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The Rockets Are Done With Half-Measures

Houston made the boldest move of the NBA trade deadline by pushing its unique strategy to the extreme

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mike D’Antoni has rarely been burdened by orthodoxy. In his first full season as an NBA head coach, the Suns attempted what was then a revolutionary number of 3s, winning 62 games in the process. The following season, D’Antoni turned Boris Diaw, who was initially drafted by the Hawks as a shooting guard, into a position-bending starting center. His teams over the years have been criticized for running too much and then for isolating too much, for relying on 3-pointers and then relying on free throws. Through all of this, D’Antoni has expressed only one real regret about the way he coached his teams.

“I thought my mistake in Phoenix was questioning it and backing off of what we wanted to do,” D’Antoni told me in September, while I was reporting a story for Sports Illustrated. “We could’ve been much better if we would have doubled down. We went another route.” In the lead-up to the trade deadline during D’Antoni’s final campaign with the Suns, Phoenix traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks for Shaquille O’Neal—a compromise that cost a small-ball team its soul. This Rockets team, he insisted, would not yield in the same way. “That was a mistake,” D’Antoni said. “We’re not doing that here. We’ll double down.”

As promised, Houston made the boldest move of the trade deadline, pushing the limits of its lineup construction further than any other team seems willing to go. As part of a 12-player gigadeal, the Rockets traded away Clint Capela, a fine center in the rim-running tradition, and a first-round pick to land Robert Covington, effectively abstaining from the center position as we know it. While Capela sat with a heel injury for the past few weeks, his post had largely been filled by the 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker. It’s an arrangement that Houston has long found preferable; even when Capela was healthy and otherwise productive, the Rockets would often roll out Tucker at the 5 to close the games that mattered most.

This deal is ostensibly about Covington, who began his pro career in Houston’s orbit and has only become a better fit since. It’s also an incredible endorsement of Tucker’s abilities. In just three years, Tucker has gone from a natural 3 to a stretch 4 to a provisional 5. “I’m a chameleon, man,” Tucker said earlier this season. “You’ve gotta be to be a good role player, a good journeyman. You’ve gotta be able to be a chameleon, be able to switch up with different styles and different ways to play basketball. It’s all basketball. It’s all your personnel and reaching the full potential of the guys you’ve got and the ways you want to play.”

After a trade this blunt, there can be no real question as to how the Rockets want to play. This is a double-down team in double-down times. When Houston moved to shake up its dual-star backcourt over the summer, general manager Daryl Morey flipped Chris Paul for an even higher-usage guard in Russell Westbrook. Rather than change the polarizing, iso-heavy style that has made them a top-three offense to this point, the Rockets chose instead to prioritize the fit of the players involved. James Harden is going to work over defenders from the top of the floor. Capela played well in service of that, but Covington clears even more space for an already well-spaced system. At the point where Harden doesn’t really need a ball screen from Capela (or even the implicit threat of his rolls to the rim) to score, it’s possible that a shooter and defender like Covington could offer the broader utility. It’s just hard to say, considering how far the Rockets have veered from basketball convention.

Even in a league where 30 free-thinking teams are desperate for every advantage, the vast majority still work within a fairly narrow range of thought. Even if they choose their own crayon, they’re all still coloring inside the lines. The Rockets, for better or worse, have drawn their own. It seems partly an act of desperation; this is a team working in the prime years of a genuine superstar while operating under impulsive ownership. In explaining the rationale behind the Westbrook trade, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said that when his own basketball ops team began to waver on the deal, he insisted upon it. “The one thing I believe you do in business, and you do in basketball, is you never sit still,” he said. It’s hard not to see that bit of heat behind everything Houston does. D’Antoni is in the last year of his contract after a failed negotiation. Morey is something of a civic institution, having worked for the Rockets since 2006, but could take the fall as a result of impatience in the ownership suite. Considering the lengths that the Rockets have gone to save on the luxury tax (this deal included), it likely doesn’t help that Morey was responsible for the most costly tweet in NBA history.

Even if Morey and D’Antoni aren’t in 100 percent agreement on every possible decision, they do seem fairly aligned in their circumstances. So they gave up Capela, the team’s best finisher and individual rebounder, for the sake of building on what they do best. (And for a better chance of being healthy, considering the trouble with Capela’s heel in a high-stakes season.) They traded away a first-round pick, currently projected to fall in the early 20s—not inconsequential, but not exactly a sticking point for a team banking hard for the title. Morey told the Houston Chronicle that trading for Covington—and leaning into a four-out style—gave the Rockets their best championship odds. What makes this so fascinating is how hard it is to know for sure; the catch in operating in a way that’s unlike any other team is there aren’t many relevant case studies. Even the Warriors, champions of small ball, insisted on starting the likes of Zaza Pachulia and Damian Jones when their best center was Draymond Green. It was the long-held preference of Steve Kerr, who, somewhat fittingly, was the president of basketball operations when D’Antoni’s Suns traded for Shaq.

Even if Houston starts an honorary center like Isaiah Hartenstein, they have abandoned any pretense of treating the position as normal. No longer will a player like Capela tether the Rockets to 33 minutes a night with a classic 5. Tucker will fill that role. Hartenstein and the newly acquired Bruno Caboclo could fill spot minutes. Covington himself could crack the rotation against the right opponent. Houston has been just blistering on offense without a true center on the floor this season. At question is whether they can rebound enough to beat the teams they should, and if the scale of playing this small on a full-time basis takes too large a toll. It helps that Tucker doesn’t have to survive at center for a full season—only the 32 games the Rockets have left on their schedule, and however many more they can string together in the playoffs against the likes of Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic.

Spacing out and playing with Covington could help the Rockets to deal with opponents who double Harden outright; it’s now that much easier to position Westbrook as a pressure release around the free throw line, with three other shooters stretching the defense. In the chess match of the playoffs, the value of having a wing defender like Covington could pay off in ways Capela’s rim protection never could. It just takes some creativity to get there, and a leap of faith to put these kinds of lineups on the floor in the first place. “What happens, I think, in any system, if you go halfway, you get your brains beat out,” D’Antoni said in 2016. “You either fully embrace what you do, believe in it and go full throttle, or you’re gonna lose.” Sometimes, the only way out is to see a vision all the way through.