The Houston Rockets are taking 3-pointers at an unprecedented level, putting into overdrive a revolution the Orlando Magic helped create in 2009.
The Houston Rockets are on pace to smash the NBA record for 3-pointers attempted in a season. They average an incredible 39.6 3-point field goals per game.
Mike D’Antoni‘s offense always presents a difficult challenge, but it seems like everything has been put into overdrive this year. James Harden is once again looking like a MVP candidate as he is putting up triple doubles enough to keep pace with Russell Westbrook‘s torrid attack on the record books.
In a league that is increasingly offensively minded and expanding and pushing the limits of the 3-point shot, Mike D’Antoni is its evil mastermind. The original tinkerer who challenged the league’s thinking and set it off a generational change in the way basketball can be played.
“He wants you to play as hard as possible,” said Jodie Meeks, who played for D’Antoni when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers in 2013. “But on offense, just play freely. I think that’s the great thing about him and why I enjoyed playing for him.”
The Rockets are not afraid to let things fly from beyond the arc. Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel joked the Rockets will probably take 40 3-pointers in Friday’s game and 15 of them the Magic will contest well. Inevitably, Houston will make three or four in a row and score a lot of points quickly. The Magic will have to withstand these runs when they happen.
It will obviously be a big challenge for the Magic’s struggling defense. Nikola Vucevic said the team will have to be tight in its communication and rotations to hold them down. He said the Magic will not be able to outscore this team, it is going to come down to their defense.
And that is the stress D’Antoni’s offense can put on any defense. His “Seven Seconds or Less” teams with the Phoenix Suns spearheaded this change in philosophy across the league. D’Antoni, with a pass-first point guard in Steve Nash who was a master at getting into the lane and reading pick and rolls, unlocked the power of the 3-pointer in a way no one else had done before.
He defied convention in turning a power forward like Amar’e Stoudemire into a full-time floor-spacing center. And then he shifted versatile swing man Shawn Marion into a power forward.
All that started much of the stretch-4 revolution and the small lineups that have become vogue in the NBA today. In the early 2000s, this all felt like blasphemy. Even Don Nelson never went this far with his up-tempo style of play.
The NBA is a copycat league and is constantly looking to take new ideas that work and evolve them to their own uses. Those Suns teams never won anything — D’Antoni reached the Western Conference Finals twice. They were a fun team that built a cult following, but were still something of a gimmick.
History has vindicated D’Antoni and set the league up for this revival of his Seven Seconds or Less philosophy.
“My Orlando days were so valuable to me,” said Anderson, who played three seasons with the Magic. “The way I’d describe it was: a well-oiled machine. I haven’t felt that way until I’ve come back here.” The thing about those Magic teams? They were an accident. Van Gundy planned to start a traditional frontcourt in 2007–08 with Dwight Howard and Tony Battie until Battie tore up his shoulder in a pickup game prior to the season. Rashard Lewis slid to the 4, and suddenly the Magic were playing modern small ball from 2007 through 2012. “I remember very early on in my career with Stan, him breaking those stats down,” J.J. Redick recalled to me after the Rockets beat the Clippers last Friday. In his best Van Gundy impression, J.J. continued, “‘Here’s what a corner 3 is worth on average. Here’s what a midrange is worth. This is worth 1.8 points, this is worth 1.5. This shot is shit.’ And so a lot of our strategy, our offensive schemes were just based on having a lot of shooting on the floor and having Dwight roll.”
Stan Van Gundy’s decision to put Rashard Lewis at power forward and surround Dwight Howard with 3-point shooters again changed the league. The 2009 Finals run was a shock to the entire NBA world — even Nike was already preparing for the Kobe Bryant–LeBron James Finals even as Orlando stampeded to a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As O’Connor notes in his article about the Rockets’ resurgence this year, of the 12 teams that attempted 10 percent or more 3-pointers than the average team in their respective seasons, five of them are the Stan Van Gundy Magic teams.
What is probably more telling is that this was one of the first teams to find success with such a heavy 3-point emphasis. Reaching the 2009 Finals was breaking down a barrier for teams that favored the 3-point line. Jump-shooting teams could win championships. The Magic came back even better in 2010, although falling to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As the Magic succeeded, more teams were willing to try to space the floor with shooters. It reached its zenith and got kicked into overdrive when the Golden State Warriors won a title in 2015 and won 73 games and came two minutes from a second title last year.
Back into this world stepped D’Antoni this summer. With one of the great drivers in league history and shooters all around him, the Rockets are further pushing the boundaries on 3-point shooting in the league.
The Rockets on that chart? They are an extreme outlier. More than 45 percent of their shots are 3-pointers, a more than 15 percent difference than the league average. They have done what the Suns did, the Magic did and the Warriors did and kicked it into overdrive.
Houston is 28-9 and squarely in the hunt for a top seed in the Western Conference.
This is not a good thing or a bad thing for the NBA. It is just a sign of a changing league. One the Magic influenced in 2009 and even dating back to the mid-1990s with Dennis Scott.
“It’s changed a lot,” Jodie Meeks said of the league’s style. “I remember growing up and watching it, it was inside-out when Tim Duncan first got into the league. Even further back, Dennis Scott was probably one of the first to shoot fast-break 3s. It’s good to see the game evolving.”
Eventually, defenses will catch up and figure out how to slow these kinds of offenses down. And then everyone in the league will copy those schemes, just as they copied Tom Thibodeau’s weak-side zones in the late 2000s. And then some new offensive evolution will occur.