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The Further the Rockets Go, the More They’ll Need Their Other Stars

Clint Capela’s ascent has stabilized a Houston team that can be overly reliant on its two creators. But in a potential series against the Warriors, Capela won’t be enough. The Rockets will need a man on the perimeter to step up. They have just the guy.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Clint Capela has given the Rockets a Big Three in the playoffs. James Harden and Chris Paul get most of the attention, but Capela is becoming a star in his own right, outplaying Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in the first two rounds and averaging career-high numbers in every category. Things won’t be as easy for him in a likely Western Conference finals series with the Warriors, since he won’t have a traditional center to match up against. Houston will need another member of its supporting cast to step up against a Golden State team firing on all cylinders, which could shift the spotlight to Eric Gordon, who has struggled over the past few weeks.

The Rockets have some of the most rigidly defined offensive roles in the NBA. Harden and Paul share the ball when they are in together, and each dominates it when the other is out. Capela and Nene set screens to free up the two star guards, and everyone else spots up around the 3-point line to create space for the pick-and-roll. Gordon is the only player with his foot in both camps. He was third in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game (8.8) this season, and his usage rate (24.7) dwarfed the minuscule rates of Houston’s pure 3-and-D players Trevor Ariza (14.3), Luc Mbah a Moute (13.1), and P.J. Tucker (10.5).

Gordon, unlike the others, isn’t just a spot-up shooter. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he’s a powerfully built guard with a quick first step who can put the ball on the floor, create his own shot, and get to the rim. He averaged nearly as many free throw attempts per game this season (3.5) than Ariza, Mbah a Moute, and Tucker combined (3.6). Houston coach Mike D’Antoni staggers Gordon’s minutes so that he’s the secondary ball handler whenever Harden or Paul is resting. He’s gotten more of his offense in the postseason as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll (22.9 percent) than in spot-ups (21.2 percent), and he is also used frequently as a shooter running around screens off the ball (18.6 percent).

However, after thriving in that role in the regular season, his numbers have fallen off a cliff:

Eric Gordon, Regular Season vs. Playoffs

Segment Points FG% 3P% Assists
Segment Points FG% 3P% Assists
Regular Season 18 42.8 35.9 2.2
Playoffs 13.8 34.9 32.3 1.3

Gordon has gone into a shooting slump at the worst possible time. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he’s in the 30th percentile of postseason players in catch-and-shoot situations after being in the 58th percentile in the regular season. The old cliché of the NBA being a make-or-miss league is particularly true for a player like Gordon, who spends so much of his time bombing away from the perimeter.

Gordon’s struggles haven’t been an issue in the first two rounds because of Capela, who is averaging a career-high 15.4 points per game. Neither Towns nor Gobert has been willing to extend out on the perimeter on defense, which creates huge openings for Capela in the two-man game with Harden and Paul. Keeping a big man stationed at the rim and daring the ball handler to shoot off the dribble plays right into the hands of Houston’s two primary creators, since they are both deadly with the floater and pull-up jumper. As soon as the center even thinks about contesting those shots, it creates an easy lob for Capela, a smart cutter who vacuums up any pass thrown near the rim.

Those plays won’t be there against Golden State, which is now starting Draymond Green at the 5. Green, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, has the speed to guard out to the 3-point line and at least contest Harden and Paul off the dribble. Instead of having their guards fight over Capela when he sets screens (the Wolves’ and Jazz’s strategy), the Warriors can just switch them and leave a smaller player on him, eliminating free runs to the rim. That won’t change even when Green is out. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr can also use Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell as small-ball 5s — as well as Kevin Durant, an approach he’s been saving for the playoffs.

Going up against smaller defenders exposes one of the few remaining holes in Capela’s game: his inability to create his own shot. He had only a combined 52 post-ups and isolations in the regular season, and he was in the 10th and 3rd percentile of players leaguewide in those categories, respectively. Houston doesn’t run plays for Capela, which means there’s no need to leave a bigger defender on him. Gobert and Towns are such integral parts of Utah and Minnesota, respectively, that those teams never really had the option to go small. Golden State can play small ball the entire game, which means there would likely be huge stretches of a series between the two teams when D’Antoni would take out Capela for Mbah a Moute, a better shooter and perimeter defender.

One of the most interesting lineup decisions for D’Antoni in a potential Western Conference finals is how he’d choose to go small. He didn’t have a full complement of players in any of Houston’s three regular-season games against the Warriors this season: Paul sat out the end of their 122–121 OT win on opening night because he was nursing an injured knee, while Harden was out for their 124–114 loss on January 4 and Ariza missed their 116–108 win on January 20. He could play his three defensive specialists (Ariza, Tucker, and Mbah a Moute) next to his two All-Stars, or he could play Harden and Paul in a smaller backcourt with Gordon for more perimeter firepower.

Harden, Paul, and Gordon have been dominant in their rare time together. They had a net rating of plus-28.9 in 148 minutes in the regular season and have recorded a plus-16 in 54 minutes in the playoffs. D’Antoni went to that lineup in the final minutes of their only two close playoff games so far: their 104–101 victory over Minnesota in Game 1 of the first round and their 116–108 loss to Utah in Game 2 of the second round. That unit gives them more offensive flexibility since defenses can’t just load up on Harden and Paul. Gordon can catch and fire off of movement, and he’s the only player in their supporting cast who can shoot, drive, and make plays off of a closeout.

It’s easy for Houston’s offense to go stagnant while Harden and Paul take turns playing one-on-one. Most of the time, it isn’t an issue; they score so easily that they demand double-teams. But that might not happen as often against a Golden State team that can choke off the pick-and-roll and throw waves of long and athletic defenders at them. We’ve seen both Harden and Paul struggle at times this postseason: Harden shot 2-of-18 in Game 2 against Minnesota, and Paul shot 5-of-14 in Game 1 against Minnesota and 6-of-17 in Game 3 against Utah. If Gordon can’t pick up the slack, D’Antoni could be forced to go to some combination of Gerald Green, Ryan Anderson, or Joe Johnson, all of whom will get killed defensively.

Gordon is one of Houston’s best two-way players. He plays a key role in the Rockets’ all-switching defense, as his massive 6-foot-9 wingspan allows him to slide between all three perimeter positions and even survive in the paint. There aren’t many holes in his defensive game: He’s in the 65th percentile of defenders in the pick-and-roll this season, the 72nd percentile against post-ups, and the 63rd percentile against isolations. Golden State loves to post Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston against smaller guards, and Gordon should be able to provide more resistance than most players his size.

A big series against the Warriors is an opportunity for Gordon to put himself back on the map. The no. 7 pick in the 2008 draft has never quite been in the right situation to show what he can do. He seemed headed for stardom with the Clippers, but instead wound up being the key piece in the trade that brought Paul to Los Angeles in 2011. He never fit in New Orleans, where he was hobbled by injuries and had to share the ball with Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans in a crowded backcourt. Gordon won Sixth Man of the Year last season, but Houston’s midseason trade for another bench scorer (Lou Williams) cut into his playoff numbers.

What separates Gordon from Williams and Jamal Crawford, two other recent Sixth Man winners, is that he can be valuable even when his shot is off. He was 0-for-6 in Game 1 against Utah, so he started creating for others (four assists) and getting to the line (nine free throw attempts). The best version of Gordon is a do-everything player who can shoot from anywhere, score off the dribble, run pick-and-rolls, stay in front of smaller guards, and put a body on bigger ones. Houston needs that player if it wants to beat Golden State, especially given the matchup issues the Warriors create for even the best centers. A Big Three isn’t enough against a team with four All-Stars. The Rockets need a Big Four.