Houston, we have a (small-ball) problem

On February 4 this year, the Houston Rockets sent starting center Clint Capela, alongside Nene, to the Atlanta Hawks, as well as their 2020 first-round pick, and Gerald Green to the Denver Nuggets as part of a four-team trade earlier this year. In return, Houston received Robert Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves.


After the trade, Houston only appeared in fourteen more games, leading up to the season suspension, meaning we are only subject to a rather minimal sample size of game tape. It’s way too soon to draw strong opinions as to whether or not Houston’s new lineup is successful or not, however, there are things we may pick up on--things that may serve as indications of the Rockets’ power.

There were mixed emotions upon this move as many applauded Houston’s choice while others criticized and questioned their thought process. However, all bias aside, here I will take an in-depth dive into this new team on both sides of the ball; I hope to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of this revolutionary style of play and break down this new roster on a deeper scale.


Offense


At the time of this trade, some were skeptical as to what Daryl Morey--GM of the Houston Rockets--was doing as his team was left with only two real centers: Isaiah Hartenstein and Tyson Chandler, both of whom were averaging less than five points per game on less than fifteen minutes per game. Houston’s trade forced them into sacrificing a lot of their size for an increase in shooting as they acquired Robert Covington who has shot at least 35% from three-pointers for the last three years.


Houston seemed to have taken the idea of “small-ball” to the extreme now that their new starting center became 6’ 5 PJ Tucker. It seemed like Houston wanted to embrace a new team culture that revolved around lineups of five-out and elite spacing for an inside--beneficial for an inside force like Russell Westbrook. The new Houston starting five--Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Danuel House, Robert Covington, and PJ Tucker--now consisted of strong three-point shooters who can all hit on high volume. All of these starters, but Westbrook, are shooting at least 35% from three on at least 4 attempts a game this year.


From even just the eye test, offensively, this lineup looks like it will be successful down the line. Their offense beforehand had already been revolving around the iso-heavy James Harden. However, after the trade, in the small collection of games in which this small-ball Rockets team has played, Harden further elevates his team on the offensive side through his interior attacks and isolations that primarily equate in an easier shot due to a thinly spread defense, or a kick-out to an open shooter if the defense chooses to collapse and trap.



You look at the small-ball Rockets on offense and you notice how every player begins the possession somewhere along the perimeter. Regardless of whether Westbrook or Harden are handing the ball, the presence of just one of these players forces the defense to avert at least some of their attention away from their off-ball assignment towards the Houston star guards. It could be a Harden iso or a Westbrook drive. The other team’s defenders are bound to be led into the same predicament: they can either choose to help off their man to hopefully stop a basket from Harden or Russ, or avoid switching to stay on their defensive assignment. Regardless of what they choose, two results may occur. If the defense rotates and helps, they end up leaving one of four other shooters open who can easily receive a kick-out pass to hit a three. On the other hand, the defense refusing to help on an attack from Russ or Harden means that one of these two great finishers gets to take an easier shot near the rim with little resistance.


We’re already seeing these positive effects on Russell Westbrook, who has further strengthened his presence on the court. Before the trade took place, Russ was averaging a strong 26.3 ppg. However, in the games he played following the trade, Westbrook had elevated his level of play to a dominant 31.7 ppg. There’s a simple explanation for this: as the Rockets incorporate a higher level of shooting on this team, Russ now has more ease upon attacking near the rim as opposing defenses are stretched apart. Now that the offensively-limited Capela is off the team, defenders have a harder time covering slashers without leaving a shooter because everyone can shoot the ball.


The Rockets have a phenomenal offense (115.7 ppg since the trade), don’t get me wrong. However, is there a point where they’re too reliant on shooting three-pointers? All of the games Houston had played after the trade deadline saw them attempting at least 40 threes a game (aside from two other games where they attempted 32 and 38 threes respectively) with a couple of games with 50+ attempts. A very large chunk of Houston’s scoring is along the perimeter, thus meaning that one cold night is bound to lead to a loss. Remember the Game 7 of the WCF two years ago when they missed 27 straight threes to blow what was once a strong halftime lead?


You’d think a cold streak from the arc may force a team to take smarter & closer shots like, say, from the mid-range area. Yet, for Houston, that isn’t the case at all. Under Mike D’Antoni, it’s almost like their philosophy is “inside shots or outside shots and nothing else.” In other words, they will only take shots from either the three or something more modest in the paint. For example, the Rockets this season (going into the suspension) took a total of 357 mid-range shots. To put that into perspective, a team like the LA Clippers took 847 shots from mid-range, and the San Antonio Spurs had taken over 1000 more mid-range shots than Houston.


If the Rockets elect not to rely on the mid-range game, hitting their threes is as important as ever. Not only that but now that Clint Capela is gone, they’re without a dominant big inside, thus stressing how vital it is for Houston to hit their shots. This seems to be the case as their last six losses before the suspension involved them shooting below 36% from three. However, I do give them the benefit of the doubt because a handful of their wins still came through, despite their off-shooting nights. On the other hand, a lot of their wins also came as a result of strong shooting performances of 45% or higher meaning that there is a level of significance in an efficient offense.


Whether or not this offense proves successful in the playoffs, it’s too early to conclude. Nonetheless, pieces from the selection of games we’ve seen so far with this small-ball lineup may help in formulating a belief as to how faithful we are in this revamped team. Offensively, I think it’s safe to say they’re quite formidable. The amount of volume shooters they have is lethal and defenses are inevitably going to be broken down by Houston’s extreme spacing. Thus, the Rockets can deliver a flurry of points in quick succession.


Defense


As we switch to the other end of the court, we’ll take a quick dive into the Rockets’ defense and its effectiveness. As mentioned before, the loss of size in their trade for Robert Covington puts Houston in a position lacking an interior presence--something Capela provided well. With PJ Tucker being their new center, the evident loss was height and size--both are essential to successful rim protection.


Before the trade, the Rockets were averaging a respectable 46.3 rebounds per game. However, this level of rebounding was unable to be maintained through the remainder of their games before the season suspension, as that previous RPG average dipped to a mere 39.9 in Houston’s last 14 games. The same decline can be observed on the offensive glass as well, as Houston was able to secure at least 10 ORPG in the first three full months of the season to then decline to only 7.6 ORPG for the month of February.


A smaller lineup quickly proved to be detrimental to Houston in only their first game after the Robert Covington addition against the LA Lakers even in spite of the victory in Staples Center. Even though they came away with the win, Lakers big man Anthony Davis was able to dominate at ease with 32 points, and 13 rebounds. This wasn’t the only instance of small-ball proving consequential. Several other performances from various players on various teams seemed to have come as a result of Houston's smaller stature being disadvantageous. These are just a handful:


  • (L) Feb. 9 vs Jazz: Rudy Gobert with 15 rebounds (4 of which on the offensive glass)

  • (L) Mar. 5 vs Clippers: Ivica Zubac with 17 points & 12 rebounds in only 20 minutes

  • (L) Mar. 5 vs Clippers: Montrezl Harrell with 19 points & 12 rebounds off the bench

  • (L) Mar. 7 vs Hornets: Willy Hernangomez with 11 rebounds (4 offensive) off the bench in a little less than 18 minutes

  • (L) Mar. 8 vs Magic: Nikola Vucevic & Aaron Gordon combining for 26 rebounds (8 offensive)


I understand that these performances are not directly correlated with the Rockets’ decrease in size, though they can be seen as indicators of weaknesses in the Houston defense, particularly inside against other bigs. It’s clear from not only the stat sheet but also from game tape that opposing big men have much less difficulty in the paint and near the rim, as well as on the glass. Getting inside for simpler shots come more regularly against Houston now that they play without a prominent shot-blocker.



From the eye test, we may also notice how the Rockets' opponents grab offensive boards at a higher frequency. Offensive rebounds equal to more shots, which in turn lead to more points, which is not something that will bode well for Houston as they look to compete for a title.


Moving on, from looking at a few games and the tape, one thing that I’ve noticed quite often is how repeatedly and easily the Rockets’ defense is broken down; the Rockets aren’t stacked with versatile lockdown defenders. Though I will acknowledge Robert Covington whose agreeably the team’s best defender, however, outside of him, who else is going to be able to trouble the other superstars of the league, such as the likes of Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo? James Harden is respectable, especially off-ball, but do you really trust him to guard the other team’s best perimeter player? Betting on him to get a stop one-on-one is no doubt a ballsy thing to do. As for Russell Westbrook, he’s capable of pestering opponents, though his versatility does leave questions. His one-on-one defense is respectable, but he is not one to be able to switch efficiently or avoid fouls (career-high 3.5 fouls per game).


Players like PJ Tucker or Danuel House aren’t atrocious defensively, but at the same time, they aren’t elite. As a result, this team--who actually ranks in the bottom half in defensive rating--goes through many stretches of defensive lapses. It appears that the Rockets choose to run a 2-3 zone as their favored choice of defense. While it's effective, if run properly, these zones aren't the best because if the opposing players move the ball the right way, one miscommunication from the Rockets may leave a player open. It doesn't help at all that Houston lacks elite defenders--something that is pivotal in carrying out successful zones. Because of this deficiency, once the opponent starts moving the ball, Houston is forced into a kind of scramble that the opposition can easily counter with ball movement until an ideal shot opportunity is found.


This issue was something we can detect at a scarily high rate in some of the Rockets' games after the trade deadline. For instance, this kind of defense was way too easy to expose in the Rockets’ game against the Hornets on March 7. The game--a loss for Houston by a final of 99-108--began with a whopping 20-0 run for Charlotte. Yes, the worst scoring team in the league started their game against the Houston Rockets on a 20-0 run. Why was Charlotte able to score as impressively as they did? Much of it came from what was mentioned before: simple ball movement to break down the Rockets’ weak zone.


Many of the Hornets’ possessions involved high IQ ball movement that kept the Rockets in a scramble until Charlotte found an open man. One mistake from Houston causes the necessity of a double, and because of their absence of elite defender, Houston finds themselves in an unfortunate scramble. I admit--it's one game. However, these kind problems are prevalent in several other games (many of which happened to be losses for the Rockets).


All in all, Houston has convinced me with their scoring. They are capable of putting up points at an elite clip and is equipped with deadly shooters. It’s safe to say that this James Harden and Russell Westbrook-led offense can get buckets against virtually any team. However, it’s the other end of the court that worries me. What good is strong scoring if you’re going to render it useless by allowing practically the same amount with sloppy defense? What they have going on has shown many signs of success, yet just as many worries as inconsistency with their defense is something they have yet to display. These issues are not something to look past, and how they go about confronting these concerns will prove crucial to how far they go in the postseason.

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