The Houston Rockets went all-in on small-ball, and it’s working well so far. Will rebounding, small-ball’s inherent weakness, come back to haunt them?
Once upon a time, basketball seemed like a simple game. Size and strength around the rim were the key to success and the Shaquille O’Neals of the world were devastating juggernauts. Over time the NBA has evolved, and the 2019-20 Houston Rockets are the newest manifestation of that evolution.
At this past trade deadline, the Rockets went all-in on this stage of basketball’s development, committing themselves fully to small-ball. With no rotational players over the height of 6’8″ and a 6’5″ de facto starting center in P.J. Tucker, the Rockets aren’t just the smallest team in the NBA, they may be the smallest team in the modern history of the league.
There are some clear positives to this style of play. Without a lumbering big to clog the lane, the Rockets can play five-out and maximize floor spacing. Using either Russell Westbrook or James Harden as a fulcrum for their offense, they can play a heliocentric style and surround their focal point with four shooters while whichever star who has the ball happens to be one of the most devastating offensive forces in the NBA.
You can’t do any of that with a center, outside of a handful of highly-skilled candidates. And none of those are anywhere close to available.
This has done wonders for the Houston Rockets’ offense. Since their experiment entered its final phase, trading for Robert Covington at the deadline, they have an impressive offensive rating of 115.5. That’s fourth in the league over this 10-game span and for comparison, the Dallas Mavericks have the best offensive rating in the NBA this season at 115.9.
They’re shooting at a blistering rate with an effective field goal percentage of 56.5 percent (placing them fifth) and a true shooting percentage of 60.3 (placing them third).
From a record perspective, they’re 7-3, a tick better than the winning percentage of 65 percent their 39-21 record so far this season yields.
We’ll take a look at the key components of this small-ball approach.