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Are the Small-Ball Rockets Sleeper Contenders in the NBA’s Restart?

Houston doesn’t need a traditional big man to make a deep postseason run—it needs near-perfect basketball from its superstar duo

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The grand experiment in Houston started out with a bang. In the Rockets’ first game after trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington and going all in on small ball, they went into Staples Center and beat the Lakers 121-111.

Just about everything went according to plan. With no one taller than 6-foot-7 in the starting lineup, Russell Westbrook took advantage of the extra driving lanes to slice through the NBA’s no. 3 defense and score 41 points on 28 shots. The Rockets hit 10 more 3s than the Lakers, pushing the pace and running into open jumpers against a bigger team that lost track of shooters in transition, while baiting them into less efficient post-ups on offense.

The results were more of a mixed bag in the next month. Houston went 8-6 with a net rating of plus-1.5 in its final 14 games before the league shut down on March 11 with impressive wins against Boston and Utah and ugly losses to New York and Charlotte.

How the new-look Rockets will perform in the playoffs would have been hard to predict in a normal season, much less with all the chaos surrounding the NBA’s return in Orlando next month. Houston, at 40-24, is part of a huge cluster of teams in the middle of the West. They are 2.5 games behind Denver for the no. 3 seed and 1.5 games ahead of Dallas at no. 7. I’ve talked to staffers on Western Conference playoff teams who think they are legitimate contenders. Others dismiss the team’s chances completely.

All we know for sure is that the Rockets aren’t giving up on small ball. Under GM Daryl Morey, Houston has always been willing to push the envelope and take existing trends to their logical conclusion. The Rockets have finished in the top two in total 3-point attempts in each of the past eight seasons. The big difference is that no. 1 team in 2012-13 was averaging 28.9 attempts while no. 1 in 2019-20 is putting up 44.3. Every time the rest of the league caught up to the Rockets’ ways, Morey and Co. took it one step further. They are doing it all over again this year by going even smaller with lineups. Few teams would have been willing to cut a promising young 7-footer like Isaiah Hartenstein in order to sign David Nwaba, a 6-foot-5 power forward who is out until next season while recovering from a torn Achilles.

Playing without a traditional big man, Houston has already accomplished something even fewer would have thought possible: turning Westbrook into an efficient player.

Russell Westbrook’s 2019-20 Stats

Westbrook Games Points FG% 3PA 3P% Assists Turnovers
Westbrook Games Points FG% 3PA 3P% Assists Turnovers
Pre-Trade 42 26.4 45.4 4.2 23.4 7.4 4.3
Post-Trade 11 31.7 54.6 2.4 38.5 5.5 4.9

Those numbers aren’t a fluke. The same thing happened when the Rockets went small around Westbrook before the trade. (The changes in James Harden’s numbers haven’t been as dramatic because he’s a one-man offense who exists outside of the normal laws of basketball.)

Two things about this latest version of Westbrook stand out. The good news is that he has deemphasized the 3-point shot, relentlessly attacking the rim instead. The bad is that his assist numbers have gone down.

Part of that is caused by Capela’s absence since the Rockets no longer have anyone who can catch lobs at the rim—but not all of it. The former MVP is a good passer and a more unselfish player than he’s given credit for. He will find the open man when the defense collapses on him.

So why the dip? His teammates just aren’t making enough 3s. The other Rockets besides Westbrook and Harden are shooting just 35.5 percent from 3 on 32.4 attempts per game since the trade, which would be tied for 17th in the league in the whole season. The new offense is leaving a lot of meat on the bone.

That’s where Eric Gordon comes in. Gordon, who underwent knee surgery in November, has been a shadow of his former self this season. He has appeared in only 34 games and is shooting his worst 3-point percentage (31.9 on 8.5 attempts per game) in eight seasons and worst 2-point percentage (46.7 on 4.4 attempts per game) in his past four seasons. The hope is that the layoff will allow him to return to his form as an elite third option in the past few seasons.

Houston is going nowhere without him. Gordon is the team’s best outside shooter, third-best scorer and playmaker, and one of its best perimeter defenders. He made Donovan Mitchell’s life miserable in last season’s playoffs and is arguably the best two-way player on the roster.

The concern with adding Gordon back is that he makes a team that was already small even smaller. Perimeter length was the key to the success of Golden State’s Lineup of Death. It didn’t need a traditional center at the rim because of how much space guys like Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Shaun Livingston could cover. All are 6-foot-6 and taller. Covington and Danuel House are the only players that size in Houston’s rotation.

The Rockets have also gotten worse on defense since the Capela trade, although not as much as some feared. They went from a defensive rating of 109.6 in their first 50 games to 111.2 in their last 14.

The team still has a lot of good defenders, from Covington and House to P.J. Tucker and Austin Rivers. But the downside of going small is that you can’t afford any weak links. Houston is switching on a lot more screens, and it no longer has a second line of defense with Capela in Atlanta. One bad defender can all make the difference in that scenario. The Rockets’ defensive rating since the trade goes from 115.7 in 249 minutes with Ben McLemore on the floor to 107.3 in 428 minutes without him.

That brings us back to Harden and Westbrook. If Gordon absorbs most of McLemore’s minutes, the two All-Stars become the weakest links.

But it shouldn’t be that way. Westbrook is a huge point guard (6-foot-3 and 200 pounds) and is still one of the most athletic players in the league. Harden is built like a tank (6-foot-5 and 220 pounds) and has the length (6-foot-11 wingspan) to hold up on defense against bigger players. He’s always been a great post defender, and Houston often puts him on opposing centers. One of the biggest potential upsides of pairing the two former MVPs is that they could share the load on offense and redistribute energy to defense.

They can be pretty good defensively when engaged and challenged. There are plenty of clips of Harden and Westbrook making life difficult for big-time scorers:

Their problems on the defensive end have always been the little things. It’s gambling for steals and getting out of position, not closing out with discipline, falling asleep off the ball, not hustling back in transition, and failing to rotate over and play help-side defense:

NBA coaches will tell you they would rather have a less athletic player who understands his role within the defensive scheme than a better one who makes spectacular plays but routinely blows assignments. Doing too much can be just as bad as doing too little because it puts everyone else in a bad position. Even worse, players of Westbrook’s and Harden’s statures can’t hold their teammates accountable if they aren’t doing what they are supposed to.

Harden, who has never been as in shape as many of his peers, has reportedly rededicated himself to physical fitness during the layoff. He’s second in the league in minutes per game, and improving his endurance could help him avoid running out of steam during deep playoff runs.

But just as important for both Harden and Westbrook will be cutting out the mental mistakes. Turnovers are a perfect example. The Rockets stars are combining for nine per game this season, far ahead of LeBron James and Anthony Davis (6.5) and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (5.6). That can make all the difference in a playoff game or over the course of a series.

The bar to win the West is incredibly high. It’s almost unfair to ask more of Harden and Westbrook, but Kawhi, George, and Davis all give their teams elite two-way play despite shouldering huge loads on offense. Even LeBron was playing more defense before the quarantine.

The Rockets don’t have much margin for error. Their stars need to play near-perfect basketball to make up for the talent gap between them and the league’s top contenders.

The perception of the Rockets’ playoff defeats in the Harden era is backward. Houston has not fallen short because its style of play is dictated by nerds who don’t understand basketball. Its progressive philosophy is what got this team so far in the first place.

The Rockets have not had a frontcourt player whom they could run offense through since Chandler Parsons in 2013-14. There was never a Draymond Green to Harden’s Steph Curry, much less a Kevin Durant. There still isn’t now. Harden, at 6-foot-5, has been the team’s tallest playmaker for each of the past five seasons. No championship team in the past 20 years has had a roster like that.

The odds have always been against the Rockets, but not because they don’t have a traditional center. Their two best players are 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-5. The Clippers’ two best players are 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8. The Lakers’ two best players are 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-11. That’s the size difference that matters.