Sports

Chokepoint

The Houston Rockets are trying to vanquish the idea that they’re not clutch enough.

James Harden of the Houston Rockets reacts against the San Antonio Spurs during Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals at Toyota Center on May 11, 2017, in Houston.
James Harden of the Houston Rockets reacts against the San Antonio Spurs during Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals at Toyota Center on May 11, 2017, in Houston.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On Monday, the Houston Rockets open the Western Conference finals with the goal of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler took the team to a second consecutive title in 1995, the last spoils of the Jordan interregnum. The Rockets won a league-best, franchise-record 65 games this season; they have two future Hall of Famers in their backcourt in point guard Chris Paul and shooting guard James Harden, and another on their bench in head coach Mike D’Antoni. Between the three of them, Paul, Harden, and D’Antoni have appeared in a combined 264 NBA playoff games. They have also appeared in a grand total of five NBA Finals games, with no championships. These Rockets are trying to beat a Golden State Warriors team with its eye on history, but they’re also out to vanquish a rude but powerful belief that their prized triumvirate are, fundamentally, chokers.

The early part of the 21st century saw a sea change in the way we think and talk about sports, a revolution both chronicled and crystallized in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller Moneyball. Lewis’ book was an intellectual biography of the Oakland A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane; its thesis was that Beane and his crew of likeminded iconoclasts had realized that nearly every aspect of baseball’s “conventional wisdom” was deeply stupid and had gone about systematically exploiting that stupidity to great success. Moneyball was controversial when it came out, with traditionalists across the sports landscape outraged by its heretical irreverence toward previous forms of alleged expertise. But the basic ideas that the book laid out gradually gained mainstream acceptance throughout sports, with fans, writers, executives, and even coaches and players embracing the idea that success was rooted in measurable concepts like efficiency and production rather than nebulous attributes like grit and heart.

Among the many chestnuts that were thoroughly roasted in this era was the concept of clutch, a belief that certain players habitually outperform their normal ability when the pressure is highest. “Of the many false beliefs peddled by the TV announcers, this fealty to ‘clutch hitting’ was maybe the most maddening to Billy Beane,” wrote Lewis in Moneyball. Smart-ass blogs like the late, great Fire Joe Morgan had whole tags devoted to mocking the idea. The flip side of clutch was the idea of the choker, the otherwise great player who pathologically crumbles when the stakes are highest. The choker concept was also ridiculed but has still managed to kick around stubbornly, often as a last refuge for unrefined animus. To choose just one particularly idiotic example, as recently as six years ago there was a loudly held theory among certain commentators that LeBron James, a player who’s currently one series away from appearing in his eighth consecutive NBA Finals, was in fact an inveterate choker. (Incredibly, some of those people still claim this.) Like clutch, the choke idea abuses tiny sample sizes and cherry-picked data in service of a belief that success or failure in sports is primarily characterological.

What does all this have to do with the Houston Rockets? Well, everything. For starters, Houston general manager Daryl Morey is a data-driven savant with a reputation for being a step ahead of his peers, and the 2017–18 squad is his finest assemblage to date. (Fans and skeptics alike refer to the Rockets’ organizational approach as “Moneyball.”) Paul, Harden, and D’Antoni in particular have long been figures of reverence among analytically minded hoops fans. Paul is probably the greatest all-around point guard of the modern era; he currently ranks sixth in the all-time Player Efficiency Rating, just one spot behind Wilt Chamberlain. Harden might be the most offensively gifted player of his generation. This season he led the NBA in scoring, 3-pointers made, and free throws made, and will almost certainly win this year’s Most Valuable Player award. D’Antoni is the most influential offensive mind of this century, a coach whose mid-2000s Phoenix Suns revolutionized basketball with their “seven seconds or less” offense, an intoxicating mix of breakneck speed, 3-pointers, and gorgeous ball movement. As Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins recently described in a terrific profile, these Rockets play a much different style than D’Antoni’s frantic Suns teams did, relying on a spacious, deliberate half-court offense that sets its sights on 3-pointers, layups, and absolutely nothing in between. (“Why set something up to get the worst shot in basketball?” remarked D’Antoni in reference to the despised mid-range jumper, warming the hearts of statheads everywhere.)

And yet the idea of choke lingers around these three, more than any other current basketball luminaries. Before coming to Houston this year, Paul spent six seasons as the point guard for the “Lob City” Clippers, a team that never managed to advance to the Western Conference finals despite having one of the most talented rosters in the NBA. Those Clippers were the authors of one of the most spectacular playoff collapses in recent memory when they blew a 3–1 lead in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals to the (pre-D’Antoni) Rockets, squandering a 19-point advantage in the final 15 minutes of Game 6 on their way to coughing up the series.

Harden’s playoff struggles are similarly ignominious, culminating in a 10-point, six-turnover, 2-for-11 shooting performance in an elimination Game 6 against San Antonio last year that provoked full-throated accusations of choking from sports writers and the gleeful wrath of NBA Twitter. As for D’Antoni, for all his regular-season brilliance—he’s the only active coach to have won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award for two different teams—he’s never made it out of the conference finals and hasn’t even made it that far since 2006, a record of postseason futility that recalls Beane’s own famous admission: “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”

None of this is totally fair, of course, as defenders of the three (and, in some instances, the historical record itself) will tell you. Early in his career, Paul was renowned for his leadership of overachieving New Orleans Hornets teams, and the Lob City Clippers were often waylaid by inopportune injuries. (Paul’s staunchest advocates will even point out that he played well in the midst of the Clippers’ meltdown against Houston back in 2015, a claim that’s more “statistically true” than “actually true.”) Harden is the only one of the three to have appeared in an NBA Finals, as the sixth man on the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder, and has had plenty of moments of playoff brilliance to go along with his high-profile failures. His defenders will tell you that last year’s Game 6 performance was the result of exhaustion at the end of a season when he’d shouldered an enormous offensive workload for a Rockets team that lacked a reliable second option, which they now have in Paul. As for D’Antoni, he’s tended to be a victim of plain bad luck. In 2006, the Suns lost superstar forward Amar’e Stoudemire to a knee injury but still made the conference finals; in 2007, the Suns lost to the eventual champion Spurs in the conference semifinals after Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were controversially suspended for a pivotal Game 5 after Spurs forward Robert Horry body-checked Steve Nash during the closing minutes of a Game 4 Suns victory.

This Rockets team might offer the best chance yet for this wayward trio to advance further than they ever have before, were it not for their opponent. If the Rockets’ stars are playing against their own histories, the Warriors are playing for history, period, and a third title in four years would cement their status as one of the sport’s great dynasties. Ironically, the Warriors play a freewheeling, positionless style of offense that’s deeply indebted to the tenets of D’Antoni’s Suns teams, suggesting that Mike D’Antoni’s shit works just fine in the playoffs provided you have three of the greatest shooters in NBA history.

The list of great players who were once accused of not having what it takes to win it all could fill an entire Hall of Fame: In the past 20 years alone, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, and LeBron James have all endured these charges. Nothing fundamentally changed about these players as human beings to drag them over the hump; rather, they won because their organizations and circumstances finally put them in the best situations to succeed. Getting past a team like the Warriors will require great play from Harden and Paul, but it’ll also require top-flight performances from critical role players like Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, and P.J. Tucker. In other words, for Harden, Paul, and D’Antoni to shed their reps as underachievers, the entire Rockets team will have to overachieve, a pretty tidy summation of the irrationality of the choker label.

James Harden, Chris Paul and Mike D’Antoni are currently eight wins away from driving three resounding nails into the coffin of one of the dumber ways of thinking about sports. If we’re lucky, the Rockets and Warriors will give us a series for the ages, and if the Rockets are lucky, their star-crossed trio will finally vanquish their demons once and for all. And if they don’t, there will be no shortage of people who’ll claim that “luck” had nothing to do with it.