During the 2014 NBA Finals, basketball saw perhaps the most beautiful incarnation of offense we’ve ever seen. Under Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs took Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less revolution, added a European twist, and created a basketball force that carved apart a Miami Heat team anchored by three Hall of Famers in their prime.
In a lot of ways, it was a watershed moment for NBA offensive philosophy. Since those Finals, coaches around the league did whatever they could to build their own Spursian-style of offense. Some franchises even went the direct route by plucking coaches from the Popovich coaching tree. It seems that D’Antoni’s destruction of the grinding Iso-ball era paved the way for a new, even more modern trend -- a socialist offense featuring a frenetic, non-stop blend of ball and man -- to overtake the league.
Looking at it in that sense produces a misconception that Popovich took D’Antoni’s revolution and turned it into functioning, NBA governance. The truth, however, is that D’Antoni’s offensive insurgency didn’t give way to something better. And his historically efficient Houston Rockets team is proof.
In case you hadn’t noticed, this year’s Rockets team is making history. Entering their game against Toronto, Houston is posting an offensive rating of 115.9. If the Rockets finish the season at that mark, they will become the best offensive team in the history of the NBA, per Basketball Reference’s database. Beating out legendary teams like the 86-87 Lakers, 16-17 Warriors and 91-92 Bulls. That’s impressive company.
Obviously a big factor in this recent uptick in offensive efficiency for teams like Houston is the reliance on 3-point shopting. That was something D’Antoni was originally responsible for and the Rockets have been at the forefront of since the analytics era hit basketball. But what’s amazing is that aside from bombing away from beyond the arc, D’Antoni’s Houston team is producing incredible offense while going completely against the trend sweeping the NBA right in terms of ball and player movement.
Right now, every team in the league is obsessed with creating a flowing, side-to-side symphony of offensive execution that San Antonio perfected. It’s why Detroit has turned Andre Drummond into an assist machine. And why four coaches with tangible Spurs ties -- Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, Kenny Atkinson in Brooklyn, Quin Snyder in Utah and Brett Brown in Philadelphia -- have their teams leading the league in passes made per game, according to NBA.com’s team tracking data.
Then of course there’s Golden State’s unguardable motion offense, something that looks closer to 1980s college basketball than modern NBA basketball at times. Twitter even is filled with coaches and analysts posting clips of subtle weakside movement or clever sets built to keep help defenders on high alert.
So if these teams are the shining examples of an era of misdirection in motion, D’Antoni’s Rockets are blunt-force offense. Just take a look at this play from their last game against the Milwaukee Bucks:
Though there’s a little false action (Harden “screening” Paul’s defender) before the pick-and-roll between Chris Paul and Clint Capela, everything about this play is very straightforward. The Bucks know Paul is going into a pick-and-roll with Capela. There’s no passes before it, no random cuts or weakside commotion. It even comes at a pretty much a walking pace. Yet somehow, James Harden winds up with a wide open 3.
This play is the epitome of what D’Antoni does best - he cuts out all the unnecessary fluff and creates the spacing for a great player to operate in an action he succeeds at. And that, despite the Spursian influence in the game right now, is really what successful offense comes down to: put your best players, in their best spots with the space to do their thing.
Take a look at the above play again but pay attention to the (somewhat blurry) shot clock number at the bottom of the screen in concert to the movement of starting forward PJ Tucker:
In that play, it takes Tucker nearly 14 seconds to take a noticeable step in any direction. And when he finally does, it’s actually back toward the other end of the floor.
For a lot of basketball coaches and fans, this type of event -- a player just standing around idly -- is considered to be the antithesis of good offense. Across all levels of basketball, coaches will yell phrases like “be hard to guard” while demanding players confuse help defenders by screening, cutting or shifting their positioning in some fashion. Stasis in the context of the traditional basketball axioms is a cardinal sin.
If you watch Drummond’s Detroit team run a play like this, those weakside players (Harden and Tucker) will often exchange places as the screen is taking place. If it was Golden State, you might see Tucker coming up to set a flare screen for whoever is out on the wing. Teams like San Atlanta, Utah, Philly or Brooklyn might have their guys flowing around to be ready for some quick ball movement on the pass out from the pick-and-roll.
But if you watch Houston play, you’ll find that a players patiently idling behind the 3-point line isn’t some off thing. Tucker -- or other Rocket forwards -- standing in the corner for nearly an entire possession is a frequent occurrence. And for good reason.
Throughout pretty much the entirety of his career, Tucker has been substantially more accurate from the corner 3 than above the break. This year is no exception as Tucker is shooting 38.8 percent from the corner and just 30 percent on 80 attempts from the NBA’s longer 3 point territory. For comparison’s sake, Harden is shooting virtually the same from the corner (37.8 percent) as he is from above the break (37.9 percent).
For Houston, that means any 3-point attempt Tucker takes from above the break equates to .9 points per possession. Shift Tucker to the corner and that number jumps to 1.16. That’s the difference between a league worst offense and one that’s historically great like Houston.
Coaches that are blind proponents of movement for the sake of movement actually create a detrimental effect to their teams simply by virtue of the shot result. A simple exchange of Tucker and Harden to “confuse” the help defender on this play actually results in a swing with hugely inefficient long term results. So it’s a good thing that of Tuckers 322 total shots, 139 of them -- damn near half -- have come from the corner.
This again is on of the underlying constructs of D’Antoni’s system. While other teams whirl about in a frenzied fashion to confuse defenses, he simply puts his players in efficient spots and efficient actions in order to pound on defenses until they break. Other NBA teams, especially the ones obsessed with ball movement, can’t say that.
Take Utah for example. According to Synergy’s database, the Jazz have seen impressive rookie Donovan Mitchell post an impressive 1.24 points per possession on spot up attempts (basically any type of catch-and-shoot or closeout attack). Ricky Rubio, even with his recent hot streak, produces a paltry .813 points per possession in those same opportunities. The latter number isn’t good but it’s made worse when you factor in that Rubio has 235 attempts in those situations while Mitchell, despite playing in one more game, has just 196.
And the Jazz aren’t alone with their offensive philosophies producing imbalances like this. The Pistons ran a big chunk of offense through (current Clipper) Avery Bradley despite middling results. Atlanta has roughly 350 possessions to Kent Bazemore handling in either a pick-and-roll or hand-off despite their veteran guard not creaking .8 points per possession in either situation (though when he passes out of those situations, Bazemore ranks in the middle of the pack).
Because of D’Antoni’s approach, Houston has no such discrepancies on their books. Instead of a tapered approach, Harden and Paul dominate the team’s pick-and-roll attempts with Eric Gordon a distant third followed by just a handful for any other Rocket. The same pattern occurs for Iso’s, though Harden’s 549 attempts is nearly double Paul’s 236. Gordon is also the only player with a significant amount of shots coming off screens.
It would be unfair to draw a firm conclusion between Houston’s offensive mastery with their direct approach and the lack of Spurs-inspired counterparts near the top of the league’s efficiency charts. That doesn’t mean, however, it’s not worth noting that only two non-Warriors teams that are in the top 12 in passes per game actually have an offense in the top half of the league (Philadelphia and New Orleans).
Again, to be fair, having Harden and Paul makes life a lot easier. It’s obviously a lot easier to space around Harden in an iso than Dennis Schroder. That’s why the lesson here isn’t as straightforward as D’Antoni’s offense is great simply because they’ve resisted the recent trend of offense featuring a constant buzz of bodies and the basketball.
What we’ve really come to see in this second D’Antoni-sance isn’t about pick-and-rolls, pace and 3-pointers (though it’s still kinda about those things). This time, D’Antoni’s system is fighting back against the league-wide trend of ball and man movement in simply getting his best players the ball the most times and always with the space to do something with it.
It’s hard to argue that Houston taking this approach isn’t maximizing their personnel when they’re on pace to be the greatest offense the NBA’s ever seen. For other NBA teams that have followed in the Spurs path, there are arguments to be made their commitment to such a philosophy isn’t allowing them to do the same.
So as much as we think of D’Antoni’s revolution as being resigned to the footnotes of NBA history, the truth is, it’s still going on.