High-scoring Rockets need a more artistic (improvisational jazz) approach, less reliance on analytics

Star guard James Harden is the Houston Rockets' offensive catalyst. Keith Allison / CC BY-SA 2.0

Analytics can play an integral role in measuring trends and identifying strengths and weaknesses in professional sports. Advanced statistics can help coaches, managers and team executives make smart decisions about their players, teams and opponents.

To be fair, all of those numbers and metrics aren’t completely rubbish.

But the Daryl Morey Way hasn’t delivered a championship to the Houston Rockets and the team hasn’t reached the NBA Finals during this Rockets era of nonstop 3-point shooting, but there’s been plenty of regular-season success.

With bench boss Mike D’Antoni calling the shots, the Rockets went 55-27 in 2016-17, 65-17 in 2017-18 and 53-29 this season. They’ve been consistently able to score a lot of points, but rely on the outside shot far too frequently.

Yes, basketball is a combination of physical strength, athleticism and mental fortitude. It also provides a mesmerizing contrast between science and art.

For example, impressive free-throw shooting accuracy of, say, 90 percent illuminates the value of repetition and perfecting one’s shooting mechanics. Consistent form is valued in taking shot after shot after shot. That’s science for you.

Perhaps the artistic side of the game is best explained or understood by highlighting the improvisational nature of the game. Moving without the ball to set a screen. An unscripted alley-oop. A deceptive back-door cut. A pinpoint bounce pass around the outstretched arms of two in-your-face defenders. Five teammates milking the game clock by passing the ball around the perimeter, then back inside and back outside again before settling on a good shot, not just any shot — often doing so without much (or any) isolation play or a single dribbler “hogging” the ball for large chunks of time.

Predictability is often anti-artistic in basketball. And the Rockets are too predictable; their bombs-away style of play lacks the spontaneity (of players and ball movement) that has defined the way the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have played while gobbling up championships in the 21st century.

Lots of people like to say a free-flowing basketball game is akin to jazz.

It’s true.

I like this quote from jazz legend Wynton Marsalis from a 2009 discussion with sports columnist William C. Rhoden about jazz and basketball: “The most successful improvisation happens like the most successful ball: when every person really knows the function of those plays from their perspective.” Check out the video here.

Marsalis is right.

The Rockets, on the other hand are more robotic than jazz-like in their style of play.

Overabundance of 3-pointers

The Rockets attempted 3,306 3-pointers in season one of the D’Antoni era, 3,470 last season and 3,721 this season. They’ve been No. 1 in attempts and 3-pointers made (1,181, then 1,256 and 1,323 in succession) in each of those three seasons. This season, the league average per team: 11.4 makes per game and 32.0 attempts; the Rockets: 16.1 and 45.4. More times than not, Houston shuns the mid-range jumper, and this can be a recipe for disaster in the playoffs.

Tom Meschery, a gifted poet and former NBA player, including for the Warriors, articulated as well as anybody what’s the biggest flaw in the way the Rockets play the game.

After the Warriors bounced the Rockets out of the Western Conference semifinals, Meschery compared the teams on his blog, seeking to define Houston’s offense:

“…It’s dribble, dribble, pass at the last second and sometimes a skip pass or pass around the horn for an open corner shot, but maybe not but back to (James) Harden to dribble, dribble, dribble or to Chris Paul to dribble, dribble, dribble, pull up fade away jumper,” Meschery wrote on his blog. “They have all the skilled players they need to beat our Dubs, but couldn’t do it because they lack one component: for lack of a better term: TEAM FLOW.”

In other words, too much Harden and too much Paul. Not enough art, not enough jazz.

A basketball team can produce a five-man symphony at any time, but relying on one or two players doesn’t produce the ultimate prize at the end of the season. Classic example: the early years of Michael Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls.