Basketball today is almost unrecognizable from how it was just 10 years ago. The drivers of that change have not been the players, but perhaps the last people anyone would expect: nerds. The chief of these nerds is self-proclaimed math nerd Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who built his team based almost entirely on numbers, earning the nickname “Moreyball” after the Oakland A’s legendary Moneyball.
The past 10 years have seen NBA offenses change rapidly. In 2010, 31.4% of shot attempts were midrange shots, whereas just 13.5% of shots were from the midrange in 2019. These shots have almost all moved beyond the arc, where the number of three-pointers attempted has increased from 22.2% of shots in 2010 to 37.7% in 2019. The reason behind this trend boils down to the basic fact that a three-pointer is worth 50% more than a two-pointer, but it is not 50% harder to make than most two-pointers. This math makes a three-pointer a more efficient shot than virtually anything besides dunks and layups.
No team has relied on this math more than Houston. Houston shoots a preposterous amount of three-pointers and will rarely ever shoot from the midrange. For the past three years, Houston has set the NBA record for three-pointers in a season. They also set the record for most three-pointers attempted in each of those years. In 2019, Houston shot more three-pointers than two-pointers, with 51.9% of their shots coming from beyond the arc. This season, they sits just below that at 48.9%.
This trend has produced limited success for Houston. They have been one of the best teams in the league for the past couple of years, but have failed to advance to the NBA Finals, as many fans have hoped they could.
In 2018, Houston appeared poised to defeat the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors before point guard Chris Paul pulled his hamstring in game five of the Western Conference finals. In the next game, Houston missed an abysmal 27 straight three-pointers, breaking the NBA playoff record, resulting in Golden State’s double-digit comeback win to take the series.
Since then, Houston has become even more enveloped in analytics. Paul was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for 2017 MVP point guard Russell Westbrook, who has helped make Houston one of the top-five fastest-paced teams in the league after being just 27th last year. This speed allows Houston to shoot even more shots, which allowed 2018 MVP point guard James Harden to score at a fantastic rate in the first few months of the season, averaging 39.5 points per game into December, which would have been the highest-scoring season since Los Angeles Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain in 1963. In January, however, Harden’s shooting and Houston fell off dramatically, with the team losing five of six games.
In February, Morey got even more radical and created an unprecedented lineup embracing small ball, the concept of fielding a roster of shorter players. He also traded starting center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks in a four-team trade. The deal assisted Houston in creating an unorthodox lineup in which the tallest starter is the 6’7” forward Robert Covington; for comparison, the average NBA player is 6’7”.
Morey is playing with fire by relying so heavily on analytics and opting for small ball. When Houston is shooting well, this lineup can be deadly, but so can most lineups when they’re shooting well. Houston can outscore anyone when they are hot. But if, or really when, they get cold, Houston has nothing else; they live and die by the three-point shot. Since converting to small ball, Houston is being outrebounded at a pace that would be the third-worst in NBA history. Houston’s defense is only average, ranking 14th in the league in the last 15 games before the league’s suspension. Neither of those performances are close to good enough to make a meaningful splash in the playoffs. Houston will be fully reliant on their ability to outscore their opponents.
Perhaps this strategy is the only viable approach for Houston to win a championship. It may very well be that Houston lacked the talent to win a championship and that this gamble gave them some hope, which was enough for Morey to pull the trigger. Houston has correctly been labeled one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs, but they are just as dangerous in their ability to completely collapse. Houston is one-dimensional, and if they go cold as they did in January or in 2018, they will not just falter in the playoffs, but do so in an embarrassing fashion.
Austin Barish is a rising sophomore in the College. All About Buckets appears online every other week.