When I wrote SABA: The Antifragile Offense, the San Antonio Spurs were the model; they moved the ball, cut and exploited small openings or advantages, continually hunting for a better shot. They used some of the same ideas: you’re most open on the catch, 1-second rule (they call it a .5 second rule), etc. Because the book debuted around this time, the Spurs, and teams that played similarly, were viewed as the ideal. Many coaches loved SABA because many coaches see the Spurs, and this style of basketball, as the right way to play.
The 2018 Rockets, then, appear to be the polar opposite. In fact, several people have tweeted at me to ask my thoughts or to express this feeling. Whereas the Rockets do not play the exact style that I prefer aesthetically, their basic gameplay very much fits within the SABA philosophy, and is a testament to one of the core reasons for SABA: Flexibility.
The Rockets generally start with a simple action (an on-ball screen) rather than an elaborate play. The Warriors switch this screen. The switch creates a small advantage. The Rockets, usually Harden, attempts to exploit this small advantage to create a big advantage: He drives at the defender and steps back for a 3 or he drives by the defender for a layup.
I do not want to shoot a lot of step-back three-pointers, but I also do not coach James Harden, nor do I play against defenses as good as the Warriors. I would struggle to call a step-back three a “big advantage”, but Harden’s success during the season changes the math.
At most levels, when Harden penetrates against the switch, defenses help. The pass off the penetration forces rotations, and ball movement creates a big advantage and an open catch-and-shoot three-pointer or a layup, as the Spurs demonstrate above.
However, when teams do not help, Harden attacking a mismatch to get to the rim is turning a small advantage into a big advantage. Occasionally the defender plays well and negates the advantage, but generally, Harden gets to the rim for free throws or a layup.
It may not be the joyful, aesthetically-pleasing version of SABA, but it fits the basic philosophy: Disorganize the defense, create a small advantage, and exploit the small advantage to find a big advantage. Harden and the Rockets dribble more than I prefer, and play at a slower pace, which reduces the amount of ball movement available, but otherwise, they stick to the general ideas of SABA.
In the criticism of the Rockets’ offense, few have mentioned the Warriors’ defense. I was taught that the goal in a pick-and-roll was to create a switch and then to exploit the mismatch. The Rockets take their time, but with Golden State largely staying home on shooters and trusting their individual defenders, the Rockets’ isolations are the result.
In previous generations, when defenses’ switched, offenses spent entire possessions trying to exploit the mismatch inside with the roller posting up the smaller defender. Offenses stopped and attempted to pass inside at all costs. This still occurs at the college level.
Most have realized that the perimeter mismatch can be (is) a bigger mismatch than inside. The Rockets attack there. If the defense does not help, they trust Chris Paul or James Harden to score one-vs-one against the mismatch. Most defenses help, which leaves shooters open, forces rotations, and creates ball movement.
The Rockets have played this way all season. During the playoffs, the pace has slowed (I assume; I have not looked at the stats). Also, Golden State is switching off the screener, so the Rockets must run multiple screens to get their matchup. It is fascinating to watch the movements off the ball by the offense and defense as Houston attempts to create the mismatch that it wants, and Golden State attempts to prevent this matchup.
Golden State’s defense is a big reason for the Rockets’ isolation-heavy offense, and a reason that “switch ability” is such a buzzword for draft prospects. Defenses can turn a devastating pick-and-roll into “iso ball” and not have to over help and leave shooters when the “mismatch” is not much of a mismatch.
The slower pace plus off-ball switches and multiple screens to create the desired match up puts the Rockets against shot clock. I imagine D’Antoni is concerned with the pace, not the isos. In Game 5, Chris Paul could not pass out, and Durant blocked his shot because the shot clock was at 1. That is a problem; playing slowly allows the defense to swarm late on the penetration.
The Warriors have shown the best way to defend a SABA offense, especially one built on the three-pointer: Switch and do not help. Force the offense to play one-vs-one and make tough shots.
The Rockets’ offense may not be pretty, but it is, to a certain extent, the evolution. Defenses have evolved to frustrate the Spurs-like SABA offenses, and the current offensive answer is to hunt for the best matchup and isolate one’s best player with the other four players spread to the three-point line to prevent help. By next season, the best offensive minds will have better methods of attacking the switch-heavy defenses, and the defenses will be forced to evolve to close the gap again.