The Houston Rockets are betting on themselves with a risky approach

HOUSTON, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 09: Robert Covington #33 (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 09: Robert Covington #33 (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

The Houston Rockets have embraced the evolution of small-ball basketball with their new roster and rotations after the trade deadline.

Before the trade deadline passed, the Houston Rockets shipped out their starting center Clint Capela in order to acquire their long-time target and 3-and-D wing Robert Covington. This transaction sparked the beginning of a new era in Houston: The evolution of small-ball basketball.

The Rockets currently have no player taller than 6’7″ in their rotation.

The small-ball philosophy has raised questions of whether this system would work in this age of the NBA. The Houston Rockets organization seem to have fully implemented it into their system and identity.

Head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey are committed to the small-ball philosophy, and they believe it gives them the best chance of winning. The lineups that the Rockets use when playing small-ball give them an advantage offensively on the perimeter, but a disadvantage with interior defense in the restricted area.

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Offensively, small-ball properly fits the Houston Rockets since they are known for launching 3s. It’s simply who they are with so many 3-point threats available. They will have all five players on the court behind the 3-point line at times when they’re on offense and force their opponents to open up more interior space. This is where the Rockets can beat you in so many different ways.

You could have James Harden, arguably the best offensive weapon in the league right now, hit you with a step-back 3 in isolation or drive to the basket, force another defender to rotate, then kick out to one of his teammates behind the 3-point line for an open shot.

Since the Rockets are playing small-ball, teams shouldn’t double-team him or else another efficient 3-point shooter is going to be left open beyond the arc. Harden is heading into the All-Star break averaging 35.3 points, 7.3 assists, 6.5 rebounds, and shooting 35.8 percent on 3s. He is one of the most difficult players to guard and is certainly the focal point of Houston’s offense.

In addition, the explosiveness of Russell Westbrook makes the offense so much easier for the Rockets, and his skillset can be a nightmare for defenses as well. Westbrook has struggled from 3-point range this season, shooting just 23.8 percent, his worst since the 2009-10 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

However, that area of the court is not where he thrives most. My favorite aspect of Westbrook is his ability to facilitate and create for others.

In the video above, Westbrook penetrates toward the basket while attracting Hassan Whiteside of the Portland Trail Blazers toward the paint, then dishes out to P.J. Tucker (36.4 percent from 3) for the open 3 in the corner. Whiteside’s main role is to protect the paint, so he doesn’t prefer defending on the perimeter and it certainly isn’t one of his strengths.

In this case, Westbrook acknowledges that and uses his explosiveness to beat his man and force Whiteside to rotate over. Dishing out to Tucker wide open in the corner instead of Capela is a significant upgrade.

Utilizing the small-ball philosophy allows better spacing for Westbrook to create more for his teammates on the floor, who are all threats as 3-point shooters. The same concept relates to Harden. Two superstars surrounded by 3-point threats at all times is tough to defend.

The Rockets had issues with their spacing on offense when Capela was on the floor since he was not a 3-point threat. Covington has excelled in his role so far playing alongside Harden and Westbrook as a valuable floor spacer and 34.6 percent 3-point shooter this season.

Notice how when Westbrook drives and forces the defense to lean toward the basket, all four of his teammates are behind the 3-point line waiting to let it fly. Covington perfectly fits Houston’s offensive schemes with his ability to execute on 3s and space the floor, unlike Capela.

Although Capela was a liability on offense, the absence of the big man causes an issue defensively. Capela did an outstanding job protecting the paint in his time with Houston this season averaging 1.8 blocks per game, but now he’s gone.

As a result, opposing teams take advantage of the Rockets by scoring in the paint. The biggest weakness for Houston is interior defense. The 6’5″ P.J. Tucker is their current center, and the Rockets are willing to take on the risk of Tucker battling 7-foot centers in the West such as Hassan Whiteside, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, and Kristaps Porzingis if it means having better success on offense.

Sometimes the risk of small-ball will pay off, and sometimes it will backfire on the Rockets. They are betting on themselves to make their shots each night. Opposing teams will regularly get their share of points and likely outscore them in the paint, so Houston will have to win games by shooting to their potential and connecting on their 3-point attempts. Take the games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns for example.

The Rockets debuted their small-ball lineup in Los Angeles against the Lakers on Feb. 6, and the addition of Robert Covington with Houston flourished right away. They got outscored by 22 points in the paint, but shot 19-of-42 from 3-point range compared to 9-of-31 from the Lakers. As a result, they won 121-111.

Despite their impressive win in Los Angeles, it was a different story against the Phoenix Suns on the night of Feb. 7. Houston got outscored by 14 points in the paint, and only converted 11-of-48 3-point attempts while Phoenix drained 15-of-31 from beyond the arc. They only shot 34.1 percent from the field compared to 55.8 percent from the Suns, which contributed to a 127-91 blowout loss.

There will be inconsistency while playing small-ball in the NBA. The Rockets could beat anybody, but they could also lose to anybody while implementing this system. They risk being outscored in the paint each night, but their wins will mostly depend on making more of their outside shots, especially from 3-point range. That’s a chance they’re willing to take.

Houston is now built for playing small-ball, and they are betting on their own shooting each night in order to succeed for at least the rest of this season. It’s a high-risk they’re taking, but the Houston Rockets assembled this roster for a reason and are prepared to let it fly!

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