of finishers around the rim—, neither of which I would have predicted." ”

It’'s this sort of talk which tends to get Rockets fans foaming at the mouth. Remember, we’re talking about Carl Landry here –- the team’'s second or third man off the bench. There'’s no denying this team’'s depth and, what’s more, it'’s versatility. And given the club’'s current health issues, both characteristics figure to serve the team well.

"“A lot of what makes our team interesting," says Hinkie, "is we'’ve really invested in players we thought were multi-positional to give us a hedge against injury risk. “Until teams get better at predicting injuries, one of your best options is to invest in players who give you flexibility. For one, it gives you flexibility game-to-game and gives your coaching staff flexibility to play different styles. So if the other team is dictating the style of a game, you can then decide whether to play big, small, fast, slow, inside-out, ball movement, pick-and-roll.

“"But the second benefit is that hedging against injury risk is big in the dog days of a long 82-game season. Inevitably, there are times during which you'’re not at full strength, so if you have a roster of guys who can slide over and still play together and function, it gives you a pretty decent hedge against injuries overall…. That'’s part of the reasons Battier was so interesting to us because he'’s a guy who can play the two, the three or small minutes at the four, all while guarding the opposing team'’s best offensive player.

“"Take Tracy. Tracy is a true two-position player who often plays the point guard role near the end of the game. His length and athleticism might make him the most multi-positional guy on our team. We often forget how transcendent his talents are. Then you have Ron who can play two, probably three positions. And other than Yao, all of our bigs can play two positions if necessary. Chuck Hayes can be a respectable backup center, even though he'’s better at the four. Dorsey we hope will one day be the same. Luis, while he'’s naturally a four, can be very successful against many backup centers."

On a roll now, that last point launched Hinkie into a fascinating impromptu treatise on the evolution of the NBA game.

“"The advent of the restricted area, in combination with the perimeter touch rules, has changed the game toward quick guys in a way that the league doesn'’t really know what to do with," he explains. "Now what you see are slashers and a lot of players who consistently attack the rim. A lot of teams are trying to figure out how to combat that, so shot-blocking, length and athleticism are at an even bigger premium that they ever were before, because they'’re in the same short supply. So if you’'re a legendary shot blocker that can stand on the weakside and when a guy drives you can contort your body to try to block his shot without fouling him, well that makes you really valuable.

“But another way to attack that is with quickness. If you can'’t find players who can play—and play well —above the rim, then you’'re forced to find another way to compete.

"Chuck Hayes, to me, falls into that category as a 6’-5’’ big who doesn’t block many shots or play above the rim, but uses his lateral quickness in a way to be a tremendous help defender. He'’s already an excellent individual one-on-one defender, but he'’s also proven to be a tremendous help defender for his teammates in that, when you get beat on pick-and-rolls -– and everyone does -– and when you get beat off the dribble by these great players in our game with tremendous speed -– and everyone does -– to have a guy who can physically get there to defend or take a charge is huge. For weakside bigs, it often becomes a race vs. the ball handler to see who can get to the other side of the restricted area first. These dynamics have created a niche that allows a player that’'s less than prototypical to have a big role on a team like ours."

The game ends and the clock'’s hands are creeping toward midnight. But there was still one more thing I had to know before calling it a night. After listening to Hinkie rave all evening about bench guys like Barry, Brooks, Landry and Hayes, how do the Rockets go about the process of formulating optimal lineups and player combinations for a squad which could realistically go ten-deep if it so desired?

“"You’'ve heard me talk a lot about using line-up analysis, or using data we might have on combinations of various players together,"” explains Hinkie. "“We look at those and stare at what that tells us pretty deeply. But I’'ll also say that we don'’t look at them blindly because sometimes a player can be in a particular lineup and look stellar, and it'’s not him that’'s driving the value. So you really have to tease out the difference -– is it him or is it something else that’s going on?

“"One of the classic cases that we often see is when a player is playing very small minutes, and playing at a very high level. Yet it'’s still hard to forecast from just that alone going forward. The reason is: he was often played that way because a really well-reasoned coaching staff played him in a way that he would be most successful. So they only played him against match-ups they assumed were favorable to him. When that’'s the case, to go ahead and say, ‘'Oh, we'’ll just take that guy and make him a starter, or triple his minutes and get the same or similar production,'” is often a real fallacy and you have to think through that carefully.

“"At the same time, I think it'’s pretty important not to overlook what you'’ve seen in the player'’s past performance. So if you see something that'’s tantalizing –- and we often talk at length about whether it’s worth attempting a new line-up, or whether it’s worth trying these two players in combination, or whether the various psyches of the players can accept coming off the bench, or starting, or playing in a supportive role, or playing with the ball in their hands, or playing in the corner waiting for a shot versus playing pick-and-roll all the time -– you have to look into it.

“"So there'’s no one answer there; we have tools that are useful, but at the same time we go to great lengths to balance what the data tells us with what our eyes tell us, what all of our scouting processes tell us, and what our coaching staff tells us.”"

Momentarily satisfied - there are still a million more questions to be asked - and more than a little weary, I left Hinkie'’s office so he and his staff could continue their endless search for any sort of edge in peace. Does it promise to be a long and sometimes-painstaking process? Absolutely.

But boring? Never.

Have a question for Rockets.com? Send it to Jason Friedman via email at: jasonf@rocketball.com.