Every summer NBA franchises make decisions that positively or negatively effect their future. This is the latest in a series of articles detailing transitional teams. I.E., teams that have had notable offseasons, and thus, are must-watch television during the 2016-17 season. For our last article on this subject, regarding the Indiana Pacers, click here.
In 2003 notable author Michael Lewis published Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game about the turn-of-the-century Oakland Athletics. In short, the A’s management was running a system that relied on numbers, analytical player evaluation, and economic efficiency to compete with a smaller budget than most other MLB teams.
During the 2006-07 offseason, after inefficiently wasting years of recent NBA Hall-of-Famer Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets hired statistician Daryl Morey to help transform their team. Morey is known for the creation of the “true shooting percentage” statistic – which adds free throws and “shot weights” (i.e., a three-point shot is more valuable than a two-point one) to the basic “field goal percentage” stat – as well as for founding the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference.
When Morey came to the Rockets he brought a lot of Moneyball’s principles to the team. Those in NBA circles nicknamed this strategy “Moreyball.” And since his entry into Houston, the Rockets have built their teams around offense, three-point shooting, two-point shots around the rim, free throws, and a significant lack of midrange shots and quality defensive players. Many other teams have adopted parts of this strategy, but frankly, none have gone all the way… Except for Houston…
Every season since 2012-13, the Rockets have ranked last in the league in midrange shots per game, and they’ve made the playoffs each time. The trade for James Harden has paid dividends, as his shot selection fits perfectly with Morey’s strategy, and this has resulted in the former entering NBA superstardom.
However, everything is not pretty, as three out of their four seasons with Harden, the Rockets have been eliminated in the first round. Last year’s performance in the regular season and playoffs was embarrassingly bad. And thus, if the Rockets fail this season it seems as if Morey’s experiment may prove fallacious in Houston.
Facing this fact, Morey has decided to commit 100% to Moreyball. He’s dropped defense from consideration, has brought in the most successful and offensive-oriented coach in NBA history, and has surrounded James Harden with a bunch of one-way shooters. Moreover, after his hiring, new coach Mike D’Antoni confirmed our fears (or excitements) announcing that notorious shooter James Harden would be his starting point guard. He noted:
I think [Harden’s] at the point where I think we can move him over. Now I don’t know yet, and we’ll experiment, we’ll talk about it, does he bring the ball up every time, does that wear him out? Does he do it a couple quarters? We have to figure out exactly his rhythm of the game…He averaged 7 or 8 assists last year, I’d love to see 12 or 13. I’d love to see where he starts the offense, and the ball gets back to him, but after the ball has moved around two or three times.

Mike D'Antoni

Head Coach Of The Houston Rockets
Harden himself furthered by comparing himself to Hall-of-Fame point guard of seven-seconds-or-less notoriety, Steve Nash:
“I got a little bit of Nash in me… He had his own pace to the game; that’s what I took out of that. You could never speed him up, you could never make him do anything he didn’t want to do, that’s what separated him from any other point guard at the time, which led to two MVPs.”

James Harden

Houston Rockets' Point Guard
So the question is, does Harden have the talent to be a point guard in D’Antoni’s seven Seconds or less offense? To answer that question it is important to understand said offense.
D’Antoni’s famous offense is actually fairly simple and its primary set revolves around five main factors:
  1. The ability to crash the defensive glass and get the ball in transition.
  2. Two wings who can sprint to the corners of an offenses perimeter and maintain an above league average three-point percentage.
  3. A big man (power forward or center) who sets the initial screen.
  4. A point guard who can – rather off a screen or in an isolation set – drives to the rim, pass to an open wing, and push the ball downcourt in transition.
  5. A second big man who comes in behind the play to grab the rebound or receive the open pass.
Now, this may sound way too simplistic for a famous offense, but believe it or not this is the crux of the “seven seconds or less” (or SSOL) system. Essentially, using those five tools, the offense revolves around multiple screens, elbow sets, and/or quick shots to shoot the ball within seven seconds of the offense’s initiation. Let’s examine below:
This is perhaps the most common, and relevant, offensive set in the “seven seconds or less” system. Essentially, one of the bigs sets a screen, the point guard moves around it, and takes a quick, open shot. Let’s examine other versions of this same play:
On this version, the screen serves to get Nash a mismatch and an isolation set. This is the type of screen where the Rockets will excel, as they have two of the best ten scorers as ball handlers in the pick-and-roll in James Harden and Eric Gordon. The numbers are examined below:

Thus, it becomes clear that with both Harden and Gordon, the Rockets will attempt to use screens to get mismatches in isolation sets. This will position both players in an area where they are the best in the NBA, and consequently, allow Houston to decimate opposing defenses. But, on these plays, the guard does not have to attack off the screen but can also pass to the big, opening up a secondary offensive set. Let’s examine this below:
On this play, Nash passes to the screen-setting big, who drives to the basket, draws defensive attention, and then passes again to the open, driving wing. This is not a complex play, however because it happens so quickly, it is difficult for defenses to effectively adjust. Furthermore, as expected, the common drive-and-dish makes up a large part of the “seven seconds or less” offense:
Here, as expected, the screen gives Steve Nash a driving lane, he draws a double team, and then passes to the open man who scores an easy basket. These four videos demonstrate a type of play that makes up roughly half of D’Antoni’s system, however, there are other common sets that this offense utilizes. Let’s examine one of the most pressing below:
This play is what is known as a “one series” set. Essentially, in a “series” set, a guard or wing passes to a big – who is in the interior edge of the perimeter – and then attempts to get open using misdirection runs. Once the guard/wing gets open, the big quickly delivers the ball back to the guard, who then attempts a high-efficiency shot. The reason this is used in D’Antoni’s offense is because the “series” play is done quickly, and if the opposing team is unprepared, it is very effective. Golden State – utilizing Curry and Green – and Cleveland – who use Kyrie and LeBron – run this same type of play with relative frequency.
Moreover, as mentioned in the list of five main factors in the SSOL system, there is usually a big who trails behind the rest of the offense to either: a) get an unguarded shot; or b) collect a rebound while not being boxed-out. We can see the former, in action, in this video:
This type of play is where newly signed stretch four, Ryan Anderson, will excel. Last season, while with the Pelicans, Anderson shot 46% on wide-open threes, which is something this type of play produces.
The final aspect of the SSOL offense revolves around elbow sets. I.E., the guard passes to a big who is sitting on the elbow, and the latter then initiates a quick motion offense to create an open shooter. Below is an example where this type of set leads to an open three-point shot:
Moreover, here is an example where an elbow set leads to an open midrange shot:
Thus, the “seven seconds or less” Suns made their living off of quick, simple offensive sets that were so deadly because of their players’ offensive repertoires and quick reaction times.  D’Antoni’s teams attack before the opposing defense gets set, make quick reads, and shoots with incredible pace.
So how will the Rockets adapt to D’Antoni’s system? Offensively it should be smooth. James Harden is no Steve Nash in terms of creating for his teammates; however, nobody talks about how simple D’Antoni’s offense actually is in terms of reads and play types. It is not Steve Kerr’s Warriors offense, which has a basic set of a triangle, but rather a screen-based quick read offense. This is an area where Harden excels.
Furthermore, as pointed out earlier, Harden and Eric Gordon are both designed to execute the pick-and-roll plays D’Antoni loves to utilize. And Ryan Anderson, who is one of the best offensive stretch four’s in the NBA, will excel as the behind-the-play big an SSOL offense needs.
Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Patrick Beverly, Clint Capela, and potentially Donatas Montiejünas are all theoretically question marks. Yet, their roles in the triangle offense involve simplistic off-ball movement, a lot of running, and quick passing reads, none of which have proven difficult for their players in the past. Therefore, it seems highly likely that the Rockets’ offense will adapt very well to D’Antoni’s system.
The question comes when we talk about defense. Yes, defense, the SSOL Suns consistently ranked middle and slightly below-middle of the pack defensively every year D’Antoni was coach.
Without Dwight Howard, the Rockets’ 21st ranked defense in the 2015-16 season could potentially get worse. How much worse is up for debate, as Howard was not effective at defending off screens, but Cappella is actually statistically worse. Without a middle-tier defense, it will be hard for Houston to make noise in the playoffs, regardless of how talented their offense is.
So what predictions can we make about the Rockets during 2016-17? All projections and predictions, including my own, forecast Houston as having one of the three best offenses in the NBA under D’Antoni. If Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, and Patrick Beverly can be effective enough on offense, their length and versatility will be a welcome addition, and help the Rockets have a middle-of-the-pack defense. Thus, I expect Houston to be a middle-seed playoff team that becomes an NBA League Pass must-watch.
Regardless, this Houston Rockets squad is going on a bit of a redemption tour. Daryl Morey is seeking to prove that Moneyball can work in the NBA. Mike D’Antoni is looking to validate his success in Phoenix wasn’t an outdated fluke, but rather, that he actually is a legitimate NBA head coach. And James Harden wants to justify that he is a legitimate NBA superstar. Thus, this team has everything to gain and nothing to lose, so it should be a fun ride.

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