Grantland really likes NBA basketball. We like it so much that bingeing on LeBron James off-the-wall dunks and Marcin Gortat “Dream Shake” Vines sometimes doesn’t cut it. We need more. That brings us to D-League Week, an examination of the innovators, also-rans, has-beens, and oddities of the NBA’s minor league. Hope you enjoy.
“Let’s go!” Nevada Smith’s instructions are not complicated. A year ago, Smith, the coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Houston Rockets’ Development League affiliate, was leading the men’s basketball program at Division III Keystone College in La Plume, Pennsylvania. Now, the 33-year-old has been entrusted with running what amounts to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s grand experiment, and all he wants is for his team to push the ball. Off turnovers, rebounds, made baskets, whatever — it doesn’t matter. “Let’s GO!”
On this night in late January, the Vipers are going. Playing the Austin Toros at home in Hidalgo, Texas, a dusty town along the Mexican border, Smith’s team is keeping a frantic pace. By halftime, they’re up 64-49. Three minutes into the third, though, a Toros dunk cuts RGV’s lead to 11 and momentum seems to be shifting. On the Vipers’ next possession, point guard Isaiah Canaan, the 34th pick of last year’s NBA draft, down on assignment from the Rockets, tracks a long offensive rebound along the baseline toward the corner. He’s in no hurry to grab it, though — his coach, Smith, preaches that besides a dunk, the best possible shot is a corner 3. So Canaan coolly waits for the ball to bounce across the 3-point line before snatching it as he whirls and nails a playground triple.
Coming back the other way, the Toros, who usually play at one of the D-League’s slowest paces, rush a quick, contested 3. Vipers guard Troy Daniels grabs the rebound and passes ahead to Canaan, who starts to drive to the hoop before whipping it back to Daniels, now standing at the top of the key, three feet beyond the arc. Seven seconds into the shot clock — and with a hand in his face — Daniels fires a 3-pointer, practically from across the Rio Grande.
As the ball splashes through the net, Daniels throws up three fingers and bangs them against his head. It’s possible that nearly every coach on earth would have hated that shot — except Nevada Smith.
His Vipers might just be the most running, gunning team pro basketball has ever seen. ESPN stat guru Kevin Pelton has described their style of play as “the most extreme professional basketball in America,” and their pace is historically fast: At 109 possessions per game, the Vipers play far faster than any NBA team in the past two decades, including Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Suns, who averaged around 98 possessions per game. The NBA has sped up since then, with the league average now at 96.5, but even this year’s fastest team, the Philadelphia 76ers, at 102.6 possessions per game, are tortoises compared with RGV.
The Vipers also fire an unprecedented barrage of 3s, taking nearly half their shots from behind the line and averaging 45 3-point attempts per game. The Rockets, who lead the NBA in 3-point attempts, shoot only 26 per game, good for about a third of their shots.
When they aren’t bombing 3s, Smith’s Vipers shoot almost exclusively close to the rim: 41 percent of their field goal attempts come within five feet of the basket. That means, combined, 88.1 percent of the Vipers’ shots are 3s or short 2s. They’ve scored a whopping 3 percent of their points this year from midrange. When Smith’s players warm up, they don’t bother shooting inside the 3-point line, except for maybe a few bunnies in the paint. Just look at their shot chart:
Morey has long been at the forefront of the NBA analytics movement, and for years, execs like him have been pushing their teams to turn up the tempo, cut down on long 2s — which carry similar risk to 3s, but without the added reward of an extra point — and shoot more 3-pointers, especially from the corners, where it’s a shorter shot. The Vipers push those ideas to their logical extremes. The team exists, essentially, as a Daryl Morey experiment in applied basketball analytics. “If we don’t score 120,” Morey says, “we don’t win.” They average 123.6 points per game, and their offense, at 113 points per 100 possessions, is the most efficient of any NBA or D-League team this season.
Smith is fond of saying that the Vipers’ style of play is “just basketball.” But nowhere outside the Valley does basketball look like this. At least for now. At 24-10, Daryl Morey’s fever dream has the best record in the D-League, and the NBA is watching.
Morey has always seen Rio Grande Valley as a laboratory — a place he can let his analytical freak flag fly in hopes of uncovering some new edge for the Rockets. When Houston hired him as GM in 2007, the D-League was just six years old and the Los Angeles D-Fenders, owned by the Lakers, were the only team affiliated with a single NBA franchise. Back then, most NBA teams shared D-League affiliates — the Vipers, for instance, were aligned with the Rockets, New Orleans Hornets, and Cleveland Cavaliers. All three teams could send young players down to the Valley for seasoning, but they had no real control over how the Vipers, operated by local ownership, used or coached them.
That changed in 2009, when the Rockets and Vipers forged a deal for exclusive affiliation. The local Vipers ownership would continue to run the business side, while Houston took over basketball operations. Grooming prospects would remain a focus, but Morey also saw an opportunity to do more.
“It allows us to create a competitive advantage for the Rockets and the Vipers,” Morey told the local Rio Grande Valley newspaper, The Monitor, in June 2009. “We can bring our latest thinking to the Vipers and at the same time work on new strategies and learn about players and learn about potential future staff.”
At the time, with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the Rockets played at a plodding pace, ranking 19th in the league in 2008-09 at 92.7 possessions per game. According to Morey, Houston owner Les Alexander had been pushing for a more up-tempo style — one that didn’t fit with the Rockets’ personnel — so the team figured Rio Grande Valley would be, in Morey’s words, “a good proving ground.” The idea also fit with Morey’s analysis of where the sport was headed.
“It really was born of nothing more than the insight that defenses are getting more sophisticated,” Morey says. “You can’t beat these Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy set defenses that are really well designed. You’ve got to beat them up the floor to have a chance to score.”
Before the 2009-10 season, the Rockets hired Chris Finch to coach the Vipers and ordered a high-paced, 3-heavy attack. That year, Finch’s team averaged 98 possessions per game, shot 29 percent of their shots from 3, and won the D-League championship. They made it to the finals again the next year, only to lose to the Iowa Energy, coached by Nick Nurse. After the season, the Rockets promoted Finch to the Houston bench and hired Nurse to run the Vipers.
Over the years, as their personnel has changed, the Rockets’ pace and 3-point shooting have increased, never reaching Vipers levels but creeping up nonetheless.1
|Season||Coach||RGV Pace||HOU Pace||RGV 3A%||HOU 3A%|
|2009-10||Chris Finch||97.91 (6)||96.55 (6)||.286 (1)||.265 (4)|
|2010-11||Chris Finch||101.07 (2)||96.87 (7)||.334 (1)||.264 (5)|
|2011-12||Nick Nurse||101.98 (1)||94.32 (11)||.348 (1)||.240 (13)|
|2012-13||Nick Nurse||103.82 (1)||98.64 (1)||.315 (1)||.349 (2)|
|2013-14||Nevada Smith||108.76 (2)2||98.27 (7)||.470 (1)||.325 (1)|
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton used a version of the following table in his December 2013 story on the Vipers. This table differs in that it uses data only from NBA.com, whereas Pelton used pace statistics from a different source.
There are actually two other D-League teams this year playing at a similar pace to the Vipers: the Energy and the D-Fenders. The D-Fenders play the fastest by 0.03 possessions per game. Both Iowa and L.A. shoot far fewer 3s, though, and have significantly less efficient offenses.
*Numbers in parentheses are league rankings.
All the while, the Rockets were using RGV to experiment with other strategic elements. Morey says they tried out new inbounds plays, different defensive alignments, and general game strategies. During Nurse’s tenure, the Vipers even tried playing with hockey shifts, shuttling players on and off the floor, five at a time, every few minutes. Right now, in end-of-quarter situations with less than 24 seconds left on the clock, the Vipers are fouling their opponents’ worst free throw shooter to see if, by putting him at the line and giving themselves an additional possession, they can steal extra points.
Today, 14 NBA teams have exclusive D-League affiliates, but the Rockets are known for their especially aggressive use of the Vipers. “It’s a pretty continuous flow of ideas where the coaches at the Rockets level say, hey, let’s try this,” Morey says. “I think some of the elements of the offense running at the Rockets definitely has an inspiration from what Finch and Nurse were doing down with the Vipers the last four years.”
As it turns out, the Rockets’ experimental style has also produced winning basketball. After Nurse’s team won another D-League title last season, the Toronto Raptors hired him as an assistant. That meant RGV needed a new coach, and Houston hoped to find someone who could crank up the Vipers’ offense even more.
The Rockets called and screened some 35 candidates, but just a few weeks before training camp was set to begin, they still couldn’t find anyone they liked. “We actually hit a very depressing moment,” Morey says. “We had gone through a lot of the more traditional candidates and we were all generally dissatisfied.” That’s when the Rockets started searching through Division II and III, and tripped across the name Nevada Smith. He had only two years of head-coaching experience, but in just those two years, Smith had managed to make an impressive number of people hate his guts.
Named after a character in the 1961 Harold Robbins novel The Carpetbaggers — a cowboy, naturally — Nevada Smith grew up in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, 45 minutes outside Pittsburgh. He idolized Reggie Miller and, by high school, had developed into a promising player with a mouth as big as his game. Midway through his sophomore season, though, Smith tore his left ACL. The following year, he tore the right one. “I had to change everything,” he says. “I used to be the guy who got to the rim, played athletic — I lost it all. I couldn’t move, so I’d just stand there and take jumper after jumper.”
By 1998, when Smith got to Division III Bethany College, he was a 3-point marksman. “Because he shot ’em, he was like, ‘We need to take more of these,’” his coach Rob Clune says. “And he understood, the thing about taking the shots — it spreads the court.” Clune fashioned his offense into a fast-paced, trigger-happy attack, and by Smith’s junior year he was leading Division III in 3-pointers made per game at 3.9. Smith connected on 101 triples that year, and as a senior he nailed another 109 on 46 percent shooting. Smith still ranks first all time at the school for 3-pointers made.
After graduating, he shuttled among D-III assistant coaching jobs — Allegheny, SUNY Canton, Saint Lawrence. Then, in 2006, he landed on coach Jim Mullins’s bench at Ithaca College. Mullins preferred to focus on defense, and midway through Smith’s first year, Mullins gave his young assistant free rein to run the offense. Smith instructed his Ithaca Bombers to run hard, spread the floor, get to the corners, and, well, bomb. “In Division III, it’s kind of crazy to say, but nobody really cares if you win or lose, so you can try some things,” Smith says. “It gave me a chance for trial and error, to see what worked.”
His strategy was born in part out of the realities of recruiting at a lower-level D-III school, where size is scarce and the most abundant skill is shooting. “Even when we were at Ithaca, we couldn’t get the players that Amherst or Williams got, so if we tried to play like them, we were going to lose,” Smith recalls. “So we figured out a niche.” In 2005-06, the season before Smith’s arrival, Ithaca averaged 71.5 points per game. In his five years there, that number jumped to 73.6 and then 82.5, 88.4, 83.6, and 88.5.3 Over Smith’s last three years there, the team went 64-18, making the D-III NCAA tournament twice.
In the three years since Smith has left, the Bombers scoring has dipped back to 74.4, 73.0, and 67.4 points per game.
When Keystone hired him in 2011, Smith installed the same high-octane, 3-heavy offense. For opposing coaches, it proved difficult to prepare for. “They’d just kind of run you to death,” says Marcus Kahn, coach at conference rival Cabrini College. “We would spend all fall talking to our guys about how we want to defend and how we want to do things. Then you get Keystone on your schedule and you’re telling your guys almost to do the opposite. Because the moment you helped, there was a 3-pointer being taken.”
Keystone had one of the dingier gyms in the league, and Smith’s players, several of whom came from humble backgrounds, reveled in walking into some of the tonier D-III schools and running their opponents off the court. “We played with a swagger, we played with a toughness, almost an arrogance,” Smith says. “It probably rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”
Even great 3-point shooters miss 60 percent of the time, so Smith did whatever he could to keep his players confident. That included allowing plenty of trash talk. “We openly would engage in verbal confrontations,” Smith says. He did other things to get under opponents’ skin: Keystone employed a short, eight-man rotation, so sometimes Smith would have his players trap the ball at random times or switch to an uncommon defense, like a triangle-and-2, to force the opposing coach to call a timeout. “We would run the other team’s plays,” Smith says, laughing. “We would call it the other team. We would call ‘Cabrini’ or we would call ‘Immaculata.’ … I don’t think teams liked that very much.”
Kahn, who considers Smith a friend, says about half the coaches in the conference appreciated how Smith bucked convention. The other half couldn’t stand him. “I think people were a little shocked at Nevada,” Kahn says. “He’s an in-your-face guy, which is the way they play. Here comes a first-time head coach — he’s beating you and he’s letting you know it.”
“I definitely don’t think Nevada’s a bad guy,” says Rosemont College coach Bob Hughes. “I think some people would classify him as that.”
In Smith’s first season the Giants went 21-6, and last year, in his second, they were 18-10, good for second place in the league. Smith rarely checks his office voice mail, but just days before his first practice of the 2013-14 season, he noticed a message and decided to listen.
When Smith heard the voice mail, he assumed it was a prank. Even when the Rockets sent a follow-up email, Smith didn’t quite believe it. Life at the D-III level is not glamorous. At Keystone, Smith was responsible for doing his players’ laundry, driving them to games, and ordering food for them on the road. He shared an office with coaches from other sports, and there was just a single computer for all of them. The notion that an NBA franchise might want to hire him seemed about as likely as being asked to suit up alongside Dwight Howard in the All-Star Game.
After finally making contact with the Rockets, Smith did a phone interview on a Monday and flew to Houston that Friday for a full interview with Morey and several other Rockets front-office members. “We just talked basketball,” Smith says. When the Rockets asked him what type of analytics he used at Keystone, he said he’d used basically none — just true shooting percentage and the plus-minus of different lineups. After all, he barely had a computer. “They laughed at that,” Smith says.
“I could lie and tell you I’m an analytics guy,” he says. “I’ve played like this for a while. I always shot a lot of 3s. I just thought they were good shots.”
Amazingly, a style of play forged from Smith’s bum-kneed penchant for the long ball and Division III recruiting limitations mirrored what Morey and his analysts’ computers were spitting out as, just maybe, the optimal way to play basketball. “At Division III there’s no real data anyway,” Morey says, “but he used his instincts and his intelligence and his experience to get to a similar style that we think helps you win.”
Three days after the interview, Smith was eating lunch in the Keystone cafeteria when Morey called. “I accepted it in like point-two seconds,” Smith says. “They could have offered me five bucks.” He scheduled an emergency meeting with his team to break the news — and then he packed. At the crack of dawn the next morning, Smith was flying to Texas.
I traveled to the Valley in late January to see what Vipers basketball looked like in person. After all, if the pace Finch’s and Nurse’s teams had played at was about a nine, Smith had turned it up to 11. “Now,” Morey says, “it’s Spinal Tap.”
Troy Daniels’s long 3-pointer, the one from three feet behind the line, was the Vipers’ 12th of the night against the Toros, prompting loud cheers from the crowd of 5,800. The applause was only partly basketball-related: Whenever the Vipers hit a dozen 3s in a game, fans get six free tamales with the purchase of a dozen at local institution Delia’s Tamales. It used to be just six free tamales, but after three games Delia’s realized it would be out thousands of tamales, so the restaurant renegotiated. When Daniels hit yet another 3 with a minute left in the game, mariachi music started blasting and fans danced in their seats while the PA announcer declared that, because the Vipers had passed 120 points, everyone had won a free taco from the chain Taco Palenque. It’s Smith’s favorite part of any home game — sitting in the coach’s room just before tipoff, he’d said, “If we don’t get it tonight, I’ll be pissed.”
Despite holding on for the 123-116 win, Smith was still pissed. “We stunk,” he told me, walking off the court. “That was our worst fourth quarter we played all year.”
Since joining the team, Smith’s life has been a whirlwind, consisting of little more than coaching, breaking down film, and going for occasional runs. Out for postgame nachos with his assistant coaches, he tried to unwind. Sipping on a Bud Light, he argued with an assistant’s girlfriend over whether he hates dogs (only sort of), declared that track and field is not a sport (not a popular opinion), and egged on a dispute between two junior staff members over exactly which noises can be heard through their thin apartment walls late at night.4 But the game’s stat sheet was sitting in front of him, and every few minutes he looked down and rustled it in his hands, clearly frustrated the Vipers didn’t hold their big lead. He pronounced the team’s shot distribution perfect and seemed puzzled that it led to only 123 points. “Every game’s a roller coaster,” he said. “No lead’s ever too big, no deficit is ever too big.”
All Vipers players and junior staff members live together in an apartment complex near the arena. A minibus emblazoned with the Vipers logo stays parked there and the players ride in it everywhere they go, making the team feel like a basketball version of a traveling family band.
At noon the next day, the Vipers gathered at the gym of nearby Texas Pan-American University for practice. They’d just signed a new player, former Miami Hurricanes forward Kenny Kadji, so Smith had the team run through its offense for Kadji. The Vipers play the same system Smith used at Keystone, updated for NBA rules and, as he puts it, “molded with some analytical thinking” from the Rockets. “It’s amazing how it meshes,” he says. While pace and 3-point shooting are the system’s cornerstones, the keys that make it work are spacing — making sure players get to the corners, not just to shoot, but to spread out defenders — and quick decision-making.
Smith believes coaches too often try to control the game by calling plays and directing the ball to certain spots on the court, so the Vipers have very few sets. Instead, Smith walked the team through a series of quick actions — screens, cuts, flares, and handoffs — which they combine to produce quick open looks. Each sequence lasted just a few seconds and ended in a 3 attempt or shot near the rim. Showing Kadji the entire Vipers offense took exactly 14 minutes.
“It’s not that hard to cover,” one rival NBA exec says, “but if you make one little mistake covering any of the several different actions, they’ll swing the ball to that guy and they’ll hit a 3.” Maybe the most surprising thing about the Vipers is that they get good looks — for all the 3s they take, the shots rarely seem forced.
“It’s all based on what the point guard sees,” Jason Young, the team’s 24-year-old video coordinator, tells me. As for designed plays, Young says: “There’s no need for it, not the way we want to play, at the pace.” As Smith says, “If I can have a game where I don’t call out anything, then we played well.”
At the beginning of the season, Smith had worried that his players might not buy in, and some were skeptical. As Dwayne Lathan, a Vipers guard, puts it, “There were times where coach told us to take shots and we were like, what?” After all, the Vipers might be an experiment to Morey, but for most of their players, the D-League represents their last best shot at the NBA. And their interests aren’t necessarily aligned with those of the Rockets: Only players like Canaan, on NBA contracts and assigned to the team, are exclusively Houston property. The rest of the players on the Vipers’ roster are available for pickup by any team.
And aside from Canaan,5 they all made the standard D-League salary, reportedly between $13,000 and $25,500 per year, far less than they could make abroad.6 Most of the Vipers are only a year or two out of college, but they know that their professional clocks are ticking — every year they spend chasing the NBA could mean hundreds of thousands in lost wages.
And power forward Robert Covington, who at the time was in Houston but has since been reassigned to RGV.
The NBA does not confirm those D-League salary numbers — they come from Marc Stein.
On the court after practice, Lathan, who played last year in Japan, told me that players there could make $150,000 to $200,000. But he came back for a shot at the NBA. More of a natural midrange player — he shot 26 percent from 3 his senior year at Indiana State — he has found himself buried on the Vipers’ bench, with a grand total of eight minutes played all season.
Then there’s 6-foot-10 center Tim Ohlbrecht. A year ago, the 25-year-old German gave up his considerably higher European salary and joined the D-League. He put together a solid campaign for the Vipers, averaging 13.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, even earning a call-up to the Rockets. He started this season at training camp with the Philadelphia 76ers, but after getting cut — and turning down more offers from Europe — Ohlbrecht found himself back in RGV. Posting up is Ohlbrecht’s game, but early in the season, the Vipers simply hadn’t been able to get him the ball — often because they’d already shot it. He also had a hard time adjusting to the pace and was prone to defensive lapses. Through 23 games, his stats were down to 10.7 and 6.4 and he was playing fewer minutes.
“He’s used to just running for the post, catching the ball, and making plays,” Smith says. “He doesn’t get that many opportunities to do that. Tim really doesn’t fit what we do, but he’s made it work and he’s gotten better and he’s hit 3s.”
Most of the Vipers bought into the system quickly, though. It’s easy to overhaul D-League rosters to fit your needs — Ohlbrecht was the only remaining Viper from last year’s championship squad — and the Rockets stacked RGV with shooters.
After practice, a bunch of players went to eat at Rudy’s, a giant barnyard of a barbecue place near their apartments. “We’re lab rats,” Daniels told me, picking at a massive tray of meats. He, however, is a particularly happy rat. “All we do is shoot 3s,” he said. “And that’s what I do.”
Before the season, Daniels had nearly signed a $100,000 contract to play in Australia, but decided instead to take a shot at the NBA. He went to training camp with the Bobcats but got cut and landed with the Vipers. “People would say you’re crazy if you think about the money aspect of it,” Daniels said. “I have a dream. I’m going to fulfill my dream.”
Though he had a nice career as a 3-point specialist at Virginia Commonwealth University, averaging 12.3 points last year as a senior while shooting 40 percent from 3, few scouts saw Daniels in the NBA. Now, though, he’s sixth in the D-League in scoring, at 22.8 points per game. Shooting 40.3 percent from distance, he leads the league in 3-pointers made per game, with 5.3.
“Of the shooters that I’ve had either on the Vipers or the Rockets, the two best are Steve Novak and Troy Daniels,” Morey says.
Daniels said he’d heard from six or seven NBA teams with interest in signing him, but he hadn’t gotten the big call yet. “In any other system,” says another NBA exec, “I don’t know if he’s playing as well or opening up eyes as much as he is right now.”
A few seats down the table, forward Akeem Ellis, a role player from Coppin State, had a tray filled with just about every chicken, pig, and cow in the Rio Grande Valley. He was a late sixth-round pick for the Vipers in the D-League draft and has stuck around for one reason: He shoots 3s at 40 percent (although a recent slump has dropped his rate this season to 36.1 percent). He may not be ticketed for the NBA, but there’s a good chance he’d have washed out from most other D-League teams by now. A good season for RGV — complete with stats inflated by Smith’s emphasis on pace — could earn him big money abroad next year. Like many of his teammates, the Vipers’ free and easy style — and superior end-of-game conditioning — has given Ellis a little extra swagger, too. Despite the team’s good record, he doesn’t feel like they should have lost a single game.
“Once we see they’re tired, we know we got ’em,” he said. He added, apparently watching his language: “Every team knows what we do. They can’t beat us because they’re poop.”
The Vipers’ next game was against the Tulsa 66ers, one of the slowest, lowest-scoring teams in the league. In the locker room before the game, Smith told his team, “We can’t win this game in the 100s. It’s gotta be in the 130s.”7 Early on, it looked like the final score might end up in the 150s, but not in a good way for the Vipers. They were slow getting back on defense and the 66ers were running a layup line. It didn’t help that Canaan hurt his hamstring and left in the first quarter. By halftime, RGV was down 72-63. The Vipers were shooting just 33 percent from 3, but that was the least of their coaches’ concerns. Before entering the locker room, Smith huddled with his assistants to compare notes. “The fact we’re down nine is fucking junk,” he said.
Earlier in the day at shoot-around, the team had found itself short on basketballs, missing three of its 12. One had allegedly been stolen by an arena employee. In the middle of Smith’s pregame talk, a man in a work uniform walked into the locker room, set a ball on the floor, and slowly backed out. Then, only two balls were missing.
Smith’s associate head coach is the 12-year NBA veteran big man Paul Mokeski, who fills the role of wise old sage for the Vipers. But Mokeski, 57, also often plays the heavy, and heading into the locker room, he asked Smith for permission to address the players.8
Once dubbed by Bill Simmons as “the most improbable athlete of our lifetime,” Mokeski is of course the inspiration for Simmons’s Mokeski Award, given annually to the league’s best American white player.
“Sit down and listen,” Mokeski began. “It’s not brain surgery, OK? I’m going to show you some easy fucking numbers. I don’t care if you flunked fucking math, you can get these numbers. They average 99 points a game. That’s what they average, 99. We let them score 72 in one half. They’ve never scored 72 in one half, ever. Twenty-five layups, 14 in the first quarter … Until we decide we’re going to fucking guard someone, fucking stay in front of somebody, fucking get back in transition, fucking put your body on the line, it’s going to be like that.”
Waiting a moment, Smith followed Mokeski: “The fact that we’re down nine is a miracle. Now that we have been given this gift, let’s take it. Three 3s ties the game, let’s go.”
The second half wasn’t much better. Without Canaan, RGV’s roster lacked playmakers. Smith says one of the biggest adjustments for him in the D-League is how often his roster changes. The team’s current talent level is average, and Smith can sound wistful talking about the first nine games of the season, when he went undefeated with Canaan, James Johnson (now with Memphis), Robert Covington (up in Houston at the moment), and Chris Johnson (signed by the Celtics). With Canaan hurt, the only top prospect left was Daniels, who ended up scoring 26 against Tulsa. The Vipers also got 27 points from Ellis, who hit seven 3s, but the team never improved its defensive effort and lost, 144-127.
For all the Vipers’ success on offense, they have the league’s worst defense, allowing 110.2 points per 100 possessions. They favor a small lineup that’s prone to mismatches and are constantly forced to scramble to double-team and recover. Plus, with so many players deep in the corners and under the basket, long rebounds off their many 3-point attempts inevitably lead to fast breaks the other way. If they don’t sprint back on defense, there is no defense. Besides, with so much focus on offense, it’s only natural that D would seem less a priority.
“I think you can be a strong defense and offense,” Morey says. “That said, all that matters is you net more points than the other team.” Right now, the Vipers’ point differential is plus-4.1 points per game, among the best in the D-League. It would not be better, Morey explains, for RGV to have, say, the sixth-best offense and an average defense, if that meant they were producing a smaller point differential.
“We are doing some things that make the defense more challenged to enhance the offense,” he says, giving the example of having players leak out to start fast breaks after defensive possessions. The Vipers also crash the glass hard, leading the D-League in offensive rebounding rate.
“That’s a choice. We could stop those things that hurt the defense and help the offense if we thought it wasn’t the right choice,” Morey says.
So, could these choices work in the NBA? Could Viper-ball be coming to Houston?
“It’s very personnel-driven,” Morey says. “If you’ve got the right personnel, I do think it’s a style that could work.” He adds, “At the NBA level, we’re focused on being top 10 on both sides of the ball.”
Two days later, the team had a morning shootaround before another game against Tulsa. After the session, I chatted with Smith by the sideline. He told me that, though he often traps and presses, so far this season he hasn’t really dug into his old Keystone tricks to irritate opponents. Not that he’s had a change of heart — he says he wants to keep his bag full for the playoffs, especially in case call-ups from Houston leave him shorthanded. “We might have to scheme a way to win,” he said.
It’s an odd situation — obviously Smith wants to win the title, but the Rockets don’t particularly care. Their main interest is developing players and testing strategies. They view the Vipers’ style as an experiment, but for Smith, it’s his life’s work. I asked if he feels like each game is a referendum on his system. Leaning against the scorer’s table, he shook his head, no. That the team had kept winning, despite continuously losing its best players to the NBA, spoke for itself, he said.
He’s a little perplexed, he added, that anyone thinks what he’s doing is radical. “Our spacing is exactly what the Suns and D’Antoni did,” he said. “We put an emphasis on different shots. We want 3s.”
To Smith, playing this way in the NBA wouldn’t be an extreme step as much as an evolution. “I obviously think it can work,” he said. “Pieces of it — 100 percent, right now.” The quick actions — the cuts and picks the Vipers use to free shooters, he said, would be easy to add to an NBA playbook.
Before, when I spoke to Daniels, he told me he didn’t think an NBA team could sustain the Vipers’ pace for 82 games. (The D-League season is 50 games.) “We’re not robots,” he’d said. “We’re tired at the end of the day.”
When I relayed that sentiment to Smith, Mokeski, standing a few feet away, jumped in to disagree. “Sure you can,” he said. The key, Mokeski and Smith agreed, is having enough depth. “I would have loved it,” the 7-foot Mokeski added. “I shot the 3.”9
Alas, Mokeski shot 11-for-51 from 3 over his 12 years in the NBA. When I mentioned this to him later, he protested that, back when he played, nobody shot many 3s and that he was really only allowed to shoot them at the end of his career. Personally, I choose to believe in a world where Paul Mokeski was a great 3-point shooter, so I’ll go with it.
Perhaps the closest NBA team to the Vipers was coach Paul Westhead’s Denver Nuggets of the early 1990s. Mokeski recalled seeing them in 1990-91, his last season in the league: “The ball never stuck in someone’s hand for more than three seconds. I counted one time, a possession where there were eight passes and no one held it for more than like two seconds and you could never catch up to them.” That season, the Nuggets were perhaps the only team in NBA history to play faster than the Vipers, averaging 113.7 possessions per game. Problem was, they weren’t any good. They finished with a 20-62 record and Westhead was fired a season later.
The difference between the Vipers and those Nuggets, Mokeski said, was that “we try to play defense.” Smith added: “We shoot more 3s. They were trying to get a good shot early. That didn’t necessarily have to be a 3.” Westhead might have been too far ahead of his time: Back then, the 3 was still considered somewhat taboo, and players hadn’t grown up practicing it. Despite shooting the most 3s in the league, the Nuggets fired just 12.9 per game in 1990-91, hitting only 28 percent.10 Smith’s Vipers shoot 45.3 per game and hit 36 percent. Steve Nash and D’Antoni’s Suns teams, by the way, averaged around 25 3-pointers per game. Nobody has ever come close to playing like the Vipers.
Mokeski is fond of pointing out that, back then, even Larry Bird didn’t shoot that many 3s. The Legend averaged 1.9 per game over his career; this year, Stephen Curry is averaging 8.1 per contest.
That night against Tulsa, much of what had gone wrong in the Vipers’ previous loss got fixed. The Vipers sprinted back on defense, hustled to double and rotate when their guards got posted up, and spaced the offense by getting all the way to the corners. Shots were falling and shooters like Ellis and Daniels were pump-faking their jumpy defenders in the air to create easy drives to the basket. Daniels had 27 points and six 3s, including his 153rd triple of the season, which broke the D-League single-season record after just 27 games. Ohlbrecht played one of his best games of the season, scoring inside, getting easy putbacks, and hitting two corner 3s to ring up 28 points on 9-of-13 shooting. Smith and Mokeski were thrilled that the Vipers held the 66ers to only 113 points, and the RGV fans were thrilled that the Vipers scored 125, winning them free tacos and not-quite-as-free tamales.
Ohlbrecht had spent most of the five days I was with the Vipers brooding and looking glum, but sitting beside Daniels in the locker room after the game, the German was positively gleeful. The two had worked some good give-and-goes and played off each other well. “I get more space in the paint because they’re scared of him,” Ohlbrecht said. “I love basketball, and when I see this — not only that I played good, but when I see the other guys making the right decisions, just having the flow of basketball, I just love to see that and I love to be part of that.” That game started a good run for Ohlbrecht and helped him raise his season averages closer to what they were last year.
It’s a reminder that in the D-League, careers and lives and fortunes can turn on a dime — everybody is as close to being out of basketball as they are to the NBA. A few weeks after I left the Valley, the team cut Lathan, who never managed to work his way into the rotation. A few days after that, the Rockets signed Daniels to a two-year NBA contract (though the second year isn’t guaranteed). The team is keeping him assigned to RGV for now, but for Daniels, it means a hefty raise and that his financial bet on staying in America paid off.
As for Smith, he knows that the last two Vipers coaches made it to NBA benches after just two years on the job. Finch is an assistant to Kevin McHale with the Rockets and Morey says Nurse would have been promoted to Houston if the Toronto job hadn’t opened up first. Morey muses that Smith “probably thought, I’m in Division III my whole life.” But the Rockets GM says he sees Smith on a similar trajectory as previous Vipers coaches. “Obviously it’s a big step,” Morey says. “There’s a lot of difference between the NBA and the minor leagues, but he definitely has that potential.”
Back when he was hanging by the sideline with Mokeski after that shootaround, Smith had lit up at the thought of plugging NBA talent into his system. “If you had a Lillard, a Curry,” he’d said, trailing off for a moment before adding: “I would just love to see Curry and Lillard.”
Hey, everybody in the D-League has a dream. Nevada Smith’s might not be as crazy as you think.