Shooting for the moon: Why Rockets, 76ers have failed to launch
We begin with a sermon delivered from Mount Popovich:
"For us, it's easy. We're looking for character, but what the hell does that mean? We're looking for people—and I've said it many times—[who] have gotten over themselves, and you can tell that pretty quickly. You can talk to somebody for four or five minutes, and you can tell if it's about them, or if they understand that they're just a piece of the puzzle. So we look for that. A sense of humor is a huge thing with us. You've got to be able to laugh. You've got to be able to take a dig, give a dig—that sort of thing.
... We need people who can handle information and not take it personally because in most of these organizations, there's a big divide. All of the sudden, the wall goes up between management and coaching and everybody is ready to blame back and forth and that's the rule rather than the exception. It just happens. But that's about people. It's about finding people who have all of those qualities. So, we do our best to look for that and when somebody comes, they figure it out pretty quick."
That's Pop discussing his philosophy in building the Spurs management team. It's only relevant to the Sixers and Rockets because I saw it sometime between reading this excellent story about Jahlil Okafor's awkward future in Philly, and a few hours later, this story about Houston's voided trade. That voided deal puts Houston over the luxury tax, costs them a first–round pick, and also means Philadelphia lost Jakarr Sampson for nothing.
Meanwhile, around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday night, the Sixers lost their 175th game in the last three years, with no clear solution in sight. Around midnight, the Rockets lost in overtime to Utah, sliding out of the playoffs and into the ninth seed. Let's talk about what's happening here.
It's tempting to treat these seasons like some kind of karmic justice. Next to people like Popovich, Daryl Morey and his one-time protégé Sam Hinkie have risen through the NBA by putting more faith in probabilities than personalities. This year, maybe the universe corrected itself. Like Ball Don't Lie for management. That's almost certainly how these teams will be remembered.
But a more accurate version of history might say this: Joking about karma is both unfair, and not critical enough. Morey and Hinkie have been victims of bad luck, bad timing, and poor imagination.
Bad luck: All of Morey's stockpiling of assets and compulsive pick shuffling did land him two superstars. He just landed the wrong ones. Howard and Harden are good players, but terrible leaders, and at this point they don't even like each other. It's why the team has gone from title contender to playoff hopeful, and why Chris Bosh ultimately refused to chase another ring in Houston after Morey moved heaven and earth (and Chandler Parsons) to sign him in 2014. Still, Morey was close. Even I bought into the Rockets with Ty Lawson. It just didn't work, and looking back, a lot of this comes back to landing the only two superstars in the league that nobody else wants to play with.
With the Sixers and The Process, there have been too many questionable decisions to fit into one story. But obviously, everything would look different if this team had gotten lucky and landed Karl-Anthony Towns. Or Andrew Wiggins. Or even D'Angelo Russell. The Sixers bet their future on lottery odds, and they crapped out. Now they have another three or four first–round picks in June, but the draft isn't great, and even the best–case scenario (Ben Simmons) isn't guaranteed to change anything. That's bad luck.
Management can only be blamed for so much of this. Plenty of teams float through the league with no direction whatsoever (Kings, Hornets, Magic), and others get impatient and make bad decisions (Pelicans, Knicks, Kings again). In Philly and Houston, there's at least been a real plan, with carefully calculated gambles. It hasn't worked, but you could say the same for every team that's not the Warriors or Spurs. (If you put your faith in Hinkie or Morey, this is where the conversation ends.)
Bad timing: This part is more interesting. Morey and Hinkie were absolutely on the cutting edge for a few years in Houston. They saw the value of second–round picks and developing bench players who can then be flipped for real stars. They built an offense around three-pointers and lay-ups that maximized efficiency while inflating the trade value of players they already had. It allowed them to compete in a crowded West while staying flexible for the future, ready to pounce the second a James Harden became available. The problem is that by the time each of them got what they wanted—two superstars for Morey, his own team to run for Hinkie—the rest of the league had basically caught up.
Now everyone understands the value of threes and the importance of efficiency. All smart teams use their picks to develop role players. Everyone hoards assets. There's no more market inefficiency for the NBA Moneyballers to exploit (unless you're calling the Kings, which to Hinkie's credit, he did.) Without the market advantage that helped launch both their careers, Morey and Hinkie have been left spinning their wheels. In Houston's case, it's meant adding any star possible. In Hinkie's case, it's meant plunging ahead in search of a mythical rookie who can change everything, even if that means taking a player who can't possibly fit with the roster that's already there.
No imagination: With both teams, what once seemed cutting edge now looks clumsy.
The Rockets have continued shuffling players without worrying about chemistry, because they believe raw talent trumps all. While the rest of the league spent big on guys like Brad Stevens and Steve Kerr, the Rockets chased Chris Bosh instead. None of it hurt them until this year, when it really, really has.
The Sixers bet the future on draft picks, but never bothered to put veterans in place to help those players develop. They weren't building a team in any conventional sense, because finding superstars is all that matters. As Hinkie explained it last week, "You don't get to the moon by climbing a tree."
On the other hand, good luck getting to the moon without a starting point guard.
Kristaps Porzingis's agent walked away from Hinkie this spring the same way Bosh walked away from the Rockets the previous summer. How does anyone get to the moon without Kristaps Porzingis? And Porzingis or not, if the Sixers had simply “climbed the tree” and taken a rookie who fit next to Nerlens Noel, anyone else they could've chosen would have made more sense than Okafor. All they had to do was try to build a real basketball team, and the whole future would be brighter right now. Instead, Jerry Colangelo has come on board to help salvage this, and the clock starts again with the lottery this spring.
Along the way in Houston and Philadelphia, there have been in-depth profiles mythologizing the rise of Hinkie and Morey—the New York Times, ESPN The Magazine—suggesting they know something the rest of the league doesn't. They both went to business school—Morey at M.I.T., Hinkie at Stanford—and emerged ready to apply quant-heavy market strategies to the NBA. And it worked.
They surprised the league together in Houston, pulling winning teams out of thin air. They did it with the kind of shrewd management principles that turn into Michael Lewis profiles and case studies for future business school students.
Then came this season. Business schools would teach this as a case study in what happens when revolutionary businesses forget that they have to adapt, too.
The lessons here have nothing to do with a failure of analytics or the triumph of basketball karma. What's actually happened is closer to full–scale adoption of the principles Morey and Hinkie helped pioneer. But that happened five years ago. The league's continued evolving since then, and today's smartest organizations pair those principles with strengths of their own, creating new market advantages.
Look at the teams surprising people now—the Warriors, the Celtics, the Raptors, the Jazz, the Spurs dynasty that won't die—and the dominant themes are chemistry, excellent coaching, and scouting, among other qualities that are impossible to quantify.
"We're looking for character," Popovich said. "But what the hell does that mean?"