Why Houston’s Small-Ball Gamble is Paying Off

Why Houston’s Small-Ball Gamble is Paying Off
Tue 10th March 2020

When the Houston Rockets traded away Clint Capela for Robert Covington before the February trade deadline and wholly committed to going “small-ball” for the remainder of the season, it’s fair to say most of the NBA world had a couple of questions about the viability of the strategy.

How would they be able to snare enough rebounds to remain competitive? Could they effectively guard Western Conference bigs like Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert? How would their offensive set-up cope with a tallest player who barely scrapes 6-foot-7?

While it’s difficult to make any sweeping assessments after only seeing four full weeks of data, the Rockets have answered all of the doubters in emphatic fashion.

Since losing Capela to injury shortly before he was traded, the Rockets have gone 10-5, gaining valuable ground on the Western Conference’s premier teams and knocking off a handful of genuine contenders in the process.

Most importantly, they’ve found a way to unlock the hitherto-sub-par Russell Westbrook. The addition of Westbrook in this year’s offseason was a baffling one, and for the first two thirds of this season it appeared Daryl Morey had made a hideous mistake trying to pair two of the most high-volume players in NBA history in the same backcourt. Westbrook shot a dismal – historically dismal – 25.3% on long balls prior to the All-Star break, and teams desperately searching for a way to slow down Mike D’Antoni’s offense soon realized the secret was merely to sag off Westbrook and dare him to shoot, while forcing the ball out of James Harden’s hands.

Without Capela clogging the paint during Houston’s offensive half-court sets, everything about the Rockets – but particularly everything about Westbrook – has changed.

Westbrook has found any number of downhill seams with which to pry open opposing defenses. Since the start of February he’s averaged 32.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game, with the wide expanses of the Houston lane seeming to unlock a version of Westbrook we haven’t seen since the prime OKC days.

The major difference in the way the Rockets operate is that Westbrook – a historically horrendous outside shooter – is no longer taking one of the most inefficient statistical shots in basketball. In November, Westbrook took nearly six threes per game, despite hitting less than 22% of them. In December, 4.4 at 23%. In January, just over two at 25%.

Since the first of February, Westbrook is shooting just 2.7 threes per game. More importantly, though, he’s hitting 37% of his long balls and going at an elite 53% overall from the floor. 

The unlocking of Westbrook’s full potential – understandably – has a significant flow-on effect to the rest of the roster. While Capela was a lob threat in the half-court, he was not a ball-handler and he certainly could not shoot the long ball. His presence in the post allowed teams with competent paint-defenders to shut him down, and with Capela neutralized opposing teams were free to focus all their attention on quelling shooters on the perimeter.

With Covington and P.J. Tucker ostensibly filling the role of Capela, everyone on the floor in any given offensive possession is a capable outside threat. The spacing that provides the Rockets is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and it’s resulted in an offensive rating of 116.6 over the last month.

The whole point of the Capela trade was to help with Houston’s offense, so in a sense it’s no surprise that their infamous propensity for three-point shooting has only been heightened over the last month. However, what no one expected was that the Rockets’ defense would be able to remain steadfast without a genuine tall in the paint.

Despite their lack of height, the Houston roster is stacked with stocky, oversized forwards. Tucker, Harden and Covington are all strong in the upper body – allowing them to switch on to opposing bigs – but also nimble enough to make things difficult on opposing guards when stuck out on the perimeter.

Since the Capela trade, the Rockets rank ninth in defensive rating (109.8) and have put up a string of quality defensive performances, including holding Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown to a combined 27-72 from the floor in an overtime win in Boston. Despite being consistently undersized, Covington is averaging nearly 9 rebounds per game, while Tucker has had a number of impressive rebounding nights, including 13 against the Celtics.

While Westbrook is pulling headlines – and rightly so – it’s Covington and Tucker which make up the fulcrum of this Rocket run. The 6-foot-7, 211-pound Covington is no center in the traditional sense, but his 7-foot-1 wingspan and 36-inch vertical are more than enough to deal with all but the likes of Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid. Consequently, he averages 2.5 blocks per game since arriving in Houston.

The thing is, all of this shouldn’t have been unexpected. The Rockets were 10-1 in games this season that Capela had missed due to injury.

While the problems with this strategy are pronounced – in all of their losses so far the Rockets have been utterly dominated in the rebounding department – the positives (for now at least) are far outweighing the negative.

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