The Rockets Play Like a Video Game, But Video Games Have Always Played Like the Rockets

My feet dragged as we walked into the living effigy of late capitalism in the summer of 2004. The sprawling mass of concrete surrounded by a sea of metal boxes is the big box store taken to its logical extreme. I’m referring, of course, to Costco – one of my least favorite places on earth. It was my 12th birthday and there was nowhere I would have rather been less, that is until we came upon the electronics section and my parents turned to me and told me why exactly it was that we were spending some of my valuable birthday time at Costco. They were buying me an Xbox along with a couple of games, MLB Slugfest and RalliSport: Challenge.

Slugfest turned out to be a little too juvenile even for 12-year-old me. It was fun at times, especially when friends were over, but I needed something a little more Serious™. Insert MVP Baseball 2005 (with Manny Ramirez on the cover), NBA Live 2005 (Carmelo Anthony), and Madden 2005 (Ray Lewis). My initial inkling was to mimic the early 2000s’ Twins teams and their small ball approach when playing MVP. It was effective to a point, but I quickly realized that it was easier to put runs on the board by using the uppercut swing and waiting for a grooved fastball or a hanging curve to drive the ball. The same thing transpired on NBA Live. What I had no idea about at the time, was that the strategy employed by a tween boy in the suburbs of Minneapolis was employing on his new Xbox, would be the future of basketball.

Of course, I enjoyed using the Western Conference Finals version of the Timberwolves, though it would have made me sad at the time to know they would never make the playoffs with Kevin Garnett again. Even so, the only real shooter on that team was Fred Hoiberg. Troy Hudson had the 3-point icon as well but he wasn’t good enough to justify playing time over Sammy Cassell. That Wolves team didn’t necessarily have the personnel I wanted to play with (besides KG), and part of the fun of sports video games is playing with teams that are unfamiliar and not on television 82 times a year.

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pretty sure every kid in minnesota had this poster

This led me to search out a specific kind of team; teams that we would now refer to as running a pace and space offense. My running and gunning teams in Franchise Mode obviously had no bearing on the way the NBA game was actually being played, just as the uppercut swing had nothing to do with the way real MLB offenses were being approached, and the spread offense in Madden was irrelevant to the way NFL teams still played, pounding the ball up the middle. But because I was able to figure out that 3 is more than 2, even as a 12-year-old, I gravitated more to the Seven Seconds or Less Suns teams and the Ray Allen Sonics (RIP). Spreading the floor with Steve Nash, Quentin Richardson, Raja Bell, and Shawn Marion with Amar’e Stoudemire as the lone big man, there only to set screens and catch lobs was basically impossible to guard, especially with the Brazillian blur Leandro Barbosa and Eddie House coming off the bench, both good shooters. Ditto for the Sonics. Luke Ridnour manned the point surrounded by lights out shooters in Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Vladimir Radmanovic, with Nick Collison as the only traditional big.

My style of play wasn’t influenced in any way by #advancedanalytics, it was just built through the repetition of the game, and becoming familiar with what kind of team made for the most fun, and simultaneously gave the best chance of winning. The same thing happened when I got to high school and was playing NCAA Basketball 2009 (Kevin Love). The team that I found the most satisfaction playing with was the Ben Woodside-led North Dakota State squad. He was a Minnesota boy who shared my first name, and most importantly he could chuck.

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should’ve been a gopher

Overall, the team was one of the worst in the game, with all C or D ratings, but in one key area, they were excellent. They had 4 guys that could shoot from distance and because it was such a poorly made game, once one learned the timing of a certain player’s shot, it was nearly guaranteed to go in if it was in rhythm. Learning how to break the game was fun because it allowed me to aggravate people on Xbox Live that played with Duke. They didn’t expect to use the best team in the game and get run by an FCS school but NCAA was exactly the kind of ammunition traditionalists could use to try to say that a “jump-shooting team” can’t win. Sure it works in a video game, but the NBA isn’t a video game. The NBA 2k series is a much better representation of how real basketball works, but still, it needed to be proven in the real game.

Steph Curry basically broke this barrier in his past few years, in which he has won two Most Valuable Player awards, because he was somehow even better than his video game counterpart, and 2k had to change the code of the game because it assumed someone as good as him could not exist. Part of the reason he has been given as much of a free reign is tied to the rise of analytics. The greatest shooter of all-time is going to be useful in any era, but his skill-set is uniquely suited to dominate the current landscape of the NBA. And whereas the baseball analytics guys were outright rejected at first, because they basically said that everyone in the game is playing the wrong way, or at least value the wrong things, basketball analytics mostly confirmed what coaches like Mike D’Antoni and other smart coaches were already running. The best players in the game by the eye test are also the best players by a number of all-around metrics like Player Efficiency Rating, Net Rating, Real Plus Minus etc.

Coaches were able to use the new metrics to better inform how their team was playing, fine-tuning the system to gain any edge. As the great Pusha T taught us, the name of the game is putting numbers on the board.  The most efficient way to do that is by taking shots at the rim or 3-pointers. The mid-range game hasn’t been completely abandoned – the Spurs still use it to great effect – but the days of contested long two are quickly becoming a relic.

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it’s beautiful isn’t it

The sort of small ball lineups that were fun to play with on NBA Live predated the modern game, where it is imperative that basically everyone is a plus shooter. In the 2016-17 season, there are 47 7-footers in the league, and most of them came into the league shooting 3’s (Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis et al.) or they have been forced to add it recently, because math (Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol et al.). The lineups had the shape of a modern lineup, but they didn’t exactly use them how they are being used now in real life. But in the game, the obvious strategy became shooting as many open 3’s as possible, which opened up the lane for wide-open dunks and layups. This sort of mirrors how the league has gone, except about 10 years behind.

Mike D’Antoni’s Suns teams were regarded as revolutionary for the way they pushed the ball and spread the floor. This year, they would be right in the middle of the pack for pace of play. That team finished 62-20 in the regular season and lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Spurs. They were first in both Offensive Rating and Pace, at 114.5 and 95.9, respectively. On 2026 attempts, the Nash-led Suns made 796 3-point field goals for a whopping 39.3%, all of which led the league. By comparison, James Harden’s Rockets already have made 667 3’s on 1802 attempts (37.0%), and we just passed the halfway point of the season. Per usual, D’Antoni’s team is an outlier, but likely reflects the tide of the league-wide strategy. In ten years, barring any drastic rule changes, it’s reasonable to posit that this Rockets team would be in the middle of the pack for 3-point attempts.

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this was radical in 2004-05

The gulf between the two teams can be surmised fully in one stat. The 2004-05 Suns attempted a 3-point shot on 28.9% of their possessions and were told they couldn’t win as a “jump-shooting team”. They won over 60 games twice in the span of three seasons and won their division every year with D’Antoni at the helm. The 2016-17 Rockets have a 3-point attempt rate of 46.1%!!! They are basically playing the way video games encourage one to play; perhaps encourage is too strong, but there is less of a pressure to adhere to tradition lest you get lambasted by Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA. It makes sense to shoot as many 3’s as you can get up if that’s the personnel of the team. It is the reason I picked James Harden to be the MVP coming into the season, and why I disagree with ESPN and Fox Sports pundits who name the Rockets as their most surprising team.

There isn’t anything surprising about what is happening with them. They added two lights-out shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon and added a coach that empowered them with a green light from anywhere on the court. Anderson has been regularly putting up attempts from areas of the court previously reserved only for Steph Curry and end-of-quarter heaves. Really the only way this wouldn’t be successful is if Anderson or Gordon got injured, as they are apt to do. The two best teams in the league, the Cavaliers and the Warriors, have been two of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league and it’s a big reason why they have played one another in back-to-back Finals. Last year, they were numbers 2 and 3 in 3-point attempts per game, respectively. Number one for each of the past five seasons has been the Moreyball Rockets. As the past week has proven, Golden State is the best team in the league and the clear favorite to win the Championship. But, if there’s one team that can give them a scare in the Western Conference, it’s a healthy Rockets team that gets hot at the right time.

Thoughts About The Thoughts:

Brock: While the implications of football’s spread offense are relatively straightforward, baseball has also been moving further along its spectrum toward its Three True Outcomes – that is: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. As velocity continues to tick up, the strikeout rate has spiked in recent years. A much-publicized power surge this year started to push home runs closer to video game (or late 90’s, same thing) territory. While post-Moneyball era has popularized the importance of OBP, the increase in walk rate seems mostly a side effect of the boom-or-bust, high strikeout, high power approach common to tendencies seen in MLB: The Show.

Brian: The two writers above me have come at you hard and fast with theory and analytics, but I would like to discuss the pure joy of playing a video game that does not always work like it’s supposed to. I am talking, of course, of my countless hours spent playing Madden NFL 2003 on the GameCube, always against the New York Jets. Why the Jets? Well, as [redacted]-year-old me learned, if you let Vinny Testaverde make it to the 20-odd yard line and then, when the Jets began a play, ran one of your defensive backs as far back as possible, Testaverde would, for some reason, throw the ball tens of yards backwards, always into the hands of said defender. It was great fun. This is an instance where video games play nothing like the real thing, but I so wish they did.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com

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