Feeling the Hate: The Rockets in the Schadenfreude Era of the NBA

By Forrest Walker on February 1, 2018




Anyone who has been a Houston Rockets fan for the last few years will tell you a similar story. Even if you don't ask, especially if you don't ask, they will tell you about how much the public hates the Houston Rockets. They'll tell you about how much talking heads on TV can't stand the sight of Rockets red. They'll let you know that other fans, referees, the league itself even, all not only desire but require James Harden to fail over and over. Everyone in the universe hates the Rockets, apart from the few, thfe brave, the clever enough to appreciate what's going on in Houston. At least, that's the story you'll hear. The reality, of course, is not so simple as that. Reality never is.

It's true that people hate the Houston Rockets. People hate every team, every player. The difficulty is in figuring out the ratios of favorability, the number of people who even care, and how this compares to others. Unfortunately for indignant Rockets fans, this sort of polling is done primarily about politics and when one covers a sport, it nearly always covers NFL football. Data, where it does exist, tends to be moldering as the league changes radically every season, leaving even the most recent data meaningless if it's more than a couple years old. This makes quantifying all of this nearly impossible. Instead, we're left with little more than a conglomeration of anecdotes and off-handed research to go with speculation. Those aren't science, but they may have some use nonetheless.

The Schadenfreude Era of the NBA

What we do know about this NBA is which teams actually matter, at least to the league itself. Simply by looking at how many nationally televised games each team is granted we get a clear picture of where Houston ranks in the eyes of the marketing team. The Rockets sit at second in nationally televised games, second only to the Golden State Warriors. This simple fact, alone, can tell us volumes.

The Warriors don't just have the most national games, they have three more games than the Rockets' 28, a gap that isn't matched until four game gap between the Los Angeles Lakers and their sister team, the Los Angeles Clippers. Those teams rank at seventh and eighth in national games. Add to that the fact that apart from the notably under-booked Toronto Raptors, the six most-broadcast teams are the six teams with the best records and the best net ratings. Quality of team matters to the viewing public. The public overwhelmingly cares about the top seven teams in the league, except the Raptors. And anything that people care about, they hate.

We have good reason to suspect that the Warriors might be the most hated team in the land. They very well may be. After three years of utter domination broken only by a nearly impossible comeback from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA finals, the Warriors have shown no signs of being beatable in the 2018 playoffs. While many love their brand of basketball, plenty more hate the effects they have on the NBA. Anyone who roots for another team has good reason to cheer at each rare loss by the reigning champs.

The Warriors are David, transmogrified into a newer, bigger Goliath than ever before. They're so dominant that not only are they in a league of their own, they added Kevin Durant to enter a new league of their own ever farther out than the previous one. They are not beatable. More importantly, everyone knows it. Even more importantly, everyone feels it.

There is no longer hope for winning a championship. For fans of elite teams, this is a poison. Most teams and fans know they couldn't win anyway, which is a separate pain, but not a new one. Teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves or Philadelphia 76ers have the promise of future dominance, of a potential championship in some future NBA not held in the icy grip of the bay area. Fans of these teams know that the greatest joy is out of reach, and so invest their hope in some future joy, enjoying each game as one might enjoy the completion of a chore, or the work of building a bridge bit by bit.

There is no longer any such illusion for fans of the top teams. If you are a fan of the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers or Oklahoma City Thunder, you have completed the chores. You have built the bridge. Instead of the payoff of true hopes for the present, there is merely a void. You've been sweeping a dirt floor, and the bridge leads to a brick wall. Any hope is vain or foolish.

And this reality has poisoned us.

There has always been schadenfreude. The joy that comes from the suffering of others is at the core of competitive sports. For one to win and access that joy others must necessarily lose and be denied it. So it is that happiness and hope are limited in supply and now are held almost entirely by one team owned by venture capitalists in the San Francisco area. We've ever sought to tear down those we resent in the hopes of manufacturing a little ersatz joy in that wound. Now, however, it's the only source left. We've always hated. Now we have little else.

The Ones Who Stay in Omelas

Are the Rockets hated more than they are loved? Yes, absolutely. So are all the other teams on top of the league. Their hate is unique, of course, as is all hate, whether or not it is more than any other team experiences. When there is nothing left but the satisfaction of watching other teams fail, the Rockets have become a rare and precious resource. They are called trash and chokers not because they are such, but in fact because of the opposite. If their losses actually convinced anyone that they were no great shakes, those people wouldn't be reveling in the salt and bitterness of Rockets fans. The Rockets have a valuable hate profile, here in the universe where only suffering can bring joy, and the rancor against them is in many ways a badge of honor.

The hate the Warriors suffer is borne from resentment, and likely greater than that against Houston and James Harden or anyone else. The Cavs and the Spurs engender something akin to exhaustion or boredom, that seeming permanence of an imperfect order which American voters continue to rail against across partisan lines. The Thunder or the Celtics are lightning rods for cosmopolitans who seek to upend the perceived provincialism of their home cities. Nobody cares about the Toronto Raptors. The Minnesota Timberwoves benefit from youth and being able to credibly represent a future challenge to all these teams whom everyone hates.

(But once their place in the elite is secure, they, themselves will be targeted, because that's the nature of humanity.)

The Houston Rockets sit atop a pedestal, under the city of Omelas, receiving scorn and revulsion such that the rest of us may feel joy. The Rockets represent everything that is wrong about the league, in that they are very, very good, but they are good in a way which is neither palatable to the average human nor good enough to actually upend the Warriors and create a new order. The Rockets are good enough that the slings and arrows don't feel unfair, but not so great that any failure they experience is clearly voluntary. We cannot extract any nourishment from the blood of the Warriors, because they choose not to bleed. The Rockets, on the other hand, bleed just enough to keep us alive.

The dearly and recently departed Ursula K Le Guin authored a short work called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. It lacked a plot and was little more than a philosophical exercise, but it remains a crucial and unique work in the body of American literature. It describes, in the manner of a tourist center, perhaps, the utopian society of Omelas. Omelas is all things for all people — except for one child. When denizens of Omelas come of age, they are informed of the city's horrible truth: one child is kept in utter misery, and this is a necessary condition for the rest of the city's amenities. Most citizens make their peace with this reality. A select few refuse.

Setting aside the clear real-world allegory, this is the function of villains. This is the heel in a wrestling program exists to be hated, to suffer. In many stories, the protagonists live to suffer unfairly, to bring meaning to the rest of us. Lives of constant success may be what we desire for ourselves, but we need to see others struggle and suffer. We need to feel that there is cosmic justice at work either for or against our interests. We wish to either rail against injustice or to see vengeance served against the unjust.

The Houston Rockets, unless the entire organization turns over will always be cast as the villain. Until they fall out of the top echelon of the NBA, the slings and arrows won't abate. For everyone who views the NBA as a soap opera (and isn't a Rockets fan), the Rockets are the recurring bastard we love to hate. This casting is a position of honor. Hate is not the opposite of love.

But now we must wonder where, exactly, that hate springs from.

Self-Defense



We know that the Rockets are a valuable scratching post for the NBA, but we've discussed nothing of the phenomenological possibilities to explain why so many are rubbed the wrong way by Houston's NBA team. Why people find their success to be an affront. There's no denying that there is a disconnect between the Rockets and a large swath of fans. We hear the same complaints, over and over, even as the more thoughtful cohort of NBA observers distance themselves from these grudges.

They flop.

They don't have heart.

General Manager Daryl Morey treats players like assets.

Head Coach Mike D'antoni is soft and can't succeed.

James Harden has a horrible, ugly game that relies on referees.

(Did I mention they flop?)

Chris Paul is an abrasive whiner.

And, yes, they flop.

The reality here is that all of these are, to a certain degree, true. Some, such as the Rockets seeking out free throws, are more or less completely true. Some, like the criticism of Daryl Morey's callousness, are correct only in such a broad sense as to be meaningless. There is enough truth, however, to cement these opinions in large swaths of the NBA viewing public. It should also be noted: none of it was helped by the three years of Dwight Howard on the roster.

We might recall the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol Los Angeles Lakers, and the hatred they engendered for pushing the boundaries of what was allowed in order to win games. We might also look back at teams like the bad boys Pistons or the so-called jail blazers. Consider the entire existence of Bruce Bowen. Playing nice does not, as a rule, win games or championships. We seem to have a willingness to forgive these things in the rearview, as will surely happen with this Rockets team as well. In the moment, however, fans of twenty-nine teams will generally disapprove of anything a given team does to win, and this is different only in that the Rockets are criticized not for their cruelty but for their victimhood.

Perhaps it says something about we who watch sports that many people are happier to endorse men who push the boundaries of what is acceptable than those who seek to push those boundaries back at the opposition. Whatever dots we would like to (and, perhaps, credibly can) connect between James Harden, Zaza Pachulia and cultural trends, the fact of the matter is that both moving screens and egregious flops come from the same immediate source. Our reactions are contextual. The actions are simply there to win games. The Rockets embellish and create contact. They do it to win. They would stop doing it if it did not work.

Everyone who rails against it knows that it works, and that may be the biggest grain of sand in their eye. Ink has been shed and rules have been changed to try to limit the free-throw creation abilities of James Harden and to curtail the trends he's at the vanguard of. The underlying issue, and the source of much revulsion, is that he will simply find something else that works. It's a mindset, and it embraces the metagame, something which is anathema to many people. To stop James Harden from drawing foul shots would require legislating that foul shots are not to be taken any more, and any half-measures tend to result in someone looking foolish. As long as it is illegal to rake hands across his arms, he will find a way to trick players into doing just that. The better he gets at every part of his game, the more successful it will be, and the more it will sting that this methodology is borne out.

James Harden is shameless and doesn't even try to hide that he's playing a second game with the rules of basketball. If you agree with Harden's view, there is no cause for shame, any more than the first player to exploit the rules and dribble the ball should be ashamed. And it is this lack of shame or pretense that is the true throughline for those who would prefer to watch the Rockets bleed.

Chris Paul complains to referees on a constant basis. Head coach Mike D'antoni creates organized chaos to advantage his own team in a way separate from shooting drills or hard screens. Most of all, Rockets general manager openly discusses the endless machinations and maneuvers the Rockets deploy to carve a tiny bit more expected value from each game. The open and stated goal of the Houston Rockets organization is to win a championship by any means necessary. If an enjoyable team gets fielded along the way, so much the better, but this is clearly a secondary goal. There is zero pretense with this team and this is anathema to many, many people.

This is where the charges of lack of heart come from. This is where the charges of being a nerd come from. Many people are offended at an open embrace of something outside the spirit of the game. The Rockets not only play basketball, they play the rules of basketball. This is called metagame, and mastery of it is a necessary skill to be atop any competition. The only difference between the Rockets and most sports team is that they don't hide their metagame moves.

Daryl Morey pioneered what is now commonly referred to as "Moreyball," a cludging together of "moneyball" as coined by Billy Beane and Morey's last name. The concept it refers to is very simple. Take shots with high expected point value, and avoid shots with low expected point value. The only part of this that is at all notable is that he actually did the math and proved that, yes, the long two point shot is worse than just stepping back and turning that into a three-pointer. The primary other realization is that the closer you shoot to the basket the better, hence a favoring of layups, and that free throws are very efficient, hence efforts to draw fouls.

None of this is new or contentious. Everyone knows getting to the free throw line and drawing fouls advantages your team. What Morey did to earn the ire of armchair coaches nationwide is to seek free throws out openly. Moreover he brought to Houston a player in James Harden who actualizes this scheme and does so openly, further irking those who have come to see a beautiful game. Tricking opposing players into breaking the rules is very plausibly against the spirit of the game, but it cannot be against the rules off the game. It is not just that the Rockets find these particular cracks in the rules of the game that infuriates many, but the knowledge that they are devoted to finding the next one, and that they will succeed.

(2017-18 Houston Rockets shot chart/statmuse.com)

And most of all, it angers people that it works.

To top it all of, the Rockets have hired Mike D'antoni, a coach people can't help but laugh off. D'antoni was a pioneer of the so-called "seven seconds or less" offense developed by the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s, a style which persists throughout the league. The core tenet was simple: defenses are not yet set early in the shot clock, and data suggests that a shot seven seconds or less into it is worth much more. His singular mastery and focus on offensive perfection earned him much respect, and also much derision for his teams' lack of defensive prowess.

Now, in the era of per-possession stats, we can re-examine his 60-win teams and see that their defense was merely middling when accounting for the sheer number of possessions their games involved. His reputation was further tarnished by mostly-miserable stints in New York and Los Angeles, stints during which star players like Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant rankled under his offensive sensibilities. He has shown himself to have a hard time adapting to his personnel. In the fullness of time, those stars have shown themselves to have missed out on something great by being unwilling to play within his system. James Harden and Chris Paul have had no such difficulties so far, and things appear to be humming along with an utter minimum of drama in that locker room.

And this success, too, creates friction. James Harden is not known as a leader. His defense, the quintessential effort stat, is hardly hard-nosed. By all accounts he prefers to avoid conflict and doesn't scream at or berate his team. He's a weird, quiet guy who leads by pulling rather than pushing, if he leads at all. And in Mike D'antoni, he's found a coach who is on the same page. Traditionalists are used to and prefer machismo, military culture and a level of confrontation that the Houston Rockets simply aren't capable of. D'antoni is known for letting his players do what they're comfortable with. Harden seems to be stymied when someone doesn't respect him.

So far, this soft style is working better than anyone in the league, save the Warriors, who employ an eerily similar attitude. The idea of men being able to lead and succeed without screaming at, berating, or demanding obeisance from other men is anathema to many. This part is not cited as often, but cannot be underestimated among those who find that the Rockets "just rub them the wrong way." Meanwhile, the Rockets do not "play through" fouls to their own scoring detriment, and when a player causes an irreconcilable difference in the locker room, they simply move on to players who want to be there. For those who prefer a hard style in all things, softness succeeding is an internal threat, not just a rival basketball team.

And for those who prefer to think that simply self-belief and effort are sufficient for success, seeing a team succeed by doing half of their work in a spreadsheet, and by admitting that talent and scheme are the most important, is an attack on core principles. Hate comes from a lot of emotional sources. For those who utterly revile the Houston Rockets, I propose that much of it comes from self-defense.

The Joy of Hate

It's crucial to note, before it is noted by others, that the Rockets are not as hated as Rockets fans would believe. They've never sniffed the levels of hate that the LeBron era Miami Heat or Chris Paul era Los Angeles Clippers achieved. They're probably not even be the most hated team currently in the NBA. The Warriors are such a dreadnought that even with the amount of praise they receive, they probably pull in the lion's share of resentment and revulsion. None of this is to argue that the Rockets are the NBA's sole whipping boy. Even Harden, among the most hated players in the league, likely has fewer detractors than Kevin Durant. Until last season, there's a very good argument to be made that Russell Westbrook was more hated.

The Rockets are not alone. And they have many, many proponents.

But they are hated. Perhaps if we had Twitter in another era, we would have had this same discussion of how much hate flows through the fans of the league. Perhaps they would have been just have hated at any time. But we live here, and now. Here and now, the Rockets have a fascinating and unique hate profile, a profile which only projects to grow and ripen if the Rockets continue their success.

In the end, as with all haters, their haters are not the enemy. To engender revulsion is often a compliment, a sign of sufficient success and relevance as to live in the hearts of those who hate this tenant. Providing a good villain is a valuable service, and feeling maligned is a valuable state. In our schadenfreude era of the NBA, hate is not misery. It is, instead, an important source of Joy.

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