The Houston Rockets made a very controversial trade deadline move this season, dealing their starting center and eliminating their roster of any true big men. That move flew in the face of conventional wisdom on how you win basketball games, but for the Rockets it was a very logical move, comparable to when Billy Bean trades away the starting 1st baseman in “Moneyball.” Naturally the old guard of NBA commentators attacked the move and many went back to the “this stuff doesn’t work in the playoffs” argument as a criticism of Houston’s decision.
Clint Capela is a 6-10, 240 pound center who’s averaging roughly 14 points and 14 rebounds per game. In exchange for dealing Capela and a draft pick, they received back coveted 6-7, 211 pound wing Robert Covington, who’s averaging about 13 points and six rebounds per game. For many people, that just doesn’t make any sense.
By all accounts Houston may buyout a center before the end of the year but their starting five now includes:
PJ Tucker: 6-4, 245.
Robert Covington: 6-7, 211.
Eric Gordon: 6-3, 215.
James Harden: 6-5, 220.
Russell Westbrook: 6-3, 200.
This is far and away the smallest starting five in the NBA. The main players off the bench are Ben McLemore (6-3, 195), Austin Rivers (6-3, 200), and Danuel House (6-6, 220) so there’s not much size coming from there either. It’s widely assumed that Houston will add a buyout center before the end of the season but in all likelihood he’ll just be a situational player and this main group will be the starting five in the playoffs.
Here’s the main key to this group:
Everything comes down to this.
The Russell Westbrook strategy
The reason that Westbrook made any sense for Houston as an addition to their team was what he might be capable of doing on a spread floor of the sort that James Harden enjoyed. The Oklahoma City Thunder always put a bunch of big, athletic defenders with virtually no shooting ability around Westbrook and asked him to use his otherworldly athleticism to make it work on offense.
The upshot of that approach was that playoff opponents could always mitigate the most frightening dimension of OKC, Westbrook’s manic energy and ability to drive to the rim. “First round Russ” once “freed” of teammate Kevin Durant proceeded to lead his team to first round playoff exits for three consecutive seasons before this trade was made. The final one was particularly fitting as they were knocked out by Dame Lillard launching a game-winning three from just past half court.
For the Houston Rockets, who were realizing that their ceiling with aging and declining Chris Paul (who was also making the max and struggling to get along with James Harden) was perhaps below “NBA Champions” the gambit was to see what Westbrook could do if truly unleashed. What if Westbrook was surrounded by shooters that had to be covered at the perimeter? Could anyone then manage his ability to attack the rim?
The problem? Clint Capela.
Westbrook is a notoriously bad shooter, one of the big flaws in his game has always been the habit he developed at OKC while surrounded by non-shooters. Russ loved to pull up and take multiple long twos or threes per game that he never hit at a high rate. When Russ was sharing the floor with Capela, that meant the small ball Rockets now had two non-shooters on the floor together. It was as though they were playing an old school power forward in Russ along with a rim-running five in Capela, which negated their spacing advantages.
The essence of strategy
As I explain in “Flyover Football…”
“The essence of strategy is to play to your strengths while trying to force your opponent to come to grips with their weaknesses.”-Ian Boyd in Flyover Football
…for the Rockets to keep Capela on their roster and in their rotation would be to only half-heartedly attempt the proper Westbrook strategy. The only way that the Rockets can win the Championship is if their playoff series all come down to contests in which the other team has to deal with Harden and Westbrook operating in maximum space while surrounded by shooting. Without getting the absolute best from Harden and Westbrook, the Rockets spread-iso strategy in which those two have high usage rates in space cannot be optimized.
Now that Capela is replaced by Covington in the rotation, the Rockets can always play with four shooters thanks to PJ Tucker’s shooting ability and Draymond Green-esque ability to body up bigger players in the post and hold his ground.
The challenge everyone is raising for the Rockets is whether Tucker and all of their small ball wings can hold up over the course of a series when the other team is pounding them with post-ups and bigger bodies. The challenge the Rockets are creating for everyone else is whether they can keep up on the scoreboard trying to pound the ball in against stouter guys like Tucker or Harden while the Rockets are racing up and down the court and jacking as many three-pointers as possible.
Since the Rockets stopped playing Capela (which took place before they added Covington), they’ve gone 5-2. Westbrook has played in five of those games and in those the Rockets went 4-1 while Russ shot 51% and averaged 34 ppg. He’s taken only 11 threes in that time (and made only three), focusing instead on attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line. In some sense, Westbrook is now the starting center for the Rockets.
Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook operating in space with one constantly on the floor and surrounded by necessary shooting beat every team in the NBA in a seven game series? I don’t know, but the only way that Houston was going to make it work was to lean in hard enough with their roster choices to make that the reality on the floor.
In a sense, that’s the choice that LSU made this past season when they embraced the college football equivalent of “small ball.” The Tigers had a smaller, speedy RB and a bunch of pass-catching TEs that aren’t great blockers inside and then several really good wide receivers. So what they’d do? They leaned in hard and would flex the TE and RB out into pass patterns, trusting savvy Joe Burrow to get the ball out when teams blitzed while forcing opponents to come to grips with how they’d match up against five-wide sets with guys like J’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson running downfield.
Lessons for college football
People always get caught up in whether this or that strategy can mimic what’s worked in the past. “Can the Rockets keep up with teams that still have big men on the floor? How will you stop the run with dime personnel? Winning teams win in the trenches with a power run game.”
Those are the sorts of comments you regularly hear applied when a team pushes the envelope with a new strategy. None of that matters, what matters is who can set the terms of the engagement? Can an opposing team dictate the game by trying to slow down the pace and pound the ball in the post? Or will the Rockets control the tempo by jacking a million threes and running those big men off the floor by making them find and chase faster athletes on the perimeter?
The real imposition of will isn’t whether a team can back down Harden in the post but whether they can make that the decisive action of the game.
My guess is that the Rockets’ path will hinge on who they have to play. I don’t think anyone other than one of the LA teams, or maybe a red hot Dallas Mavericks, can beat their small ball. For the Lakers the calculation will be whether or not the Rockets get taken apart by a hypothetical “small ball” lineup that puts 6-8, 260 pound LeBron James at PF and 6-10, 250 pound Anthony Davis at center. James and Davis are great athletes that you can’t run off the floor.
Similarly the Clippers can play three or four guys at a time that go 6-7, 235 or so in Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, and Montrezl Harrell. They are similarly hard to run off the floor because all of those guys are athletes that can hang on the perimeter. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will have to show that their firepower in space is actually, truly better than the two-way play of those bigger and still athletic players on the LA teams.
Similarly for our space-force dominated future in football, the teams that will ultimately come out ahead are the ones that have the best guys in space. The teams that can find the LB that can run with slots and TEs, the team that can field dual-threat RBs and TEs that can run routes as well or better than they perform traditional RB/TE tasks, the teams with ace cornerbacks and savvy safeties.
More and more teams in football are going to follow the NBA model and determine to see the game settled in space. Then it’s a matter of who has the strongest space-force.