The Houston Rockets’ demoralizing loss to the Los Angeles Lakers has sparked the latest round of the “this style doesn’t work” conversation, which crops up anytime a team tries something different and fails to win a championship.
For the most part, these discussions are reductive and silly. They came in droves when Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns lost, as if it was his offensive system that caused key players to leave the bench during an altercation and get slapped with automatic suspensions.
As it turned out, that “style” worked just fine — its major concepts were adopted by teams that ended up winning championships, including the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks.
Here’s how inane this debate can get: D’Antoni’s failure to win with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers were blamed by some on “his system” even though the system was different at each stop and tailored to personnel.
The Rockets’ loss also does not reflect a failure of analytics or analytics-based strategies. Every NBA team has an analytics department. Every team is scouring the data to search for advantages. Houston is on the vanguard of that effort, and they’re more willing to push the envelope than most — which is where advantage can be found.
I wrote about this a few years ago when the Wizards finally caught on to the analytically-driven insight that shooting threes is better than shooting long twos. It was good to enter basketball modernity, but the biggest advantage went to the “early adopters” who changed their shot selection first. By waiting until the trend was obvious, the Wizards wasted an opportunity to gain a small edge on their opponents and therefore won fewer games than they might have.
If there’s a lesson to be extracted from this year’s playoffs, it’s that teams need to be capable of doing lots of different things to win a series and ultimately a championship. Players need to be problem solvers and coaches need to instill a tactical flexibility to adjust to what opponents are doing and then adjust again when opponents counter.
And, teams need some luck. The Rockets were a Chris Paul pulled hamstring from beating the mighty Warriors and earning a trip to the Finals.
When a team loses the biggest reason is usually talent. Darryl Morey has mortgaged the team’s future assets to build a roster, but he’s failed to add a second star and to build quality depth.
When a team loses, there are typically an array of reasons. For the Rockets, those reasons include quality of the roster, getting outcoached at times, star players failing in key moments, bad luck, and maybe tactical rigidness. Their problem isn’t shooting too many threes or relying too much on analytics — it’s the usual miasma of why any team fails to reach their goal: management, coaching, on-court talent, luck.
Pinning it on any one thing is too simplistic to provide meaningful solutions and doesn’t reflect the reality that winning a championship is hard. Give the Rockets credit for leveraging everything possible in pursuit of a title. And recognize their failure is a combination of factors and not one thing.