Back in the Bubble: Looking at the Rockets’ Ultra Small-Ball Experiment

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Photo from Getty Images

Houston, Texas is city is most known for housing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Here, many out-of-this-world and ground-breaking experiments are done every day, all in the name of science and progression.

It’s only fitting, then, that their basketball team is also the hotbed of some crazy innovations in the NBA. In the last four years or so, Daryl Morey, Mike D’Antoni, and the Rockets have been consistent in their pursuit of the most mathematically efficient way to win basketball games. They’re not afraid of going to absurd lengths to reach this goal: after all, we’re talking about the team that had more three-point attempts than two-point attempts last season. They’ve pushed the limits of isolation basketball, giving full control of the offense to James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

But now, they might have pulled off the most insane experiment in the Morey-D’Antoni era. Basketball is a big man’s sport, but Houston is zagging the opposite direction by fully embracing the new small-ball trend (which they also helped innovate, by the way). They traded away their starting center Clint Capela for Robert Covington, and now they’re easily the smallest roster in the league.

The Rockets didn’t have enough time to fully showcase this new direction before the season got cut-off. Naturally, there were still a lot of questions with regard to how their Ultra Small-Ball line-up would work. Here’s what their experiment has yielded so far.

Spacing allows Russ to be Russ

Let’s talk about the obvious strength of this unorthodox roster: spacing. With Tucker now moving to the center spot, the Rockets can feasibly put five above-average shooters on the floor together: the modern NBA dream. Just look at how much space Harden has on this simple pick play:

Houston banks heavily on Harden and Westbrook’s ability to cut up defenses on their own to create offense for the entire team. Thus, they’ve focused on spreading out on offense to stretch the defense and open up driving lanes for the two. Capela used to bring value on offense as a rim-running big that can catch lobs, but with his role diminishing this season, he became more of a roadblock than a key cog for the team. His presence in the paint hindered the slashing exploits of Houston’s duo, and it’s clear in the statistics.

Stats from NBA.com

With Covington in the line-up and Capela out, Houston can stretch the defense thin for their two stars to wreak havoc however they please. With shooters spotting up behind the three-point line, defenses can’t collapse on a Westbrook or Harden drive without paying a hefty price of three points. Even the role players benefit from this massive space. Watch how far back McGee and Davis are pulled away from the rim by Tucker and Westbrook, clearing up space for Danuel House, Jr. to attack the rim.

When the defense collapses on a threat, Houston just pings the ball around until it finds someone who will inevitably be left open.

The biggest beneficiary in all of this, though, is Russ himself. Westbrook hasn’t played with this many shooters since, well, never, and he’s reaping the rewards. You’ve seen the stat mentioned above already, but if you’re the seeing-is-believing type, just look at this play to see how much easier life is for him today. Poor Kuzma got absolutely roasted by Russ multiple times this game, and this was just one of many times Russ scored on Kuz this game.

The defense definitely needs improvement

Let’s be honest, though: we weren’t worried about their offense at all. I bet Harden and Westbrook alone can go against a whole team for an entire quarter with training dummies for teammates if they needed to.

It’s the defense that raises most of the concerns for us. After all, Capela was the lynchpin behind the Rockets defense, and perhaps the only one who kept their defense above water. His rim protection and rebounding were integral in keeping their defense decent at worst.

That’s cool and all, except when you look at the stats, his defense might be a tad bit overrated. Opponents are shooting 64 percent against him at the rim, way above his fellow starting centers. He isn’t as big of a deterrent as people make him out to be.

Stats from NBA.com

Nonetheless, something is better than nothing, and right now Houston has a whole lot of nothing when it comes to protecting the paint. RoCo has done his best to be a shot-blocker (2.5 BPG), but he’s better suited to block shots from the weak side than straight-up contesting dunks head-on. Tucker is too small and a bit heavy on his feet to be a mobile rim protector. When you don’t have anyone over 6’10 in your rotation, lay-ups like this will be much more common.

But this isn’t a huge problem, all things considered. One way of protecting the paint is to not let them get into the paint in the first place, and the switch-heavy Rockets are well-suited for that goal. Their lone weak spot in the defense, Harden, isn’t hampered by physical limitations, but by effort levels alone. If The Beard can stay engaged on defense for even half of the possessions, and the Rockets tighten their switching and help defense on the perimeter, they should have no qualms when it comes to shots at the rim. After all, slashers won’t even get a chance to get in the paint.

What’s more worrying, however, is their low post defense and rebounding. The West is rife with talented big men like Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, and Kristaps Porzingis, and if they do make it out of their conference, they might face even scarier bigs like Giannis Antetokounmp or Joel Embiid. Most Rockets players can handle mediocre offensive bigs with ease due to their build, but problems arise when they can’t easily push a big out of their comfort zone. Davis tore Houston a new one when the Lakers faced the Rockets, going for 32 points on relatively easy shots like this.

Rebounding will also be a pressing concern for them. When engaged, there’s no doubt the collective bulk of the Rockets can push out opposing rebounders. Westbrook can sky high to grab rebounds, as well. But the key part there is being engaged. If they can’t box out offensive rebounders, it’s going to be ridiculously easy for their opponents to score second-chance points. I mean, just look at Dwight Howard here. He’s like a high school student who’s playing against grade schoolers here, plucking the rebound out of the air and putting it back in.

Will it work?

Most people might imagine this iteration of the Rockets to be a glass cannon: terrifying and explosive on offense, but incredibly fragile on defense.

In reality, however, there’s more reinforcement in their defense than people recognize. D’Antoni, being the mad scientist that he is, will surely find a way to plug the minor holes of their defense without compromising too much on the other side.

This is an insane experiment Houston is running right now. The fact that they’re conducting this in the middle of a playoff run while contending for the title adds another layer of madness to this. But Morey, D’Antoni and the Rockets are professional mad basketball scientists, and if anyone can pull this off successfully, it’s got to be them.

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