For most NBA fans, Rockets vs. Warriors is about who will advance to the Western Conference Finals and, according to most experts, who will be the next NBA champion. But in reality, Rockets vs. Warriors is about much, much more. This series will decide the future and ultimately the fate of the NBA as a whole.
This is not a shocking revelation: The NBA is a copycat league. It always has been. Teams always try and copy the success stories of the league and replicate the same formula. One could argue that the Warriors are a sort of copycat of the monster LeBron created with the “super team” era beginning in Miami (though it’s not really true: Golden State won 73 games in 2015-2016 and their three stars were all drafted). The thought process of most teams in the National Basketball Association is like Pappy O’Daniel’s son in the classic “O’ Brother Where Art Thou”:
So, why does that make Rockets/Warriors so important? Because Daryl Morey has actively tried to destroy basketball with the analytics “wave” and by basically launching threes at nauseating rates and flopping like snipers are shooting at them from the rafters. Some call James Harden‘s production this year impressive and it was somewhat, but more than anything, it was an abomination to basketball. James Harden launched 1,028 threes this year by himself alone. The most any team took in 1997-1998 was (ironically) the Houston Rockets with 1,670. In the 1987-1988, it was the Boston Celtics with 705, and in 1984-1985, it was the Dallas Mavericks with 443. The game hasn’t just changed in the last 30-35 years, it’s unrecognizable. The Rockets took 3,721 threes this year. In fact, no team took under 2,000 threes on the season (the Spurs were dead last and had two guys in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar Derozan that have mastered the mid-range game). For the record, Golden State was 8th in 3-point attempts this year with 2,824, which makes sense since they have three of the greatest shooters ever in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant.
But here’s the kicker: Even though “the math” suggests that launching threes at nauseating rates increases scoring and is the only way to win, the league average points per game this season was 111.2. In 1997-1998, during the defensive boom, it was lower at 95.6. In 1987-1988, with the Celtics leading the league with a mere 705 threes, the average was 108.2. In 1984-1985, it was 110.8. So, if “the math” says, “Three is greater than two so just launch threes and you have a better chance of winning,” why isn’t the scoring average so much higher? In fact, the Rockets were 11th in scoring this year at 113.9 points per game, the Warriors were 2nd at 117.7. In the 1984-85 season, the Warriors (ironically) were 1st at, wait for it….117.7 points per game and the Rockets were 14th at 109.5. The 1984-85 Warriors only took 397 threes and the 1984-85 Rockets only took 186. If launching threes and flopping to get to the line is the way to win, why didn’t teams just figure this out earlier? Why were they still scoring like they were in the 80s?
Most people point to advanced defense. Maybe that’s partially true. Maybe defenses just became more sophisticated and more difficult to defeat. But remember, the NBA changed the rules in the early 2000s to allow for zone defenses to make offense more of a priority. In the 80s and 90s, you didn’t have that. You had illegal defense. Maybe allowing for zone defenses has contributed to this gluttony of threes that has poisoned the game of basketball. Now, teams can just launch at will with no real strategy. I’ve loved this game since 1993. John Paxson‘s shot to win the 1993 NBA Championship was my first basketball memory. I’ve been a die-hard fan ever since, but the analytics era has diminished the game to the point where most nights it feels like watching a game at the local Y. I haven’t purchased League Pass the past two years (partially because the Bulls are an atrocity right now), but also, most nights, I’ve skipped over some of the games on national TV. There’s no real stylistic difference in watching teams night to night. Every team half-heartedly jogs down the court and launches a three after one pass. Teams aren’t playing hard on defense. There’s no real variance in strategies. It’s just a shame to watch.
And it’s all started with the Houston Rockets playing “the math.” It’s unbearable watching the Rockets play with all of their complaining and flopping and launching three after three and passing up open twos. This could be the future of the NBA. If the Rockets win this series and ultimately the title, then teams are going to try and copy it even more. I don’t think I can stomach that kind of league. It’s already hard to watch right now. In this series, I’m pulling for the dynasty, on it’s last legs, to pull out one more victory and prevent the analytics era from destroying the NBA.