Sports Equipment

The Ugly Efficiency of Modern Sports

At its most euphoric and free-flowing, basketball can feel like a magical ballet in which every dancer is leaping off a trampoline. More than in any other major sport, its players soar through the heavens and make us gasp. It routinely exhibits the impossible. It surprises us with its ability to showcase what our species is physically capable of. It makes your jaw drop every night.

Another thing basketball is: grown human beings in pajamas awkwardly flopping facedown on a wooden floor.

It is also, sad to say, completely logical and intelligent — nay, perhaps the best strategy the Rockets could use to win a game. What Harden and Eric Gordon are doing in that video is not having some sort of whole-body muscle spasm: They are trying to draw fouls. They may not get those fouls always called — none were called on those possessions — but when there is contact, even one instigated by the ball handler, refs will have no choice but to call a foul most of the time. And advanced analytics, particularly the ones long followed by Houston team president Daryl Morey, says that getting to the free-throw line, particularly when you have shooters as accurate as Harden and Gordon, is the best way to score and, thus, win. So the Rockets don’t often bother with passing back and forth or running specific plays or anything as vulgar as an alley-oop. They try to draw fouls. Their brand is brutal efficiency, and it’s ugly.

It has undeniably worked. The Rockets have made the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons (the second-longest streak in the sport), nearly knocked off the Warriors in the past two seasons and are off to an excellent start this year, despite the off-season controversies involving Morey and China. They are what every NBA team wants to be: perpetually competitive with a chance to win a title. They are doing everything right. They are simply impossible to watch.

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