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.


  1. Harden kicked his legs out. The defender is entitled to his own space and Harden kicked his legs out to invade that space. Whole article was as much a waste of time as Hillary's campaign in 2016 and all her efforts to collude with Russia.

    1. This guy spends a tremendous amount of time thinking, theorizing, and thoughtfully categorizing his thoughts and you post this drivel? Shame on you.

  2. NBA is clearly calling bullshit on exploitation of drawing fouls. Sorry, Hardens game is predominantly centered around that fact. Look at his stat line compared to other elite players in the league between FG made and FT made. The fact the Harden has 110 more FT made than FG is staggering. There is no assumption in that stat line, it's a fact! No one wants to watch a bunch of players sitting at the FT line, it's bad basketball, and would be excruciatingly painful to watch game after game.