Will Houston’s Small-Ball Lineup Be Short-Lived?

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 20: Russell Westbrook (0) of the Houston Rockets stands on the court against the Denver Nuggets during the first quarter on Wednesday, November 20, 2019.
AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Rockets shocked the basketball world when they traded away center Clint Capela and implemented a hardcore small-ball lineup. The tallest player in Houston’s rotation was newly acquired Robert Covington, standing 6’7”. With a starting lineup averaging under 6’5”, Houston has taken small-ball to another level. 


All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com/


Starting five perimeter players is certainly unorthodox, but is logical when broken down. In theory, all five players on the floor can drive and shoot. If the opposing team helps on Westbrook or Harden, they kick the ball out to open shooters. If defenses choose not to help, the paint is wide open for any of the five players to attack.

Still, the Rockets’ controversial decision raised a few questions: “How are a team of five perimeter players going to rebound?” and “Who is going to serve as a rim protector in place of seven-footer Clint Capela?”

How the Rockets Make It Work

The Rockets started 6’5” PJ Tucker at center. Calling Tucker undersized is no exaggeration. He gave up 6 to 8 inches against other centers on a nightly basis. However, Tucker quickly developed the ability to handle defensive mismatches for long stretches. 

This lineup is reminiscent of the Warrior’s “Death Lineup”. Draymond Green is credited for being the lineup’s centerpiece, able to anchor the defense and play center despite being 6’6”. D’Antoni had faith that Tucker could play the same role for this team. 

With a small sample size, we saw this new look Rockets thrive. They won 11 of the last 17 games before the NBA shut down. They proved that small-ball has potential when they best the monstrously tall Lakers at Staples Center. Basketball fans will get to see the Rockets go to work again at the NBA’s 22-team restart at Disneyland.

Westbrook and Harden deserve significant credit for Houston’s success. Their strength and athleticism make them exceptional rebounders, even by frontcourt player standards, averaging over 14 boards a game combined. 

As interesting the Rockets are in the short term, this roster change affects the NBA beyond the 2019-2020 NBA season. There is no doubt that Houston’s success has turned eyes in the basketball world. Should the Rockets continue to thrive, this will change every NBA team’s front office management, rotation design, and draft selections. 

The Modern Game

The league has changed over the years with seven-footers shooting from beyond the three-point arc. Even with their improved skill set and shooting, low post offense leans towards extinction and starting lineups relying heavily on backcourt players. 

Think back to last year’s draft, when 7’2” Bol Bol went in the middle of the second round. 15, 20 years ago, his length and defensive capabilities would most certainly have made him a lottery pick. 

Houston has shown the potential of explosive, skilled perimeter players. This is what NBA front offices are going to keep searching for.

Look at a few of the teams today: Only five Celtics players average over 30 minutes per game, all of them guards or small forwards. The Clippers have three possible small-ball center options in Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Morris, and Jamychal Green, all 6’8”. And the tallest player out of the Heat’s eight leading scorers is 6’9” Bam Adebayo.  

The Rockets have gone down a controversial path before, implementing a “live by the three, die by the three” mentality into their historically dominant 2017-18 offense. However, three-pointers led to their downfall in Game 7 WCF that year. They missed 27 straight shots from behind the arc, costing them a ticket to the Finals.

Despite the Rockets’ abysmal shooting performance, the three-point shot continues to flourish in today’s NBA. 

Houston’s Playoff Chances

Looking at this season, the Rockets currently sit at the 6th seed, only 4 games behind the Clippers at the 2nd seed. Houston will likely be matched up with one of Denver, Utah, or OKC in the first round. The Rockets have the potential to beat all of these teams and make the second round. 

However, it is unlikely the Rockets will be able to make a deep playoff push if they encounter the Clippers or Lakers in a seven-game series. Guarding Anthony Davis or Montrezl Harrell for that many games would be too much for the Rockets’ “big men” to contain. 

Before next season, the Rockets will have to break up their small-ball lineup. A team of five perimeter players cannot go through an 82-game regular season and make a playoff push to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. 

In any NBA era, rebounding and paint dominance requires tall, athletic big men. Teams with seven-footers will dominate the paint and figure out defensive schemes to counter the Rockets’ small-ball lineup.

While small-ball does not work for 48 straight minutes, they have shown it is possible to throw out five perimeter players on the court. Teams may put this kind of lineup on the court when trailing by double digits late in the game or if a last-second shot needs to be taken. Players who can dribble and shoot three-pointers could create a fast-paced offense to get some quick points up on the board.

We have to wait until August to see how well the Rockets will actually do, but it is likely that the Rockets’ will fall short once again with another overly ambitious plan. Nonetheless, Houston truly showed how the NBA and basketball world has changed. 

Teams all around the world have become heavily reliant on backcourt players. In particular, players who can control the offensive tempo and move up and down the floor quickly.

Rockets fans will have to wait a few more years before they can reclaim the Larry O’Brien trophy. However, fans can be proud of Houston’s worldwide impact on basketball play style and culture.