NBA

Is The Rockets’ Small Ball Sustainable?

*All stats are from stats.nba.com unless noted otherwise 

The Houston Rockets once again have pushed the small-ball trend in the NBA to a new level this season. After trading Clint Capela for essentially Robert Covington, they’ve fully invested into their playstyle and have sacrificed rim protection for pace and spacing. The question is, how can a team with their tallest player coming in at 6’8 compete in the playoffs?

According to the numbers, it was the right move.

The analytics-driven Rockets saw their defensive and rebounding numbers were average to poor with Capela on the floor. Before the Capela trade, they were 15th in defensive rating, 22nd in defensive rebounding percentage, and 25th in opponents second chance points per game. Their offensive rating was excellent overall, coming in at third in the NBA. However, they took a drop when Capela was on the floor from 115.8 to 110.0, which would put them 13th in the NBA, according to Bballbreakdown.

Numbers-wise, it was the correct move to trade Capela. However, the Rockets have become more of a one-dimensional team than before. They completely rely on the three-pointer falling and Harden and Westbrook creating off the dribble. The NBA has seen the Rockets shoot abysmal from three resulting in some ugly games, such as the 2018 playoffs western conference finals where they missed an astounding 27 threes in a row.

More spacing

One of the hopes the Rockets’ had in making the trade is that they will be able to run bigs off the court and make teams go small.

Removing Capela may have forced slow Enes Kanter to the bench. Still, it hasn’t completely eliminated athletic bigs who can stay with the Rockets’ perimeter players and punish them on the glass.

Elite teams on the west that played the Rockets after the Capela trade were able to keep their big men on the court. Anthony Davis played 40 minutes, Rudy Gobert played 37 minutes, and Montrez Harrell played 33 minutes. All of them put up good numbers against the Rockets.

While the spacing allows Westbrook to get into the lane and finish at a way better clip, he is going to have to sustain these percentages for the Rockets to get into their offense. If he isn’t consistently finishing and falls back into the uncontrolled, tunnel vision drives that have plagued him in recent years, the Rockets will be in trouble. Bigs can stay in games and punish the Rockets on the other end, and the Rockets won’t create three-point looks.

Westbrook’s lack of shooting keeps good defensive bigs in the game. So what Westbrook is shooting 67% at the rim according to Bballbreakdown, he is shooting almost exclusively twos, which breaks the Rocket’s principle of trading threes for twos. Eventually, teams are going to stick onto shooters and let Westbrook try to score over their center the entire game. On the other end, they are giving up tons of second-chance points and easy shots.

The Rockets are constantly looking for advantages in their offense. The harm of keeping bigs in is that they tend to gravitate middle on drives and in transition, which gives the Rockets the advantage they want. The Rockets then get into their dribble-drive actions and make the defense scramble.

Teams will have time to prepare gameplans and coach up bigs from collapsing. A lot of the time, this scenario where the big gravitates to the middle is in the secondary break, which is way less common in the playoffs than the regular season.

Losing Capela hurts Harden

Harden is the most dangerous threat to the Rockets. His drives are harder to contain than Westbrook since he has a ton of moves to score once going downhill. If you bite on the drive, he can step back for a three, plus he has great vision and is a master in drawing fouls. However, trading Capela eliminated the vertical spacer the Rockets had. In years prior, the Rockets were able to top the NBA in offensive rating with a spaced floor, Harden drives and lobs to Capela. Teams know where Harden is going to pass to now, and they can leave Westbrook to come help on drives.

Teams are already making his job a lot harder. To counter the spacing, teams shrink the floor when Harden catches the ball. This scheme has the wing defenders filling the gaps on Harden’s strong side. This strategy cuts off fast passing lanes and clogs the lanes. At times Harden hasn’t been able to create advantages, and it’s been hard to watch when Austin Rivers ends up with the ball with five seconds on the clock.

The Rockets’ defense is a lot weaker

While their defensive rating hasn’t changed much, their scheme has become easier to break down. Westbrook and Harden can be plus defensive pieces due to their strength, but they carry such a heavy offensive burden it’s difficult to lock in on the defensive end every possession.

Their purely switching defense needs spot-on communication every possession. When one guy isn’t constantly communicating, it leaves the defense susceptible to backdoor cuts or open threes. With more quick-paced NBA sets such as “pistol” and “21,” which consists of dribble handoffs into ball screens or double pin downs, every player involved needs to be quick to react. At times the Rockets can guard well due to their switching, but their effort is inconsistent.

There are two ways to attack switch-heavy defenses: move the ball until there is miscommunication or attack the weak links. Come playoff time, and teams attack the mismatches. Their wing players, Ben McLemore and Daniel House Jr., are often targeted. Both are weak perimeter defenders, as well as in the post.

What made the Rockets’ elite the past couple seasons was their top-five defense. They were able to switch 1-5, but not allow teams to create mismatches since they had long, defensive specialists such as Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute on top of PJ Tucker. When’s team slipped screens, Capela was at the rim to clean up mistakes.

Defending post-ups for the Rockets requires tons of effort and expends a lot of energy for Tucker and Covington. Either one of them will guard the big man, and the rest of the team will rotate to discourage the entry pass.

Their strategy of zoning up behind the big man worked in their first game against the Lakers, but looking deeper into the game; the Lakers were trying to adjust to the zone defense. Yes, their zone stunned the Lakers for a game, but it’s tough to do that throughout a series, especially since the Lakers have likely game planned for it now. Teams need to hit the high post and get into an old-school high low offense. The Rockets’ defense is a lot weaker.

Zones also make their rebounding woes worse. Players can lose track of their man when shots go up, which will make their rebounding problem from bad to worse.

Is it sustainable?

Before the NBA abruptly ended, the Rockets were on a four-game skid, losing to the Knicks, Clippers, Hornets, and Magic in ugly fashion. The Knicks and Hornets are lottery teams, and the Magic are a borderline playoff team in the east. The Clippers were at full strength, but if the Rockets want to make a deep run, they will have to meet them.

Nonetheless, the Knicks pounded them on the offensive glass with 20 boards versus the Rockets 8.Against the Clippers, they shot 16.7% on threes.The Rockets shot 33% from three on 45 attempts, and the Hornets made the same number of threes on 13 fewer attempts.Finally, the Rockets shot 28% from three against the Magic.

What this losing streak indicates is that there are tons of ways the Rockets can lose. They can get beat inside on the boards and in the paint. They can beat themselves by shooting poorly. Although the Hornets and Knicks shot well on those days, some of it has to do with the Rockets’ wavering defense.

An inconsistent team on the offensive end is one story, but a team that can’t get stops when their offense falters cannot make a dent against top western conference teams. *Image courtesy of USA Today

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