This Minor League Basketball Team From the Valley Is Going to Transform the NBA
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If there’s ever a tamal shortage in McAllen, it might be the Rio Grande Valley Vipers’ fault. The Houston Rockets’ minor league affiliate has always made a fair amount of three-point shots, so before the current season, local institution Delia’s Tamales sponsored a promotion: any time the Vipers hit a dozen treys at home, fans could bring their ticket stub into the restaurant for a buy-a-dozen, get-a-half-dozen-free deal, good for 24 hours. Problem is, the Vipers’ shooters did that fourteen out of fourteen times, often without waiting for the second half (the streak finally ended February 8 against the Austin Toros). Delia’s loved the crowds—and all the scoring—but still, they couldn’t help but gripe to team officials that their free tamal obligation was significantly higher than projected.
Delia’s knew that the Vipers were good—they were, after all, the defending NBA Developmental League champions—but nobody accounted for the particularly three-point-obsessed philosophy of first-year Vipers coach Nevada Smith, who took over last October. Smith stepped into a successful franchise. Since partnering with the Rockets in 2009, the Vipers have won two championships (and they went to the finals in 2011); two of the team’s former coaches have gone on to be assistants in the NBA (Chris Finch with the Rockets and Nick Nurse with Toronto). Current Rockets starters Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones played for the Vipers, as did Aaron Brooks, Greg Smith, and Donatas Motiejunas. Even more important, the Vipers serve as lab rats for the Rockets in terms of strategy, statistical analysis, and sheer trial and error, and Smith is the mad scientist.
“There’s certain basketball factors that you can’t evaluate at the NBA level, because it’s going to cost you wins and losses,” says Gersson Rosas, the Rockets’ co-head of scouting and player personnel, who also was the Vipers’ general manager from 2009 to 2013. “But at the D-League level, you can experiment, you can try things, you can see the results and then apply it [in the NBA].”
The 33-year-old Smith, a former Division 3 college coach, has taken the experiment to a new level, favoring an especially high-motor, three-point-enamored offense in a league that is already higher-scoring than the NBA. On December 2, a mere four games into Smith’s tenure as head coach, the Vipers made 24 three-pointers, breaking a D-League record that had held up for five seasons. The next night, they hit 23. Vipers all-star guard Troy Daniels shoots—and makes—so many threes he broke the D-League’s single-season record in just 27 games (a full season is 50). The Vipers’ average 45.1 three-point attempts a game; the Rockets lead the NBA in average three-point attempts with 25.8. In December, Zach Lowe of the ESPN website Grantland anointed the Vipers “the most innovative pro basketball team you’ve never seen.”
The Vipers current season shot chart. Note the number of shots taken outside of the three-point line.
In some ways, Smith’s strategy is simple, and almost settled law around the NBA: it’s best to either take shots that are worth more (three-pointers) or take shots that are easiest to make (dunks or layups). In December, Beverley, the Rockets’ starting point guard, told ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, “The only thing we’re shooting in practice are layups and threes.” Of course, taking—and making—a lot of shots is the point, but the Vipers are able to put the ball in the air so often because they’re playing fast and rebounding well. Smith takes this approach to the extreme in part because he can, but more likely because his boss, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, wants him to.
Morey founded the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a convention where people discuss the rising importance of sports analytics, and he was the first general manager of an NBA team to be hired because of his Moneyball-style approach to the draft and scouting. And he’s clearly pleased with the way the Rockets’ D-league team performs. Earlier this month, Morey tweeted that the Vipers had the most efficient offense (a statistic measured by points scored per 100 possessions) of any team at any level of pro basketball since 2000. The D-League bills itself as the NBA’s “research and development laboratory,” a role the Rockets encourage as both sober intellectuals and unhinged experimenters.
“The Rockets take the Vipers and the D-League really, really seriously,” says Gianluca Pascucci, who is both the Vipers general manager and one of the heads of Houston’s scouting and player personnel department. The other is Rosas, who gave way to Pascucci as the Vipers GM when he left Houston for an ill-fated stint with the Dallas Mavericks. “A lot of the things we did there in RGV in terms of strategy and philosophy have filtered up here to Houston,” says Rosas.
Now it’s Smith’s turn. “We try some different stuff, see if it works,” he says. “We’re doing some things right now that are a little crazy, but it’s fun. It’s still basketball. We still do basic basketball things, but we just look for other end results.”
The Vipers may be transforming certain aspects of basketball, but they’re still a minor league team, and minor league teams do things like get lost on the way to practice during road trips. The day before a recent game against the Austin Toros, Smith glanced at the itinerary and told the local shuttle driver to proceed from the Candlewood Suites to the Cedar Park Center, the suburban arena home of the Toros and the Texas Stars. In fact, practice was at the Cedar Park Recreation Center, a public gym tucked in a D. R. Horton planned community, with two courts underneath a running track. “NO DUNKING,” instructed a sign at both ends of the court. “No hanging on rims or nets.”
Practice is basically an assembly line of three-point shots, with five guys shooting and five guys rebounding at any given time, followed by a scrimmage. Smith presides over the team in red-and-white Adidas sneakers, a gray “RIO GRANDE BASKETBALL” T-shirt, and red shorts. He’s got a tattoo on his left calf, of the Grim Reaper holding a basketball, that he got when he was 14 (and would like to have removed), and a 24-ounce Circle K coffee cup in one hand. Smith, a western Pennsylvania native, was previously head coach at Keystone College, a Division 3 school in La Plume (near Scranton) and, before that, an assistant coach at Ithaca. A D3 player himself, he holds the record for career three-pointers at Bethany College, in West Virginia.
That Daryl Morey would hire a coach nobody had ever heard of from an unlikely segment of the basketball world, who was named after a gunslinger from Harold Robbins’s The Carpetbaggers, no less, is not even a little bit surprising. The last two Vipers coaches, Nurse and Finch, both coached primarily in Great Britain. Asked if he was actually familiar with Smith prior to the coaching search, Morey replied, “No idea. He barely knew who he was.”
But the offense that Smith now runs in the Valley is the same one that he ran at Keystone. Morey’s staff included Smith on a list of somewhere between ten and thirty guys worth screening; Smith nailed the phone interview (after first calling a friend to make sure that the voice mail message wasn’t a prank) and was hired soon after his in-person visit.
“We put a lot of time into everything we do, and we really see the future in the D-League,” says Morey. “We feel like the value is really tremendous.” Morey says the partnership provides the Rockets with three things: developing future Rockets players, developing coaching talent, and testing out ideas.
The Rockets’ arrangement with the Vipers, which is owned by local construction magnate and Democratic fundraiser Alonzo Cantu, was the D-League’s first single affiliation (or “hybrid”), in which the minor league team handles all the sales and marketing, and the NBA team handles all the basketball operations. There are now eight teams with that arrangement, plus six teams directly owned by NBA clubs (something the Spurs helped pioneer when they bought the Austin Toros, in 2007). The league has produced such players as the Spurs’ Danny Green and the Rockets’ Jeremy Lin (before he broke out with the Knicks). This year, the Vipers have already sent two players up to the NBA for good, James Johnson and Chris Johnson (to the Memphis Grizzlies and the Boston Celtics, respectively), while Rockets players Robert Covington and Isaiah Canaan have been back and forth.
The nice thing about the Vipers is, they’ve been able to serve the Rockets’ needs, and send other players to the NBA, while still winning, even after players get called up. More than that, they’ve been able to serve the Rockets’ needs with a style that’s entertaining, win or lose. That’s not to say they simply heave it: the main thrust of the offense is for players to get open and create good shots, but Smith’s definition of a good shot may be a bit broader than some other coaches’. “We’ll take some guarded ones that other teams probably shy away from,” he says. “We’ll take some deeper ones that other teams might shy away from.”
When they are falling in, it becomes demoralizing for the other team. “We hit one, you can see the other team kind of shrug their shoulders,” Smith says. “We hit two, three, four in a row, you can see them bicker at each other.” And if the other team adjusts to try to stop the long-range stuff, that’s when the inside scoring opens up. Other D-League teams embrace the style—on February 5, the Los Angeles D-Fenders made 26 three-pointers in a game, stealing the record away from the Vipers (we’ll see how long that lasts).
A key statistic for the Vipers is effective field-goal percentage, which weights every three-point shot at 1.5 against a regular shot’s 1. As the statistics site Basketball Reference nutshells it, “Suppose Player A goes 4 for 10 with 2 threes, while Player B goes 5 for 10 with 0 threes. Each player would have 10 points from field goals, and thus would have the same effective field-goal percentage (fifty percent).” So Troy Daniels, the Vipers’ Roy Hobbs of the trey, has a 42.4 percent field-goal percentage and a 40.8 percent three-point percentage. But because his three-point percentage is so high, his effective field-goal percentage is 58.4 percent.
Not that he thinks about such things: if Daniels is doing his job, he’s not thinking about anything at all. Sometimes he doesn’t even know where he is on the court (it’s been said a few of his makes are taken from so far way they ought to count for four points). “If I’m open, I feel like I can make the shot, I’m going to shoot that,” Daniels says. And he certainly doesn’t need advanced statistics, or even the wisdom of a revolutionary coach, to tell him to how to play the game.
“Three is always more than two. So that’s my philosophy.”