The system is not broken, because it does not exist

Hello, it’s me, the geeky numbers guy. You may remember me from such Houston Rockets blogs as… this one. I’ve been MIA because I quit my job, traveled abroad for three months, was offered a job while I was traveling, and am now in the process of moving to Paris, France. I’ll be more active once I’m settled in Paris, but while I’m waiting for my visa I thought it was time to check in here.

It appears that I’ve missed a very underwhelming season from the Houston Rockets. Clearly this is because last year’s success was solely due to Morey’s team reading my posts and implementing every one of my suggestions. Without my posts this year, the Rockets have dissipated like a fart in a strong wind. Good thing I’m back, now! And I have a few (very long) thoughts about what has transpired thus far.

Sorry everyone, but the Rockets were probably lucky last year

Last year, I was introduced to an interesting concept via They were writing about baseball and coined a term called “cluster luck.” Basically, is a team’s hits distributed evenly throughout the course of a game, which would lead to very few runs, or are they clustered into an inning or two, which would lead to a great many runs? The principle is that, while hitters have some control over their own hitting, they have much less over the timing of their hits relative to their teammates’ hits. Teams that have an abnormally high rate of clustering their hits are, in essence, getting lucky.

Baseball actually has quite a few metrics to measure luck. Batting average of balls in play is another one, measuring how many balls just happen to land where there isn’t a fielder. An unusually high rate for a hitter means he’s quite lucky, and for a pitcher means he is quite unlucky. More standard metrics, such as run support, can help identify a pitcher’s bad luck and explain why he might be pitching quite well despite a poor win-loss record.

Football has also hopped onto the luck measurement train. Bill Barnwell over at ESPN has identified a couple of statistics that predict a team’s success, but are randomly distributed. The first is fumble recoveries. To the extent that a bouncing a football goes wherever it wants and that all players really want to recover a fumble, a team that recovers a high percentage of fumbles is just getting lucky, but is also cashing in on a lot of turnovers. The second is record in close games. With a large enough sample size, teams’ records in close games are .500 (with the important exception, notes Barnwell, of elite QBs who are able to bend the outcomes of close games just a little bit). Thus, a team that is doing much better than average in close games are, again, getting lucky.

The reason I’m babbling about other sports is because we don’t have clear cut “luck indicators” in basketball (aside from predicted wins, which are a bit retroactive in nature). We see lucky things happen all the time, but don’t know to what extent one team has perhaps experienced them more than others. I posit that the 2014-15 Rockets were probably luckier than most, and that this year’s dismal performance is party explained by simple regression to the mean. This isn’t a novel idea, and everyone on this blog has mentioned it, but I think it needs to be discussed very seriously.

Let’s look with the Rockets offense this season (yes, I know the defense is awful). We’ve heard that Harden is out of shape an less effective. We’ve heard that the three-point shooting has fallen off a cliff. We’ve heard that certain players shouldn’t sniff the floor because they’ve been so unproductive. And then we have this.

Rockets season FG% 3PFG% PP100
2014-15 44.4 34.8 107.0
2015-16 44.1 34.8 105.9

Offensive production from last year to this year is virtually identical. Our much maligned three-point shooting actually is identical. It’s not that our three-point shooting is currently bad, it’s that it’s always been badBut somehow, it seems to matter more this season.

We talk about the Rockets as a team that had championship aspirations entering this season. A big part of that conversation is that the Rockets were in the Western Conference Finals last season. But do we remember how the Rockets arrived at that point? They played a Clippers team that had just emerged from a seven-game apocalyptic series with the Spurs. Chris Paul was hurt. And the Rockets were still on the verge of being eliminated by said Clippers to the tune of a 19-point deficit. That deficit was erased by the sharp shooting of COREY BREWER and JOSH SMITH, both noted three-point assassins (hint, both shoot below 30% for their careers).

That, my friends, is cluster luck.

What would the conversation have been entering this season if the Rockets were bounced in the second round by a tired and injured Clippers team, in six games, and by almost 20 points in the last game? Would we be as shocked by the current performance of the team? Would we be bemoaning the sorry state of our three point shooting, which, ahem, is exactly the same as last year?

I don’t think James Harden doesn’t get it, I think James Harden can’t get it

I’m just going to throw this one out there. We’re very quick to associate a superstar’s lackluster performance with disinterest. That is, James Harden loafs around on defense because he doesn’t care. He needs to “want it” more. If he gave more of a crap, he could become Kawhi Leonard. But is this really true?

What if we alter the script a bit. Instead of defense just being about effort, what if there is innate ability involved? To me, it seems like James Harden is the dog from movie Up. He sees the guy he’s guarding, then he sees a squirrel, and then he wears the cone of shame. I think his basketball ADD is basically low basketball IQ. It’s that nebulous “awareness” rating in all the EA Sports games.

Just think about all the different thought processes that has to go through a defender’s head. It’s not just paying attention to the guy in front of you. What happens if you get screened off? What if your teammate gets screened off? Where do you rotate? When do you rotate? Is there a caveat because the guy in the corner is an amazing three point shooter? Is there a caveat because the guy in the corner is Corey Brewer (haha, couldn’t resist)? What am I supposed to say to Dwight right now? What about later? It’s a lot to take in, and Harden is having trouble just remembering to box out for a rebound. Maybe he wants to get it, but he just can’t. It’s not in his DNA. This is who he is. James Harden chases squirrels.

In search of a system

One of the most profound basketball things I’ve heard in recent memory occurred two years ago during the playoffs. After a Thunder loss, Doug Collins remarked that, during crunch time, the Thunder put their trust in individuals and not in the system. In addition to being 100% correct (in my opinion, of course) it got me thinking about system-oriented teams versus individual-oriented teams. It strikes me that many more teams are individual-oriented rather than system-oriented. Some of them are quite good (the Thunder are an example of this), but good players playing in good systems are inevitably better than just good players just doing stuff.

I have something very specific in mind when I say system (and I’m strictly referring to an offensive system). Someone out there is yelling, “But free throws and threes are a system!” I would calmly retort that’s incorrect. That’s an end goal, but it’s not a system. Let’s say I’m cooking dinner, and I want to make lasagna. Lasagna is my free throws and threes. That’s what I want to end up with. But I can’t just be like, “BAM! Lasagna!” I actually have to make the stuff. You can give me the world’s greatest tomatoes and cheese, and I will end up with much better lasagna. But I STILL have to make lasagna. That cooking part is the system. It puts players, preferably good ones, in position to shoot three pointers and free throws. Without it, I would have tomatoes and cheese and a dream of lasagna.

Let’s take our favorite example, the Spurs. When the Spurs play their five bench guys, what they do still looks like what the starters do. Sure, they will turn the ball over more and hit shots less, but they’re following the same recipe. It’s a lot of dribble hand offs at the top of the key. It’s a big guy deciding to dive to the hoop or pop out after he hands off the ball. It’s about two players running for the corners in case their defender collapses into the paint. And if it doesn’t work, they hand it off to a new guy and do it all over again. There are wrinkles to adapt to situations and accommodate individual strengths, but the recipe is still the same. This is a large reason why the Spurs can seemingly “plug and chug” players and still produce results. The players know what they’re supposed to do, regardless of who’s around them. Next man up means next man in the machine.

Contrast this to the Houston Rockets. If five bench guys are playing, does it look anything like what the five starters are doing? Of course not, because Harden plays 40+ minutes a game and the offense revolves around him. At best, someone sets a screen for Harden. Or Harden isolates. This is the Rockets’ system, and obviously it’s not really a system. If Harden passes or is off the court, it’s just pickup ball. We’re throwing ingredients into a pan at random with no real thought, turning up the oven temperature to something, and hoping we get lasagna in an hour. Once in awhile, we do. Last year, we got lucky more times than we didn’t. This year, not so much.

I think this is also why the Rockets have been so up and down this year. Systems are consistent. Individuals are not. Banking on individuals is going to produce inconsistent results. Relying on recipes will produce predictable lasagna.

As far as head coaches go, I would search for the one that wants to build a system. Not one that wants to build around Harden and Howard. Integrating Harden and Howard into a system, however, might be more difficult than building the system itself. And, similar to the previous section, I have questions about whether or not it’s in Harden’s DNA to work within a system. Does he have the basketball IQ and EA Sports awareness to understand several situations and make the proper decisions in those contexts? Or is he just going to demand the ball and chase squirrels?

A question of timing

One last point before I digress. I don’t have a solid opinion about blowing up versus staying put. I do think that one question has not been sufficiently considered. If the Rockets, as currently configured, play to their optimal potential (whatever that is), do they have enough to compete with the Warriors, Spurs, Cavaliers, and Thunder within the next couple years? In the latest podcast, Forrest mentioned that the best strategy for achieving consistent success is to stay in the mix of the top teams, without intending to dominate. Sooner or later, something will break your way (i.e., cluster luck). I wholeheartedly agree.

Nevertheless, the top teams right now are pretty uber, and Howard is Eddie George-ing right before our eyes. Is the timing of this team just really bad? After all, Stockton and Malone stayed in the mix for a decade with no championship. To a lesser degree, so did Ewing’s Knicks and whatever team Barkley was on. Their timing was just unfortunate. If we cannot envision this team to realistically challenge for a championship unless Curry, LeBron, Kawhi, and Durant have a four way ACL-tearing collision during Team USA practice, then this might be reason enough to think about changing course.

About the author: Richard Li is an independent researcher and consultant. He likes numbers and pictures.

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