Do Rockets need a title to prove data-driven model works?

There was a time when coaches and executives in the highest offices of sport across the globe would deride the thought of using technology to develop their strategies. However, the development of sports science and data-driven analysis has made it so – that if teams are not using technology they are well off the pace and behind the times.

Baseball was the first major sport in the United States to recognize this factor. Bill James developed the idea of sabermetrics in his research of the statistics of the game, placing value on numbers rather than what was seen by coaches with the naked eye.

It was adopted with success by the Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane – who continued to punch above their weight in the MLB – despite the staggering differences between their payroll and the heavy hitters of the sport. The movie ‘Moneyball’ starring Brad Pitt as Beane made the system famous, although sports teams already noted the value of the practice inspired by the use of analytics.

The standout in the NBA has been the Houston Rockets. Daryl Morey rose through the ranks of the Boston Celtics, working in almost every department at the esteemed franchise. The Rockets realised his potential in 2006 when he was named assistant general manager before being promoted to general manager the following season.

Morey overhauled the approach of the franchise, using a data model to analyze their effectiveness on the court as well as their scouting system. He identified three areas of the game that Houston could get an edge over their opponents. Morey set out his ambition for the Rockets to play with speed to maximize the amount of possessions per game. Breaking down the data he discovered the more possessions in the contest would favour the team with the superior talent on the court. Based on a before and after analysis of the Rockets’ fortunes – it’s fair to say that it has been successful and they are one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league.

However, as Beane discovered with the Athletics, Morey has not been able to guide the Rockets to the NBA Finals, falling narrowly short on two occasions after losing in the Western Conference Finals to the powerhouse of the Golden State Warriors in 2015 and 2018. They are always among the leading contenders in the NBA betting on bet365 to win the championship and will be once again next term. A new coach could be the difference for the franchise in the future, although he will have to buy into Morey’s approach and get the best out of James Harden.

Harden has been one of the success stories of Morey’s system. Using his analytics, he deciphered that three-pointers were more effective than going for mid-range two-point efforts. Harden has been the advocate of that belief, dominating the scoring charts in the NBA since his move to Houston in 2012.

The point guard was an afterthought at the Oklahoma City Thunder, but Morey and the Rockets got the best out of him – winning the NBA MVP award in 2018. In the same year, Morey was named executive of the year. Using data mapping, teams are now fully aware of where points are scored and their frequency using specific details from the court.

Harden has perhaps benefited more than any other player from the Rockets’ system. The 31-year-old still has to produce the shots and his talent from distance is immeasurable, but without the knowledge of Morey to bring him into the Rockets’ ranks he may have been just been a very good player in the league rather than on the path of the Hall of Fame.

The only item missing to prove the point is a championship and Morey will be hopeful that comes sooner rather than later.

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