Admit it, you all want the Houston Rockets to just die in the fiery blaze of the apocalypse. It’s something people say out loud so often, the statement has lost its shock value. For the whole season the Rockets tormented the basketball world with their special brand of basketball, plays drawn out in Excel spreadsheets and mathematically evaluated by a gaggle of accountants before being delivered to Kevin McHale. In conference semi-finals it looked like it was about to end, but like any perfect villain, the Rockets just won’t go away.
It was somewhere around Game 4 of the Western Conferences semi-finals, when the Clippers were finishing with an ass whooping that can only be appropriately described as “biblical.” It was then when I turned around and said, “God, I hope James Harden enters basketball nirvana one last time.” It was hard to root against Harden when his team was getting so elementally dismantled by the Clippers who rose form their battle with the San Antonio White Walkers.
And I mean, we all want to hate James Harden. He plays for the most boring franchise in the league. The Rockets are what basketball purists refer to as no-man’s-land (yeah, I just made that up). A team that says they will survive in the most mathematical way possible. They house a collection of weird players raging from slightly likable to Dwight Howard and their main superstar does this when he gets going. THIS:
And then the Rockets exploded. The artist formerly known as Josh Smith has once again decided to at least consider that shot selection is an actual basketball tactic, Dwight remembered that he’s over 7 feet and 200 pounds and Trevor Ariza stopped missing shots. The Rockets reached deep into hell and pulled out a miraculous 3 game bonanza of James Harden step backs, drives, kick-outs and overall sorcery to pull off a comeback no one saw coming. Everything clicked, it was like when you just written out a 3 page formula and solved for X. The Rockets solved for X.
So why do we hate them and why can’t they just die? Well, those two things coincide. As much as we might moan and groan about how the Rockets play basketball, they’re actually doing what many other teams are failing at. Let’s be honest, the space and pace offence is the way to go, and about 50% of the league has already embraced analytics, the other 48% surely will soon and the last 2% have LeBron James. So it’s not just that the Rockets are doing something that no one else is, it’s quiet the opposite. On the contrary, the Rockets found the EXACT alchemy and boiling level where it all becomes most effective.
Look at the Warriors. A myriad of 3s, followed by ball movement and Steph Curry becoming a sci-fi character. Look at the Spurs, always moving the ball to find the best shot which is usually either a lay-up or a 3. Look at almost every other team in the league. When LeBron has his “I’m the best player in the world” epiphanies, what does he do? He bulldozes into the paint and draws fouls. When Curry unlocks the hidden power of Ra in his palms? What does he do? He reigns threes like there is no hope left in this world (and because 3s are more efficient than twos).
In a way, Rockets are playing the purest form of what many teams in the league aspire to be. But in getting there, they’ve also constructed a bland, mathematically governed system, where all the excitement is gone. They’re catering to a formula. Their players are not individuals, they’re parts of the equation, boring and entirely forgettable (even hated) on their own, but when they come together they solve basketball for “x.”
So we hate the Rockets for systemizing basketball. For solving something wild and unpredictable and distilling into a formula. Also, for making it look boring. Sure, there are other reasons such as Dwight Howard and his perpetual bitch-ness. Jason Terry. The varying flailing limbs of Corey Brewer. It all comes together all to perfectly to form a necromorph of NBA’s minor annoyances (and one major one). Even James Harden’s brilliance can’t save it. Because when he’s at his best, he does this:
He also barrels into the lane, flails like he’s about to get shot and complains to the refs when he doesn’t get the call. Why? Because a free throw is one of the most efficient shots in basketball. Because it stop time and lets you recover. Because it’s uncontested. But most importantly, because math told him to.
The Houston Rockets, at their core are a distillation of what we all fear basketball might become. A series of complex mathematical computations carried out over 48 minutes. This is why we hate them. But this is also why we fear them, because sometimes, sometimes it also works.