Behind Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets changed the game – placing an emphasis on getting the best out of their sole superstar, James Harden. They threw out the inefficient mid-range and replaced it with a whole lot of three-pointers, supported by the age-old stalwart, layups. Over the course of three seasons the Rockets went from experimenting with this new analytics-based approach, to running nothing but this approach. With the arrival of Russell Westbrook this past summer, change was inevitable and after a turbulent start to their 2019-20 campaign, Morey has yet again evolved the roster in a wild attempt to get the best out of their (now) two superstars.
The man who suffered, Switzerland’s own Clint Capela, wasn’t a bad player, but he only truly complimented Harden. Their go-to pick-and-roll combo was one of the most potent in the league. But for Westbrook, a player who often prefers to utilise space, put his head down and drive towards the rim like a bull, Capela was just clogging up space with not only his own body but that of his defender’s also.
Capela, for all his great moments in a Rockets jersey, has for the large part been a one-trick pony. A dominant screener for Harden but a defensive liability on the perimeter that modern NBA teams have taken advantage of.
Let’s take last season’s Playoffs as an example. We saw Golden State continually take advantage of his (relative) slowness with the likes of Stephen Curry, consistently forcing Capela to come out to the perimeter and defend him in isolation. He never stood a chance in that series, and after a mixed start to this season, which also saw the Rockets go 11-1 with Capela out of the lineup, he was the practically hovering around the exit signs. The Rockets by all accounts also apparently really wanted Robert Covington, and it makes sense. He’s a career 36 percent three-point shooter and, at 6-foot-7, is an elite wing defender.
Now with Capela gone, you can’t take advantage of Houston on the perimeter. They have in effect, removed the mismatch and replaced it with a competent-to-great match-up on the perimeter defensively, while drastically improving their offense. I mean it’s as if Morey is yelling; “who cares if you score 2 points in the paint, we won’t let you score outside and then we’ll go and score 2 or 3 on the next possession”.
To do this, Houston will look to quite literally push small-ball to the max, taking a concept that is usually implemented in stretches and, instead, forcing it into play throughout the full 48 minutes. Unshackled from the limitations of bigs, Westbrook in particular will be able to run the court and dictate the offense, utilising the increased space in the paint to attack the interior off the dribble. This will lead to more layups, which in turn increases the chances of being fouled and getting more opportunities to increase the team’s lead at the free-throw line.
In addition to this new-found freedom in the paint, the smaller approach allows the Rockets to overload the perimeter with shooters, making it even harder for opponents to defend what was an already deadly line-up of three-point shooters. Guys like PJ Tucker and Covington, are talented two-way wings who thrive off up-tempo play. They are also mobile enough to pull interior defenders away from the rim, which in turn opens up yet more lanes for Westbrook who excels at forcing the issue inside. It’s worth noting that due to James Harden and his dad bod, they do still have a good post-up player left on the roster – and a role model to regular males everywhere.
In the three games that have taken place since the Capela trade and Covington acquisition, the Rockets are 1-2. It’s a small sample size, but the one win over the Los Angeles Lakers is proof alone that this batshit crazy idea can work.
In that match-up, Russell Westbrook could not be stopped. He cut to the basket at will, found open shooters and drew enough attention to make Harden’s night notably easier. Westbrook was, however, inactive for the next match-up, which would see the shorthanded Rockets lose to the Phoenix Suns – who physically killed them on the boards, out rebounding them 51 to 29. The Rockets also shot a horrific 22.9 percent from the arc. Then Sunday night, they got toppled by a miracle three-pointer at home versus the Utah Jazz. A result which again tells me that Utah, a far more physically imposing side, could not stop the Rockets offense – Westbrook had 39, Harden added 28 and everyone else not named Tyson Chandler got on the scoreboard.
Westbrook’s averages over these past three games are insane – 40.0 points per game, on 57.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. In this system he doesn’t have to shoot three-pointers, a weak aspect of his game. Instead this system capitalises on what he’s always been good at, power moves and with it this concept that goes against the very foundations of basketball might just work.
So here it goes NBA fans, the Houston Rockets are trying to change the game again. They’ve thrown it all in for a shot at the ultimate prize, in what is yet another high-risk, high-reward strategy for an organisation which is no stranger to trying out the weird and wonderful.
Matt Co-Founded Double Clutch in July 2012 and is the current Editor-in-Chief / Lead Designer. He is a Los Angeles Lakers fan, a Brandon Roy stan and a stalwart of the vibrant UK-based community. He never shuts up about the fact Damian Lillard follows us on Twitter, and has represented Double Clutch as an analyst on BBC Radio 5 Live.