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Can P.J. Tucker and the Rockets Turn Small Ball Into a Winning Formula?

Houston has been moving toward smaller lineups for a while now, but with Clint Capela gone, Tucker and Co. will face much bigger challenges the rest of the season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As soon as P.J. Tucker strolls into the visiting locker room at Staples Center, the prep work to play beyond his measurements begins. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Tucker primarily played shooting guard in 2012 and has added to his positional résumé since, playing small forward and then power forward. This Thursday night, though, kicks off his new reality: starting at center.

Just over an hour before he has to square off against Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard, Tucker sprawls out on the black leather massage table inside the Rockets’ locker room. He’s being worked on by a Houston trainer, who stretches Tucker so forcefully that it seems as if he’s trying to elongate the player’s limbs. Any extra few inches they can get out of his frame tonight might help.

This isn’t the first time Tucker has had to play center. He spent time there in spurts last season and has shown a comfort level playing up a position. But where before this lineup (known as the Tuckwagon) was considered a positional luxury, it’s now become a strategy. Last week, the Rockets shipped off Clint Capela, their most reliable center, in a four-team deal that netted Houston Robert Covington (a 6-foot-7 forward who is bound to play center minutes as well). This small-ball revolution has been simmering within the organization for a while, but now things have reached their logical conclusion. The Rockets have done away with the classical definition of positions and doubled down on becoming fun-sized.

“We’ve just got a weird team because James [Harden] can guard bigs, P.J. is guarding bigs, Eric Gordon can guard bigs,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We’re not very tall, but we’re stout.”

With less than six minutes remaining in the third quarter of Thursday’s game against the Lakers, Tucker found himself flat on his back. He’d been guarding Davis in the post, but once Davis barreled into him for what would be an easy dunk, all he could do was lie there and hope in vain for an offensive foul call. That helplessness was a glimpse into what could go wrong when the center in Rockets colors is the same height as the opponent’s shooting guard.

But outside of that incident and a handful of other mismatches, Thursday night showed how good things can be when extreme small ball goes right. The Rockets made the Lakers adjust to their style, forced 15 turnovers, and spread them out so well on offense that Russell Westbrook could go off for 41 points in one of Houston’s best wins of the season. D’Antoni seemingly forecast Westbrook’s performance in a pregame interview, saying that the space created by the small lineup would benefit Russ more than any other player. “If it’s me on a one-on-one, I just get to my spot and pick what I want to do,” Westbrook said after the game. “That’s it. It’s that simple. I don’t make the game hard for myself, just drive and kick it and find somebody to score.”

Just a day later, though, that efficiency was gone. Friday’s game against the Suns in Phoenix was a tired mess—one the Rockets lost by 36. And though Sunday’s close loss to the Jazz seemingly showed a more realistic view of what this style will look like on most nights, it was another disappointing outcome. In the first three games since the Capela trade, we’ve seen the full gamut of possibilities. But from the Rockets’ perspective, wins and losses matter less right now than the data they’re collecting on their experiment. The things they’re learning and tweaking at this stage could pay off in the long run, when the most crucial question becomes: Can this small-ball lineup work in the playoffs?

Regardless of the answer, it might be the only chance the Rockets have at creating chaos in their favor. Given Houston’s penchant for disruption via 3-pointers and Harden’s style, this strategy falls right in line with the team’s modus operandi. And it’s not like the numbers say it won’t work. So far this season, the four most-used Rockets lineups with Tucker as the de facto center and Capela not on the floor have a preposterous plus-84.2 net rating. For a team that’s as focused on numbers and efficiency as Houston is, that’s the kind of information that helped them make the case for trading away Capela in the first place.

Perhaps no player (except maybe Zion Williamson) embodies the stoutness D’Antoni talked about more than Tucker. He’s a linebacker with a 3-point shot—the kind of basketball player who doesn’t physically make sense until you see him dart around the court. Eight seasons ago, Tucker was playing in Europe, but as the NBA sized down and got faster, his place in the league became more and more entrenched. Now, he’s a staple.

“There was no place for me in this league when I came in. I didn’t fit any definition,” Tucker told the Los Angeles Times last week. “I wasn’t a long, athletic wing. I wasn’t a big, post-up, back-to-the-basket four. I wasn’t a 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 shooter coming off screens either. Back then, when you were a tweener, it was a bad thing.”

Tucker may be stout, but he’s quick, and his low center of gravity and exceptional footwork allow him to stay in front of players. But while he is more than capable of holding his own, moments like the one against Davis are reminders that this won’t be easy. Foul trouble will almost always be an issue; dealing with versatile bigs like Nikola Jokic won’t be simple; and the physical toll that Tucker will endure will add up over time.

When a player is averaging fewer than eight points and two assists per game, it takes some work to make a case for their value. But Tucker’s importance extends beyond the numbers. The Rockets don’t need massive production from him when they have Westbrook and Harden. Instead, they need a reliable presence in the middle, and someone who’s as capable of hitting shots as he is disrupting players on the other end.

Tucker has already been an invaluable piece in Houston’s system—now he’s just getting more of the spotlight. And the franchise is betting that this will be for the better. “He can play that position well. He’s a strong dude,” teammate Austin Rivers said. “Just like people think we have disadvantages when we play small, we have advantages too. We’re much quicker, it takes the 5 out of the game, we force teams to play small, and if they play small, we can get to the basket at will. It’s in our favor.”

To the right of Tucker’s Staples Center locker, where he iced both his knees after playing 31 taxing minutes, stands a stall that features the name “Swiss Legend” written in Sharpie on white tape. The nickname is a little strange to see there, given that Capela (who is Swiss) was traded away a day earlier, but the sign isn’t Capela’s—it belongs to Thabo Sefolosha, who has quickly become Tucker’s brother in small-ball arms.

On Thursday, Sefolosha logged 12 important minutes and was a plus-8. After playing inconsistently through most of January (and averaging less than 12 minutes a game), Sefolosha has appeared in the past nine games and is averaging nearly 15 minutes per contest. His value as a 6-foot-6 player with a long wingspan (7-foot-2) has suddenly been heightened in this new environment. And Covington, who is listed at 6-foot-7, will also likely be thrown into the center mix as the Rockets tinker with their experiment. As D’Antoni jokingly said, “Actually we got bigger. … [Covington] is our big man.”

In 16 small-sample-size minutes so far, the Tucker-Westbrook-Harden-Covington–Danuel House Jr. lineup has a net rating of plus-22.6. While that number means little right now, it is already easy to see how Covington will help Houston by giving the team another reliable shooter and staunch defender. That second piece will be extremely valuable to the Rockets, as their lack of size forces each and every player on the floor to be more active in deflecting passes, grabbing steals, and just generally running around. In fact, of all NBA players, only Buddy Hield has covered as much ground on the defensive end as Tucker.

“There’s more spacing,” Harden said. “Defensively, we’re more active. I think in the last five games we’ve created a numerous amount of turnovers at least in transition points. And that’s the way we have to play.”

To watch this Rockets team is to see novelty in action. But novelty will take Houston only so far. This team has the potential to not only be amusing for viewers, but confounding for opponents too. As the Lakers struggled to counter the Rockets’ small-ball lineups on Thursday, one vociferous fan had seen enough. “They don’t have a center, bro!” He yelled. “Post up!” If only it were that easy. From now through the end of the season, the Rockets’ ultimate priority will be making sure that it isn’t.