Houston Rockets: Why the extremely small ball experiment will work

NBA Houston Rockets PJ Tucker (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
NBA Houston Rockets PJ Tucker (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

 The Houston Rockets are experimenting with an extremely small ball playstyle. Could it be the next big trend in the NBA

If you didn’t watch Thursday night’s headlining NBA matchup, the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers, you missed an absolute experience. It felt at times like a moment in history for the sport itself. The technics of basketball may be in the midst of a revolution. The old-school dominance of the Lakers’ superstar duo met head-on with our first taste of Mike D’Antoni‘s antithetical blasphemy.

The Rockets’ starting lineup featured five players between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6. The Lakers starters: 6-foot-3, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10, and 7-foot. Naturally, the Rockets won by double digits. And the rebounding battle was 38-37 (Lakers edge).

When the Rockets traded Clint Capela for Robert Covington (basically, they also acquired Bruno Caboclo and lost the injured duo of Gerald Green and Nene), the entire basketball world was incredulous.

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Capela is fourth in the NBA in rebounding, and the only center the Rockets could rely on for any sort of heavy – or even bantam – lifting. How would P.J. Tucker, age 35 and all of 6-foot-5, hold up for 35 minutes a night at the five? The Rockets’ conference features Anthony Davis and LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, and Rudy Gobert, just to name a few very large forces in current playoff spots. They would surely get eaten alive.

Until they didn’t. It was only one game, and there will be many more against many different opponents, but the Rockets win last night, in their first game so assembled, on the road against the West’s best team, was not a fluke. They played beautifully within what coach D’Antoni has dreamt and frustrated the hell out of the Lake Show. They are just constructed to play this way.

To get into why that is and how they won, let’s nail down some basics. The Rockets are obviously led by James Harden and Russell Westbrook. On offense, the third cog is guard and prolific scorer Eric Gordon, who had 50 in a game that the two former MVPs both sat last week.

On defense, they’re led by P.J. Tucker, the do-it-all man who has always played above his size as well as anyone in the Association. He also has led the league in shooting percentage on corner 3’s. Houston supplemented both sides of the ball with Robert Covington from the Timberwolves, the exemplary 3-and-D man. At 6-foot-9, Covington is the exact same height as Clint Capela. The similarities end there.

The rest of their rotation is a lot more of the same: ball handler Austin Rivers, versatile 6-foot-6 forward Danuel House, and athletic shooting guard Ben McLemore. Thabo Sefolosha plays spot minutes as a defensive specialist wing, and if they need true center minutes, they have 37-year-old former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler and 49 career games played Isaiah Hartenstein. Chandler and Hartenstein both logged DNP-CDs against the Lakers.

On-court, it starts at the top. Westbrook is second amongst guards in rebounding, and Harden is tied for fourth. They are easily the two smallest guards on that list. A lot of people discount their high rebounding numbers as stat hunting and love of triple-doubles. It’s more than that.

When your primary ball-handler gets the rebound, it allows four players to instantly push up the floor and fill lanes. It gets your team into the offense quicker and lets your team control the pace.

When you have two incredibly gifted passers and drivers like Russ and Harden, the size on offense doesn’t matter as much. Especially the way the Rockets play. Capela being gone gives two of just five players in NBA history (!!) with career scoring and assist titles extra space, and an extra shooter to operate with/pass to. Capela will no longer be clogging the lane and sucking his defender, a true big, near the rim to make finishing harder on Westbrook or Harden. They will get more and easier layups, or they will attract help and have 3-4 lethal shooters to dish to. Then, those guys are capable of handling the ball and passing to expose the helper and attack soft spots in the defense.

This is part of what D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey are betting on: Capela’s absence on defense can be worth the still extra gear on offense. Increasing the prominence of James Harden and Russell Westbrook in your offensive scheme is never a bad idea. They have the pedigree and usage history to be able to hold up, and since they play overlapping positions a little bit, they don’t need one another on the floor to be successful. This means the Rockets will have at worst one MVP, scoring champion, and assist champion on the floor, operating with four capable shooters/scorers.

Additionally, to simply cut the defense up as certainly worse without Capela is an over-simplification. “Switch everything” has been a vogue phrase surrounding basketball since the Cavs and Warriors started dueling, but this team is going to take that to an absolutely unprecedented level. Harden, Tucker, House, and now Robert Covington can defend admirably above their size/position. Russ can be a gambling/turnover pest.

To harp on newly-acquired Robert Covington quickly, it is important to point out what he does well defensively. He is not a Kawhi Leonard or Tony Allen lockdown defender at the point of attack. He is very good at that too, but that isn’t his main impact. He is feisty and incredibly intelligent. He knows exactly when to gamble and how to help. He will fill exactly – and possibly better – the gape that Trevor Ariza left after the 2017-18 season. You may remember that the team pushed the Kevin Durant Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals and could have won if it weren’t for an injury to Chris Paul.

There was a critical play last night where Anthony Davis was backing down Tucker into open space in the paint. Covington recognized that he was in-between his man (LeBron) at the top of the key and the ball in such a way that he could recover if Davis dished. So he goes right where Davis is holding the ball and ends up cleanly swatting it away as he goes up for the shot. In a 2-point game with three minutes left, this can be the difference.

He is also 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. While he’s nowhere near Capela’s heft (same height but 30 pounds lighter and shorter arms), the Rockets won’t be totally bereft of size with him on the floor. And that’s how they’ll attack the frequent post-ups they see in a lot of cases, is with surprising lower-body strength like Tucker and Harden have and collapsing rotations.

I don’t know if this defense is certainly better; centers influence defenses more than any other position because of their rim protection. Rudy Gobert saves his team more points than Kawhi Leonard, even though Kawhi can guard better one-on-one. Gobert just impacts the other team’s offense more often.

Chandler and Hartenstein not checking into the game mean Convington was the tallest player the Rockets gave run and the only one that was above 6-foot-6. It’s just a 48-minute sample size, but they appear to be rolling with the zero rim protection plan. This has never been done, and I’m not going to pretend to know how it will play out over the entire season or in a playoff series. Teams will attack it in myriad different ways.

That said, the timing of this whole experiment is no accident, and honestly ingenious. The Rockets have started an analytics wave that has swept the entire sport. Teams shoot more 3’s than ever. The 30th team in the league, Indiana, attempts 27.7 3’s per game. That would have been the most in the NBA just six years ago.

The Rockets without Capela are going to be one of the best perimeter (3-point) defending teams in the league. The Rockets without Capela are going to be the best 3-point shooting team in the league. They will also probably be the worst big man defending team in the league, and potentially equipped to be the worst ever.

Bigs do not post or dominate the offense anymore. Far from it. The Rockets are going to play a lot of bigs who aren’t very inside-talented off of the floor. They’ll be a liability on defense every time down because the five-out offense will pull them to an uncomfortable position on the perimeter. On offense, since post-ups just straight up aren’t efficient plays compared to other options, the added size advantages won’t be worth it a lot of the time math-wise. Less rim protection from Houston’s opponents is going to couple with Harden and Westbrook’s world-class finishing/dishing abilities to make attacking the rim even more efficient at the other end.

Even still, rebounding is going to be hard. This team is ridiculously and incomparably small. League-tops rebounding teams basically always make noise in the playoffs. But there are outliers. Golden State’s three recent rings: 13th, 9th, and 21st in rebounding. Toronto last year was 22nd. When Oklahoma City was making runs every year, they consistently led the league. The Bucks have been first place in the last two seasons. Houston will fall from being 8th right now, and could conceivably lose the rebounding battle every game this season, but it comes at a cost to opponents.

The Rocket’s five-out offense is the highest risk in this department. Teams are going to be tempted to crash the offensive glass as they have never even dreamt before. They’ll get a lot of them, but not a suddenly disproportionate amount. The Lakers only had 11 second-chance points on Thursday night. That’s low. But you just can’t control how the ball careens off the rim; the defense plainly will always have the advantage on a random rebound because they’re closer to the rim and in front of the offense.

Because of the personnel, they’re running, the Rockets’ rebounder will be someone who can push the floor. They already are second in the NBA in pace. Crashing the glass too hard against them and failing will get punished. The Rockets are then going to have numbers, top-tier spacing, and top-tier shooting. More often than not, the ball will be in Harden or Westbrook’s hands straight off the rim. They orchestrate breaks peerlessly. For this reason, teams aren’t going to totally sell-out to embarrass them on the glass; there are too many other things at play.

This isn’t to say that the Rockets personnel is never going to get exposed. A lot of teams are just really big and really talented. Anthony Davis and LeBron James are two perfect examples of this. The Clippers as a whole matchup really well. Denver having Nikola Jokic as their offense’s focal point could give them fits too. Luka Doncic is a transcendent talent and the only guard averaging more rebounds than Russ.

The Mavericks play very similarly to the Rockets already. Personnel-wise, they’re the most similar team to Houston, and Kristaps Porzingis could prove unanswerable. Over a seven-game series, it’s just impossible to project this style because we’ve never seen it.

One thing we do know is that this team coming together at the trade deadline is kind of perfect. They do not play Denver or Oklahoma City again this season, meaning those teams’ first taste of this style would be in Game 1 of a potential playoff series. They only play the Clippers and Lakers one more time. The other three current playoff teams see the Rockets twice each. In total, there are only 31 games left.

Given that small amount, and without very many repeats, it will be hard for a team to figure out matching up with them and attacking them. They’ll be figured out on the fly, probably slower than they will figure themselves out and optimize their performance in this mold.

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Whether you like the Rockets or not, what they are trying to do is absolutely fascinating. I was glued to my TV from tip on Thursday night. The thing about this brand-new play style is that it isn’t gimmicky, it’s novel. If I had to compare it to something, I would say, “this isn’t the wildcat coming to the NFL, it’s the spread offense.”