Ep. 111: Jeff Bzdelik firing, Mike D'Antoni extension talks, and more w/ Adam Spolane

Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) and special guest Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane) discuss the way the way the Rockets' season ended, Houston's decision to not renew Jeff Bzdelik's contract, Mike D'Antoni's extension negotiations, and more.

Listen to The Red Nation Hoops Podcast on iTunes, Google Play MusicStitcher, and Spotify.

Ep. 110: Game 6 Recap, Season Reflections, and Offseason Preview

Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) and Forrest Walker (@DUNOTS) recap Game 6 Rockets/Warriors, reflect on the 2018-19 season for Houston, and briefly preview the offseason. They also discuss where the Rockets go from here as an organization in their quest to topple the Warriors and win an NBA championship.

Listen to The Red Nation Hoops Podcast on iTunes, Google Play MusicStitcher, and Spotify.

Metacrisis: How Warriors vs Rockets is the Referendum We Dread

By Forrest Walker on April 29, 2019

Officially, the Golden State Warriors are playing against the Houston Rockets. The series, at time of writing, stands at 1-0 in Golden State’s favor after a bizarre and contentious game one. Unofficially, this series is shaping up to be all about the officials, and each side in this miserable conflict appears ready to pull the entire league apart to get what they want. Those hoping to watch the culmination of this era of NBA basketball in this series will be aghast at what transpires over the coming days but will likely be getting exactly what they wished for. It’s all coming to a horrible head.

It’s necessary at this point to lay out some groundwork. This is, by no means, the start of this particular NBA grudge. This can be traced as far back as the Mark Jackson era Golden State Warriors, and a game in which the Rockets tried to set a new record for three pointers in a game against them. (A now-surpassed 24 would have set the record.) The acrimony was only furthered in the 2014-2015 season when Steph Curry edged out James Harden for the MVP and then the Rockets were sent home in five games in the Western Conference Finals. That series featured close games and injuries galore, and set the stage for the 1-8 series the following year in which the Warriors trounced a flailing Rockets team.

The most important series would come two seasons later, when the top-seeded Houston Rockets squared off against a Golden State Warriors team that just won Kevin Durant is first championship. It was a hard-fought, grueling series in which the Rockets went up 3-2 at the same moment as they lost Chris Paul, their second-best player. This is a series that the Rockets thought they should have won, and which featured Houston missing an NBA-record 27 straight three-pointers in the all-important game seven. It also features heavily in the current series between these teams, and the abhorrent beef we all must now collectively stew in.

As it turns out, the Houston Rockets, aka general manager Daryl Morey, have been collecting data. They’re known to collect data, and this is no surprise. What is surprising is that they intend to use the NBA’s own data against them, specifically to make the case that rules enforcement effectively handed the series to Golden State last year, and that game one of this series was more of the same. If nothing else, they’re absolutely correct that this is more of the same.

Game one and all its controversy is just the latest episode of this long-running drama. The core storyline is that Morey, Harden and the Rockets generally exploit anything they can to win. This means that Harden is happy to create situations that bait other players into fouling him, create situations where the letter of the law states he gains an advantage, and create situations in which the referees reward him when no infraction actually occurred. It is critical to note that all of these are both different and true. Many supporters of his play would like to believe that he exclusively baits players into violations and in all cases the correct call goes along with his desires. Those who dislike him seem to believe every whistle in his favor belongs in the latter category, in which he has simply created the appearance of an infraction and the correct call should go against him.

The truth, of course, is neither of these, and that’s the problem.

While the Houston Rockets have spent countless hours discovering corners to wring advantages from, the Golden State Warriors haven’t been idle. While the Warriors may be the most talented team in NBA history, talent does not exist independently of craft, and the Warriors are as crafty as it gets. The Warriors set moving screens, grab players, kick their legs out, and in game one they undercut shooters to disrupt them. Like every great team before them, from the Bruce Bowen Spurs to the Kevin Garnett Celtics, they will press whatever advantage they can. It is not a separate issue from talent; talent is in large part the knowledge to translate physical ability into preferred outcome.

The Warriors will always push the envelope on how much they can get away with, not because they are dirty, but because they are smart. With (well-earned) defensive reputation and (well-earned) superstar status comes a certain benefit of the doubt from the officials. Great defenses know this, and they exploit this. None of this is new or unfamiliar to anyone who spends any time watching the NBA. Referees typically avoid calling fouls in certain, high-importance situations, and leveraging that advantage is a key part of Golden State’s ongoing run. Like the Rockets, they would be fools to leave points on the table.

And that’s why this is going to be an important and miserable series. The key difference between Houston and Golden State is not the content of their exploitation, but the context. They are masters of playing the game, but in doing so are willing to go along to get along. They will push until pushed back and then retreat, hoping to keep the referees on their side. This is a dance that has been accepted by the greater NBA world, as long as certain conceits are made, and as long as the right words are said. Face must be saved.

The Rockets aren’t willing to buy into that. Sure, they make noises about how they just want a fair shake, and it’s even true after a fashion. Generally speaking, what they do does, actually, fall within the purview of the rules in a way that Golden State’s undercutting does not. In fact, the reality that the Rockets seek to be technically legal is part of why their exploits seem to be far more hated. The agreement is that you can get away with things as long as you sneak it past and don’t make anyone feel stupid. The Houston Rockets get away with their grift in plain sight and dare everyone to do something about it because much of it is technically legal. For this, they will never be forgiven.

Here, then, we get to the kernel of why we’re in for a series of utter hell. The Rockets have brought so much shame and misery upon the referees, have thumbed their nose in the face of mores so long that they are prone to receive the opposite effect. The referees and the Warriors pay homage to the spirit of the law, if not the letter, while the Rockets openly deride the spirit as they serve only the letter. This is the way to win at, say competitive gaming, using hard and fast interactions to exploit and gain advantage from. If you duck then dash you can go faster than normal! It’s simply a tactic that works!

In the NBA, the rules exist only in the enforcement thereof. Of the three scenarios laid out above (baiting violation, faking violation and forcing advantageous corner cases), the one which people do not want to admit happens is easily the most important: the creation of corner cases. This is the category in which the so-called “rip move” exists. Bringing up one’s arms to create a foul across an outstretched defender is by any definition technically a foul but is clearly a creation of the player initiating contact. The referee is given no choice but to reward an exploit.

Unless they don’t.

People have accused Harden of being “the boy who cried wolf,” and that his endless games of deluding referees are finally catching up to him as they now don’t believe him even when his complaint is valid. This accusation is likely accurate and also deeply troubling. Underpinning this is an assumption that it is just for events to disfavor Harden now, and that previous events were unjust. This is a huge assumption, and it is this assumption which the Rockets disagree with. It is this assumption and disagreement that underpins much of the distaste for Houston, Harden, and those who buy in. It is this disagreement which must be resolved in this series, and it is this disagreement which will ultimately spin this series apart when it cannot be resolved.

If it were simply a matter of Harden faking fouls, it would be easy to resolve this. A keener eye would prevent his chicanery and everyone could move on, while Harden would likely be frustrated. It is easy to assume this is what happens, because it lays forward a clear and easy path toward resolution as well as a clear set of villains (Houston) and heroes (Golden State). The inverse is effectively identical, with Harden merely tricking players and the responsibility falling upon them to behave better.

Everything falls apart, however, with the reality that Harden is not tricking the referees, but exploiting them. This results in a scenario in which there are not two sides locked in conflict, but three: Houston, Golden State and the officials. None of them are wrong, on their terms, and there may be no possible way forward.

If Harden’s moves are technically legal, then to uphold the spirit of the law, one is left with no choice but to simply forgo the letter of the law and to allow teams to undercut, hack, or punish Harden to varying degrees. This is what the Houston Rockets allege is happening and are aghast by. And this is what Harden’s detractors allege is happening and are enthused by. The referees, embarrassed and shamed by Houston’s willingness to drag the spirit of the law through the mud, are willing to allow violations of the rules in order to find some sort of justice. “If you bend the rules, then the rules no longer protect you.”

This is the hardline stance the officials, the invisible faction, have been backed into, and this stance is utterly disastrous.

There is no path through this, now. The Rockets uphold the letter of the law but sully the spirit. The Warriors are willing to pay deference to the spirit of the law but will violate the letter as much as the referees are willing to let them. Both will bring to bear anything they have that they think makes their case. Catastrophically, the Rockets are liable to bring incontrovertible proof to the table, which will serve only to doom them. If the officials are shown to be badly mis-calling games in their attempt to enforce the spirit of the law, they must decide to either change course and concede to the Rockets or to not admit fault and continue ahead with this enforcement.

A clearly bad whistle against the Rockets is, in fact, the worst thing that could have happened for all parties. For those who will find against Houston no matter what (and the Warriors, for example, have a very good reason for doing so) are motivated to take the new normal as justice. To accept that it’s fine to undercut shooters and make a dangerous situation as long as it’s you know, that guy. The Rockets and theirs must necessarily push back and double down, because to accept the proposition that the rules have suddenly changed is to fully accept defeat. The referees must either vouchsafe lawlessness or condone Houston’s willful and open perversion of their profession.

There is a fourth faction here, and that is the NBA. They are the most important of all, and are taking the biggest beating in this situation. This series has the potential to give the NBA a massive black eye, especially if the Rockets actually have a convincing case. A Warriors win after the rules are suddenly changed to spite Houston would be tarnished with suspicion and derision, at least within basketball literati and some number of loudmouth fans. The NBA has the most to lose here, and they have the greatest obligation for action.

Unfortunately, they do not have the ability to close loopholes now, nor can they or everyone else close all loopholes. They can only act in this moment to try to fix this situation now, and they may not be able to. The only viable action is likely to come down on the referees and goad them into calling games more in accordance with the letter of the law than the spirit, for safety of shooters if nothing else. As it stands, this series highlights the inherent friction in any rules-based competition, and the reason why James Harden and the Houston Rockets evince such a negative reaction. The Rockets are openly playing metagame in a league which would like not to admit the metagame exists at all.

Only time will tell whether or not we all emerge as losers in this situation.

Rockets 100, Warriors 104 - No Fun Allowed

By Forrest Walker on December 18, 2017

The Houston Rockets met the Golden State Warriors in a much-anticipated rematch of last year's Western Conference finals and rewarded the NBA fans of the world with one of the least watchable games played this season. The Rockets didn't quite have what it took, and the Warriors couldn't quite put the Rockets away, and the world was forced to watch some incredibly bad officiating. Chris Paul got ejected with four seconds left, James Harden complained about referees after the game, and overall it was a very promising start if you absolutely hate fun in all its forms.

Why was Clint Capela so bad? When will Austin Rivers come back, and do they need him? Is Iman Shumpert playable? Why did head coach Mike D'antoni leave Nene in for that last possession? Why are the Rockets hesitating on threes? Will the starters on either team have anything left as the series progresses? All of these questions and more have been wiped out by discussion of landing space and referees, which is probably the least fun possible thing that can happen in a big-ticket playoff game.

Officiating is a force of nature, and while I respect that the Rockets want to do everything they can to sway it, in the end you can only accept that it will go the way it will go. In this case, it took the form of the Golden State Warriors (Klay Thompson in particular) being allowed to get underneath the shooter (which may as well be a nickname for James Harden, as this is who the term will refer to in most cases today) and cause a hazardous situation. The NBA calls fouls in this situation to avoid players landing on one another's feet and legs and potentially suffering injuries. Except today.

It was distraction and contentious and the Rockets have a valid point and also it's made everything surrounding this game awful and grueling. It wouldn't have mattered  if Chris Paul and Mike D'antoni hadn't picked up silly technical fouls and if James Harden and Chris Paul hadn't both missed a shocking number of free throws. This was an eminently winnable game, even with the irregularities, and to walk away empty-handed is a real blow to the Rockets.

The good news, however, is that there's a lot they can improve. Harden shot poorly (9-28), Capela looked like a zombie (only took 2 shots somehow) and the team got outrebounded by a Warriors squad playing maybe 20 minutes of actual centers. There's a lot of fat to trim, and a lot of adjustments to be made. To count this series as over one game in would be premature, even if this game brings with it painful "what ifs."

The only thing to do is move on to game two, which will somehow be even more miserable.

Rockets 91, Jazz 107 - Deflation

By Forrest Walker on April 22, 2019

After going up 3-0 for the first time since the 2015 series against the Dallas Mavericks, the Houston Rockets immediately coughed up a deflating loss to a quite good Utah Jazz team. With starting center Clint Capela reportedly somehow double sick, this series, which still almost certainly Houston's, has  suddenly become a lot more concerning for the Rockets.

Rockets 104, Jazz 101 - The Slog

By Forrest Walker on April 20, 2019

It wasn't a surprise that game three would be the hardest one yet for the Houston Rockets. The Utah Jazz came into the evening down 0-2 in their first round series, finally hosting a game in Salt Lake City and absolutely desperate to get a win. The crowd can be counted on to have their backs, the energy is high, and being down 1-2 is infinitely better than 0-3. The Rockets were always going to have to work for this win. They simply had no idea how brutal of a slog it would prove to be. In one of the most hard-fought games of the entire season for the Rockets, they somehow survived this grueling game and came away with a tremendous win in Utah, almost certainly closing the door on the Jazz.

Rockets 118, Jazz 98 - Second Verse

By Forrest Walker on April 17, 2019

The Houston Rockets had a chance to assert themselves in game two and set themselves apart in the Western Conference as as not just a quality team, but as a force to be reckoned with. In the wake of a massive victory in game one, it's not only possible but common for a team to let up and give away game two. To their credit, the Rockets did exactly what they needed to. This was a game that wasn't competitive at any point and the Rockets never trailed. The Rockets want to prove that they are who they say they are, and across two games, they've given us no reason to doubt.