Undersized lineups, which generally improve spacing on offense and mobility on defense, have become commonplace in the modern NBA. Usually, though, small ball is utilized as a late-game alternative to bigger lineups that includes a traditional center, such as McGee. The Golden State Warriors, for example, won three titles with rosters that featured 7-foot starting centers and a closing lineup anchored by Draymond Green, a 6-6 forward. Houston is taking the strategic approach one step further, scrapping big looks entirely to give Harden and Russell Westbrook, their talented backcourt playmakers, as much room to work as possible.
As word of Houston’s plans spread this week, social media erupted with memes. In one video, P.J. Tucker, Houston’s 6-5 de facto center, was shown being pummeled by Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ long-armed forward. And in an image that went viral, Tucker posted to his Instagram a shot of himself wearing stilts to keep up with the Lakers’ massive frontcourt.
Tucker laughed off the jokes — writing in the Instagram caption that “the Internet is [undefeated]” — but Houston Coach Mike D’Antoni acknowledged that the radical shift would test his team’s confidence.
“Anytime you try something different, these guys got to believe in it,” D’Antoni said after beating the Lakers, who held the West’s best record at 38-12 entering Saturday. “This [win] helps a lot. If you come in here and get spanked and we’re all little, it’s like, ‘Oh, maybe we can’t do this.’ They’re fired up. As a coach, you get scared to try something different. I thought it would work. I don’t know why it wouldn’t. They proved it did.”
It’s no accident that D’Antoni and the Rockets are the coach and organization willing to take this particular plunge. D’Antoni rose to prominence in the mid-2000s with the Phoenix Suns, where he oversaw two trips to the Western Conference finals and won coach of the year honors by regularly utilizing small lineups that pushed the pace.
The Rockets’ history with small ball predates D’Antoni’s 2016 arrival in Houston, with General Manager Daryl Morey experimenting with centers such as 6-6 Chuck Hayes more than a decade ago. Throughout their recent playoff runs, D’Antoni has regularly turned to Tucker as his center in smaller, interchangeable lineups.
With that history as context and with an underwhelming 33-19 record after Friday’s loss to Phoenix, the Capela trade should be viewed as the next logical step rather than as a crazy departure from basketball norms.
Going center-free has numerous benefits. Harden can survey the court without any players in the painted area. Help defenders have further to travel to double team him, and he always will be surrounded by at least three perimeter shooters to make defenses pay. Westbrook, meanwhile, has more room to attack off the dribble — which he did by scoring 41 points against the Lakers. The rest of the Rockets also should benefit from better floor balance now that the court will no longer get cramped the way it did whenever Westbrook and Capela, two non-shooters, played together.
Defensively, the Rockets will collectively do their best to hold down the fort. Tucker, Covington, Harden and Westbrook are all physical players, and they are comfortable switching screens on the perimeter and dropping down to help if a big man gets position in the paint. The Rockets’ quickness and versatility should enable them to effectively guard the three-point line, and they sometimes seem intent on daring opponents to try to post them up.
“We’re not smaller — obviously height-wise [we are],” Harden said. “But heart. Each individual got big hearts. We can compete with anybody.”
The stylistic clash between the tiny Rockets and the large Lakers was obvious throughout the night. Los Angeles managed to score 62 points in the paint — a hefty total — but Houston prevailed by exploiting the mismatches created by its unorthodox lineups. Westbrook repeatedly drove past Kyle Kuzma to score, leaving the Lakers forward looking around for help defenders who were attending to their own assignments on the perimeter. Houston’s lineups also led Lakers Coach Frank Vogel to adjust his typical rotations. Backup center Dwight Howard, who averages nearly 20 minutes per game, played only four minutes against the Rockets to keep him from having to chase smaller players outside the paint.
“If it’s me one-on-one, I just get to my spot,” Westbrook said. “It’s that simple. I don’t make the game hard for myself.”
Covington is a critical piece to the puzzle. The 29-year-old forward, who was named to the NBA all-defensive team in 2018, provides D’Antoni with a proven option to deploy inside on the likes of Davis and outside against wing superstars such as LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. A career 35.9 percent three-point shooter, Covington hit four three-pointers in his debut for Houston — earning rave reviews from his new teammates.
“Offensively, he can shoot the ball,” Harden said. “Defensively, he had a big time block on Anthony Davis. He did an unbelievable job rebounding the basketball. He’s solid. That’s what you need.”
There are downsides to Houston’s new approach, and teams such as the Lakers will adjust down the stretch as they get a better handle on attacking this experiment. The Rockets will be susceptible to foul trouble against bigger opponents, and their endurance will be tested by the intensity and pace of playoff basketball. Their lack of depth is also a potentially critical weakness. Without both Tucker and Covington playing big minutes, the Rockets will struggle to get stops against the West’s top competition.
Even so, there were no guarantees had they decided to go forward with Capela or a traditional replacement at center. Capela already had missed 10 games because of injury before his trade to Atlanta, and he was often benched in key situations during past playoff runs. Ultimately, the Rockets decided that Westbrook and Capela couldn’t coexist on a championship team — and they bet on Westbrook’s athleticism and talent instead of Capela’s height and length.
“[Small ball] is how the team functions best,” D’Antoni said. “If we had a different team, we’d play differently. We just have a weird team.”
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