For the last five years, the Houston Rockets have been defined by the word Moreyball. That word largely means an obsession for the analytics. That obsession resulted in Houston condensing their offense into two types of shots: layups and threes. They believe that this system will eventually end with a championship for Clutch City. Moreyball is a concrete term with a specific list of criteria, so let me offer a broader alternative to describe the Rockets: defiant.
Moreyball was never meant to be a comfortable idea. The NBA, and basketball in general, was initially sour on the concept of shooting threes. Why go that far to score when moving a step or two closer to the basket was seemingly an easier shot? In fact Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant turned the midrange shot into an art form. Even random titos killed in pick-up games by making piso-piso jumpers. The mid-range was king.
Then, Stephen Curry and the Houston Rockets introduced a simple, alternative against this belief in the mid-range: three is greater than two. The Rockets’ alternative was particularly defiant because they revised our titos’ advice to the extremes. Take the few steps out and get that extra point instead.
The Rockets acquired players who fit this mold. James Harden was the engine of their offense and Daryl Morey surrounded him with shooters and a couple of big men who could roll hard to the rim. The idea was for the Rockets to run a lot of pick and roll so James could create efficient shots for the team.
Teams will double Harden? He can just drop it off to the rolling big. Two points.
The weak side defender will help when James drives? That’s an open corner. Three points.
Dare go under the screen? James can pull-up. Three points.
Get caught up in the pick? That’s an open Harden lay-up. Two points.
This should have worked. The obvious math said it would work. It should have been an efficient offense led by one of the greatest offensive players of all time. However, as they always say, theory is always different in practice.
The Rockets historically struggled during the playoffs when Harden sputtered late in games. When the fourth quarter would get tighter and his shot wouldn’t fall, Houston would have trouble executing their offense. That was one of the drawbacks to the Harden-centric offense. When he was figured out by defenses, Houston didn’t have anywhere else to go to. They acquired Chris Paul in the hopes of solving this dilemma, but his dynamic as a player merely created more friction surrounding the team.
Daryl Morey was at a crossroads. This team desperately needed to at least make it to the Finals, especially considering the level of talent the franchise had in Harden. There was pressure on the Rockets to make a change during the 2019 offseason. Who could they get with the limited resources they could trade away?
Last July, Daryl swung for the fences. He traded away Paul and a load of picks to acquire Russell Westbrook from the Oklahoma City Thunder. During that time, it didn’t make much sense for Daryl to make this trade. He was pairing an already ball-dominant player in Harden with another high-usage talent in Westbrook. If the Beard and CP3 couldn’t co-exist, what more Harden and Westbrook?
During the early goings of the season, it looked like the critics were right. Not only was Westbrook struggling alongside Harden, but some of the bad habits he got from OKC he brought over to the Rockets. He still continued to take terrible shots from three and the mid-range. While Harden continued to flourish, Westbrook looked lost. It all culminated in an embarrassing loss on Christmas day to the undermanned Warriors, a game in which Westbrook shot 0/8 from beyond the arc.
Did the Rockets make a mistake in trading for Russ?
This year though, something shifted. Westbrook’s production and efficiency started to improve. The rise of Russ was most evident against the LA Lakers on February 7, when he put up 41 points, eight rebounds, and five assists on a whopping 61% field goal shooting. What was happening? Did Russ just magically flip a switch we never knew he actually had?
It was never about flipping a switch. Instead, it was Russ and the Rockets gaining a better understanding of who Russ was and wasn’t. He isn’t a three-point shooter. Forcing him to shoot spot-ups off passes from Harden is a terrible idea. He isn’t an elite cutter either. He’s respectable, but he’s never been the best at it. What is he? Russ is an elite attacker. He is athletically gifted, surprisingly strong, and incredibly relentless. That inexplicable drive is what makes him so good.
Russ wasn’t supposed play second-fiddle to Harden. It was never supposed to be that. He was supposed to be the Iron Man to Harden’s Captain America; a brash, stylish, and sometimes, unreasonable player who complimented the neutral good of his teammate. While Harden killed teams with a smooth offensive games predicated on layups and threes, Westbrook was at his best attacking for nearly unstoppable twos.
Moreyball. It wasn’t just about threes, there are also twos involved. Before, they only got those from Harden’s own forays to the hoop and Clint Capela’s dives to the rim. Now, with Westbrook’s changed mindset and new game plan by the Rockets, they’re getting it not only from Harden’s crafty game, but also from Russ’ aggressiveness in attacking.
Moreyball continues to feel uncomfortable. That’s the thing, it isn’t meant to follow the norm by being an idea that’s easy to grasp. It’s out of the box. It’s defiant. With Westbrook and his changed outlook on the game, they get the player who perfectly encapsulates this spirit their system was supposed to bring ever since day one. That brash belief may just be what they need to get over the hump when the playoffs come along.