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.