Houston Rockets small-ball experiment may already be flaming out

The Houston Rockets went all-in on small-ball, but major issues are presenting themselves. Are they flaming out on this experiment already?

The Houston Rockets underwent a revolutionary transformation at the trade deadline, pivoting into an all-encompassing small-ball rotation when they traded Clint Capela for Robert Covington in a four-team deal. With nobody over the height of 6’8″ getting regular minutes and a de facto center (P.J. Tucker) who stands at a stout 6’5″, the  Rockets have made their decision and there is truly no going back.

The Rockets are getting throttled on the boards since their transition, ranked 29th in rebounding percentage at 45.9 percent. They’re dead last in defensive rebounding percentage at 68.2 percent and fifth-worst in offensive rebounding at 23.7 percent.

They’re just 7-6 in this 13-game stretch, their offensive rating is 112.7 (12th in the NBA) and their defensive rating is 111.4 (15th in the NBA). The Rockets stole a nice win from the Los Angeles Lakers early in this run, but bad losses have been piling up both with and without Russell Westbrook in the lineup.

James Harden‘s production has dropped off a cliff in the last five games. He’s shooting just 31.7 percent from the floor, 20.3 percent from 3-point range and had a true quadruple-double on Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets with 30 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds and 10 turnovers.

Harden’s shooting helps explain their recent four-game losing streak, but the fundamental glaring flaws in their new strategy go deeper. In particular, the two teams they absolutely must get past in the Western Conference, the Lakers and the LA Clippers, almost seem too well-positioned to exploit the Houston Rockets at their game.

Both teams are in the top five defensively, with the Lakers allowing just 105.5 points per 100 possessions and the Clippers allowing just 106.6. The Lakers and Clippers are both in the top 10 in offensive rebounding and just outside the top 10 in defensive rebounding. The Clippers are the fifth-best overall rebounding team and the Lakers are the eighth-best.

The Rockets are in the unenviable position where not only do they have a skill deficit against both teams, but their strategy plays right into the hands of two excellent rebounding, sturdy defending teams with perhaps a combined four of the top 10 players in the NBA in LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

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Perhaps the worst thing is that there is no fallback plan for the Houston Rockets. Just a week ago the New York Knicks outrebounded the Rockets 65-34, and the Knicks, Lakers and Clippers have identical rebounding numbers at 51.4 percent. It’s likely that one of these teams who defend and score better than the Rockets may also ravage them on the boards in a playoff series, and the Rockets will have no way to counter or adjust.

The only players the Rockets have over the height of 6’9″ are the shell of Tyson Chandler, who has played 219 minutes in 26 games this season, and the 21-year-old Isaiah Hartenstein, who is currently languishing in the G-League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Maybe the Rockets will make the decision to bring Hartenstein up simply to have the option to put some size on the floor, or maybe they’ll opt to sink or swim with what they’re already doing.

There’s no escaping the reality of what’s happening to the Rockets lately, and head coach Mike D’Antoni admitted this after Sunday’s loss to the Orlando Magic:

There’s a reason teams don’t run a perpetual small-ball strategy. Playing up a position (or two positions in some cases) is exhausting. Draymond Green and the Golden State Warriors Death Lineup weren’t playing 30 minutes per night, they were playing short stints so opposing teams couldn’t overwhelm them with size and brute strength.

The Rockets are paying the price for playing small, and we’ve only started March. There’s more than a month until the playoffs even start. They are exhausted and battered, their energy is waning and their confidence is shot.

It would be hard for things to get worse, but D’Antoni’s assertion that things will get better is only based on the assumption that this is bad as things can get. In this case, dealing with fatigue, possible injuries, teams who have had the chance to scout and prepare for them, and a plethora of unexpected adversity which could present itself, things really could get even worse from here now that the Houston Rockets have backed themselves into a corner with no way out.

Next: 6 reasons for Russell Westbrook's recent explosion
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