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Avoid Because: Is This Basketball?
The Houston Rockets, bound and determined to optimize offensive basketball at all costs, are hard to watch. They’ve effectively snuffed out scoring diversity, opting instead for a purer mathematical experience built on threes, shots at the rim and (exasperated sigh) free throws.
Nobody generates a larger percentage of offense from beyond the arc, and nobody creates a lower percentage from the mid-range area.
Houston ranks third in free-throw rate, but its games tend to feel more halting and disjointed because one guy, James Harden, is always at the line. Having perfected the art of contact-drawing, he’s attempting 15.4 free throws per 100 possessions, the highest figure in league history for a guard.
The joy of watching basketball comes from the potential for the unexpected, the sheer breadth of possibility that arises when incredible athletes sprint, cut, jump and cooperate in a symphony of action. There’s improvisation and structure, chaos and order all at once.
The Rockets eliminate so much of that unknown, and it hurts the viewing experience. Harden will get the ball, jab step and yo-yo dribble between his legs, assess whether to step back or drive, and then choose one of the few options in his simple-yet-effective decision tree.
It works, but it’s not much fun.
Aesthetic Alternative: Denver Nuggets
To be fair, any team built around Nikola Jokic’s passing would wind up very high on our list of recommended alternatives. But in addition to Jokic’s clairvoyant anticipation and ultra-creative setups, the Nuggets feature a delightfully wide range of offensive looks.
Denver is fifth in effective field-goal percentage, but its potent offense is wildly unpredictable. It ranks 15th in percentage of points that come at the rim, 16th in the mid-range and 16th from deep. Good luck game-planning against this jack-of-all-trades attack.
The Nuggets are the anti-Rockets.
If You Must…
We’ve obviously glossed over how brilliant Harden is on offense. You don’t have to enjoy watching him, but there’s no denying his mastery of the craft. His one-man assault on scoring norms is the kind of thing that has historically sparked rule changes and league-wide trend shifts.
When Wilt Chamberlain dunked everything, the league widened the lane. When Stephen Curry demonstrated it was acceptable to shoot 30-footers off the dribble, a plague of copycats followed suit.
It may not be good news for the viewing public, but Harden’s extreme style could lead to similar revolutions. At least you’ll be able to say you were there when Harden changed the game.