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Houston Rockets Revolutionizing Basketball Strategy, Starting in the D-League

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Houston Rockets Revolutionizing Basketball Strategy, Starting in the D-League
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets have a long history of out-thinking the competition, but the most significant intellectual leap in franchise history is happening more than 350 miles away from the Toyota Center, in Hidalgo, TX.

There, the Rockets' D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, are playing basketball in a way that might very well be a preview of what the NBA will look like just a few years from now.

Put simply, the Vipers are playing as fast as humanly possible, firing up three-point shots at an unprecedented rate and, most importantly, winning a ton of games in the process. This season, the Vipers have attempted an average of 45.9 threes per game, per NBADLeague.com.

That's a dozen more long-range attempts per game than the second-most triple-happy team in the league, the Los Angeles D-Fenders. As a whole, the D-League is much more accepting of a three-heavy offense, so for some real perspective, consider the following: The Rockets lead the NBA in three-point attempts per game with an average of just 26.6.

The Vipers are nearly doubling that figure.

Pace is another key element to Rio Grande Valley's attack. It averages over 110 possessions per 48 minutes, a mark that is much higher than the Philadelphia 76ers' NBA-leading pace of 101.

Essentially, the Vipers have completely abandoned the mid-range shot in favor of an unprecedentedly heavy dose of triples and, when those aren't available, shots in the restricted area. A glance at their season shot chart shows just how far from convention they've ventured.

NBADLeague.com

The Vipers (and, by extension, the Rockets) would deserve credit for trying such a bold strategy even if it wasn't leading to success. There's value in any sort of pioneering spirit. But the tactics are working.

Per ESPN's Kevin Pelton:

The difference is that the Rio Grande Valley system has proved more than just a gimmick. The Vipers won their second D-League championship in four years last spring and have started this season 9-0. Thursday's win over the Austin Toros was their 19th consecutive during the regular season (not counting a 6-0 playoff run), tying the D-League record.

Head coach Nevada Smith (Yes, his name's actually Nevada. Awesome.) couldn't care less what critics are saying about his team's new-wave strategy.

Per Grantland's Zach Lowe, Smith said:

They ask why we're doing this. They say it's not basketball. ... If we could take a 3 every time down the court, we probably would. There's going to be a game where we shoot 60. I'm telling you. And people are going to think we're crazy.

Crazy like a fox.

 

No Surprise

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

It shouldn't shock anyone that Houston's D-League affiliate would be the one to go so far outside the proverbial box. The Rockets have been on the forefront of virtually every successful NBA trend from the moment general manager Daryl Morey took his seat in the front office.

And in a less dramatic way, the Rockets are actually doing many of the same things the Vipers are.

On the season, Houston is averaging just 9.3 attempts from the mid-range area per game, according to NBA.com. The 76ers attempt the second most, but at 18.4 mid-range tries per contest, they take nearly twice as many of those low-percentage shots.

Incredible, right?

Everybody in the Rockets organization is clearly on board with the new way of approaching shot selection, too.

According to Ethan Strauss of TrueHoop, Houston doesn't even set aside time in practice to hone its players' mid-range games: 

"Only thing we're shooting in practice are layups and 3s," starting point guard Patrick Beverley explains. "We don't like midrange," (Francisco) Garcia and Beverley say in unison. 

That kind of on-court innovation is a natural extension of the forward-thinking moves the Rockets have made throughout the organization. Houston was famously among the first NBA teams to fully embrace analytics, but it has also bucked trends by refusing to tank.

The Rockets have nailed many of their mid-first-round picks, spent smartly, and flipped assets more aggressively than any other team in the league. Morey doesn't shy away from bold moves like offering guaranteed low-ball deals to second-round players like Chandler Parsons, signing Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to so-called "poison pill" contracts and maxing out James Harden despite the Beard's previous role as a bench scorer.

With such a litany of brash, unconventional moves on his resume, it makes perfect sense that Morey would commission what amounts to a live-action experiment with the Rockets' D-League property. Really, what's happening with the Vipers is the result of a concerted, organization-wide effort to push the boundaries of conventional thinking.

 

Copycats Behind the Curve

The rest of the NBA largely recognizes the wisdom of what the Rockets and Vipers are trying to do. Three-point attempts are up throughout the league this season as teams have come to grips with the raw math that says hitting 33 percent from long range is the same as nailing 50 percent from inside the arc.

Per Lowe:

Threes have accounted for 25.3 percent of all field goal attempts league-wide, above last year's all-time record share (24.3 percent) — and well above the 16 to 18 percent shares the league averaged for most of the mid-2000s. The average team jacks just shy of 21 3-pointers per game, another record rate, up from about 19.9 last season.

But Houston, as always, is ahead of the curve.

The Rockets are using the Vipers as a test run, and they're gradually implementing that same uptempo, three-heavy style on the big-league level.

Houston is changing the game, which, if you've been paying attention, isn't really much of a change at all.

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