Houston Rockets go all-in on small ball

In the past 15 years, NBA teams have slowly chipped away at the notion that a team must have size to win. Smaller, faster lineups eschewing traditional post-centric big men are more common today than ever. It’s not exactly a stretch to say the NBA is trending toward skill over size these days. 

Although teams may be more comfortable with small ball, the abandonment of a starting lineup anchored by a traditional starting center still seems unsettling to most teams. But after Tuesday’s mega-deal involving the Rockets (32-18) and three other teams, that may change.

When the dust settled from the wild deal, starting center Clint Capela, the Rockets’ lone productive big man, was on his way to the Hawks. Robert Covington, a forward acquired from Minnesota in the mega-deal, will step into the Rockets’ starting lineup. Houston has gone all-in on small ball.

Now there are plenty of other interesting factors in this trade — things such as contract value and asset management — that can be discussed ad nauseum. Yet getting caught up in the mechanics of the deal like this misses the forest for the trees. With Capela gone, the Rockets are going to start games with their tallest player being their newest member: 6-foot-7 Covington.

And Covington won’t even be their center! That duty will fall to the 6-foot-6 P.J. Tucker, the player whose spot starts at center during Capela’s injury absence (he’s missed four of the past five games due to injury) perhaps were the impetus for this deal. It’s an unprecedented look for a contending team.

Now after reading that claim, I know exactly what you’re thinking. The Golden State Warriors just went to five straight NBA Finals with their “Death Lineup” anchored by the 6-foot-6 Draymond Green. So how can I call the Rockets as a pioneering team when the Warriors already experienced massive success featuring a lineup without a 7-footer towering over everyone else on the court? It’s quite simple, actually.

Golden State’s famous “Death Lineup” was indeed the team’s driving force behind five straight Finals appearances. But the Warriors never fully committed to it. When the team opened games, its starting lineup always featured a traditional center —  Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney, Festus Ezeli, et al — who ate up minutes for Golden State before giving way to the team’s fearsome quintet.

Golden State still needed to acquiesce to the institutional belief in size. The Rockets, meanwhile, are kicking that notion to the curb. Houston reportedly will look for a traditional big to use in specific matchups in a bench role, but it is fully committed to using small-ball units right from the opening tip. Tucker manning the center spot due to Capela’s injury is no longer some quirky, short-term solution. It’s the team’s new reality.

Given GM Daryl Morey’s well-documented, analytics-driven focus, this move wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. Yes, the Rockets were 4-1 in the Tucker-as-center stretch leading up to the trade. But Morey isn’t simply pushing the envelope for the sake of being different than the rest of the league. Instead, moving on from Capela, as I’m sure most things are in Houston, seems like the result of a calculated bet.

In the 732 minutes that Capela shared the floor with stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the Rockets only outscored opponents by a single point per 48 minutes. The main reason for such lackluster production when three of Houston’s core players were on the floor together was a middling offense. Houston scored just 105.5 points per 100 possessions with that trio — the current mark of the Hornets’ 25th-ranked offense. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to know that isn’t going to cut it for a franchise in “championship or bust” mode.

For a Rockets team that relies heavily on isolations, transition forays and clever guard-to-guard screens to unleash it dynamic backcourt, Capela’s paint-bound ways were a poor fit. Swapping out Capela for more shooting is an obvious fix. The problem is that the Brook Lopez types — 7-footers with the ability to space behind the 3-point line — are a rare breed, even in the NBA. Getting one is hard, and even harder when you’re a Houston team lacking much in terms of assets.

It was perhaps pure pragmatism then that led Morey to deal his lone big man for a player who offered a cleaner fit around Westbrook and Harden. The fact that Covington isn’t a 7-footer didn’t seem to matter. He’ll space the floor around the team’s two superstars and fit seamlessly into Houston’s switching defense.

And if by ignoring the conventional approach this move by the Rockets pays off in a championship, it will take the NBA’s small-ball revolution to new heights.

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