Numbers led to Rockets' draft error
Somewhere in the muddle and mistakes and missed chances marking Royce White's growing schism between himself and the team that believed in him despite glaring red flags is a more common challenge facing NBA organizations.
As White spews on his Twitter timeline his personal struggles and enmity toward the Rockets, who suspended him this week for failing to report to his D-League assignment after a protracted standoff over his social anxiety disorder and refusal to play, the league is left to ponder the most difficult question in sports.
How, exactly, do you assess players as both on-the-court assets and off-the-court human beings? There are variables in the numbers, but there are variables in the human experience, too, and those can be just as tricky to project. Properly parsing and understanding all of this data, quantitative and qualitative, separates great general managers from everyone else.
In White, you have the ultimate paradox: He was an analytics godsend, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound basketball specimen with numbers that when properly decoded foretold a remarkable future. And he was clearly a troubled young man with a well-documented difficulty in overcoming his mental illness enough to use that God-given talent.
So what to do? See in White that obvious statistical promise that foretells basketball greatness, or see in White the obvious human struggles that foretell something else entirely?
Houston went with the numbers.
When the Rockets drafted White this past summer, they did not yet know James Harden would be available to them. So they took what the numbers said was a high-end lottery pick at what, at least on paper, looked like a steal.
On a very basic level, in his final college season White had a player efficiency rating of about 23, depending on which PER you choose to look at. By that methodology White was the seventh most-talented player taken when Houston nabbed him with that 16th pick — ahead in the PER of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (drafted second), Bradley Beal (third), Harrison Barnes (seventh), Andre Drummond (ninth) and Austin Rivers (10th), among others.
Before dismissing that tool out of hand, know that of the four-highest PERs, only one player could be described as a bust. Anthony Davis (35.1), Damian Lillard (34) and Dion Waiters (26.3) all look like solid draft picks. Thomas Robinson (27.4) does not.
There is a deep philosophical divide here, between White and his team and between those who believe the numbers hold the ultimate key to the NBA's talent puzzle and those who approach them more cautiously. The divide is deep enough in this case that White will not have the chance for at least another year to try his luck with any NBA team other than the one that drafted him with last summer's 16th overall pick.
That's the Catch-22: The very thing that gave Houston the faith in the first place to take a chance on White — the numbers and their reliance on them — is the very reason he's not going anywhere any time soon. Where Houston still sees in the analytics a possibly great future, many general managers see a hot damn mess.
Sources familiar with the Rockets' thinking say the team will entertain no offers this season for White, in large part because they value his basketball potential so highly and know his value around the league has diminished so much during this drama. One league source said the Rockets, having watched White sit out a year in college before resurrecting his career at Iowa State, will follow the same pattern and wait him out. They are now going forward as if White will not be available to them until next season, taking away whatever leverage White may have had or any hope any other team had of basically getting the same longshot for a much cheaper price.
If White is playing chicken, he's making a mistake and doing so with an organization making choices on the patterns and the numbers, not on the very human urge to wash their hands of such a bundle of trouble and move on. They will wait him out.
It might not be entirely a bad move. The Rockets have gotten themselves to a point where they have little choice. It gives White another year to get to a place where he can play for this team. And it allows the Rockets to be calculating rather than emotional in trying to protect what right now is a very public, very ugly first-round bust.
They also can do this in large part because very quietly, under the cover of the Los Angeles Lakers going to shambles and the Los Angeles Clippers sustaining their excellence, Houston has built itself into a Western Conference team that has to be taken seriously.
The Rockets have won 10 of their last 13 games, including home wins against the Lakers, Atlanta and Memphis and road wins against the Knicks and Bulls. During that stretch, two of their three losses came at the hands Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
They are the sixth seed in the Western Conference, but they're playing as well as most any team from the East right now.
The Rockets' idea that analytics should play a large role in dictating the future of an NBA franchises has largely worked.
Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Patrick Patterson have dramatically better per-game numbers this season than last season, Jeremy Lin remains a work-in-progress that seems certain to bear some fruit, James Harden has been phenomenal and even role player Marcus Morris has made a vast improvement after a troubled rookie season.
So while Houston made the ultimate analytics mistake with White and allowed the numbers to seduce them so completely they missed the obvious, it's also true that they're doing just fine without their first-round pick.
Take that and the fact this is an organization that will follow the numbers to their inevitable conclusion, throw in how much White has hurt his own standing in the league, and it's little wonder he will be a Houston Rocket for the foreseeable future.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.