Inside the Houston Rockets' Extreme Strategic Makeover

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IFebruary 21, 2020

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JANUARY 08:  PJ Tucker #17 of the Houston Rockets reacts towards James Harden #13 after drawing a charge from Alex Len #25 of the Atlanta Hawks to force a turnover in the second half at State Farm Arena on January 08, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — Well, somehow, it happened. The Houston Rockets took extreme to the extreme.

General manager Daryl Morey, already known for toeing the line between madness and genius, has the Rockets playing basketball without a center. Gasp!

On the one hand, the league has been trending toward positionless basketball, and the Rockets can now put their five best players on the floor. It's not all that different from the Golden State Warriors' Death Lineupjust on a more permanent basis. On the other hand: Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert.

This experiment is not Morey and head coach Mike D'Antoni collaborating to go extreme just for the sake of it.

"We didn't have analytics back then; we were flying blind," D'Antoni joked. "You guys were killing me! It's good that basketball has progressed, where you have a lot more information. It was tough to also convince players. You have to go in and say this is going to work against conventional wisdom."

The center position has evolved, but it's not entirely dead, and its value will now be put to the test.

"But now with analytics and talking with players, you show them the facts and they buy in a lot easier than back then," D'Antoni said.

The Rockets reconfigured their roster by dealing Clint Capela for Robert Covington as part of a four-team trade because they wanted to become their most evolved self. As they've steadily declined their pick-and-roll frequency—from 10th in 2016-17 to 13th in 2017-18 to 24th in 2018-19 to last in 2019-20—they've increasingly favored isolations. It's to the point where it has become their primary offensive option over the last two years (14.5 percent in 2017-18, 20.4 percent in 2018-19, 19.7 percent this year).

Russell Westbrook and James Harden are the top two players in the NBA in isolation frequency this season, and Harden is second in points per possession on isolations among players with at least 100 possessions. The goal is to give Harden the ball and let him cook, and he excels at it.

By setting a screen, the Rockets bring another defender to the ball-handler (Harden) to try to get the ball out of his hands. This can create a four-on-three situation on the backside, but it also eliminates the best offensive player from the offense.

Without the need for a screen anymore, it doesn't quite make sense to have Capela lurking near the paint instead of adding another shooter to open the floor. It became even more apparent with the addition of Westbrook in the offseason. One non-shooter on the floor is plenty for D'Antoni.

Here is the Rockets' floor spacing with Capela:

Paint Clogged
Paint CloggedNBA Broadcast

Now here it is with Covington:

Middle of the Floor is Wide Open
Middle of the Floor is Wide OpenTNT Broadcast

The Rockets score 5.4 more points per 100 possessions with Capela off the floor while giving up only 3.0 more points without him, which is exactly the gamble they are looking for by replacing him with a three-and-D star in Covington.

Offensively, the Rockets have always been about what shots they get, so they should understand what shots to take away on the other end: layups, free throws and threes.

Can they turbocharge their offense enough to outweigh whatever they give up on the other end? Or is this going to go up in flames?

Lineups with PJ Tucker, Covington and no other big have been fantastic in an extremely small sample, and not just because their offense has erupted. They have a 122.4 offensive rating (99th percentile) and a 101.3 defensive rating (97th percentile) while collecting defensive rebounds in the 97th percentile.

On the season, the Rockets allow the sixth-highest field-goal percentage at the rim and are tied for 10th in frequency of shots at the rim. They also allow the third-highest frequency of corner three-pointers, so it will be worth monitoring how the removal of a true center and the ability to switch 1 through 5 might flip those numbers.

The Rockets may also be up to some chicanery. By playing so small, they're baiting teams into trying to post them up, a play they know is advantageous for them defensively.

"We have a strange team, where James is really good at guarding [the] post," D'Antoni said. "So is Eric Gordon. Everybody we have can guard the post. We rebound just as well with the little guys, so it's weird—it's a weird team. It helps Russell on offense. It helps James. So offensively we're better and should be, theoretically, better defensively."

The Rockets have defended 404 post-ups this season, the second-highest number in the league. In the four games since the trade for Covington, they have defended 41 post-ups, resulting in 12 turnovers, 14 baskets, 12 missed field goals and four fouls. 

"Yeah, for sure," new signing DeMarre Carroll told B/R. "That's something that comes with it, but you've got to make 'em pay on the other end of the floor."

If the Rockets can parlay this smaller ball, more versatile lineup into a better corner-three defense while drawing more post-ups and turning up the heat on offense, they may be on to something special. But there is risk involved with potentially overloading their players.

"Every game, that can kind of wear on you," Warriors forward/center Draymond Green told reporters. "I'll be interested to see how that plays out down the stretch."

Wearing down is not in Tucker's lexicon. Tucker (12th), Westbrook (third) and Harden (first) have played some of the most minutes in the NBA since the 2015-16 season, and D'Antoni doesn't seem worried about the toll his system will take on his workhorses.

"You guys watch," D'Antoni said. "Watch Draymond when they go small. Who does he guard, Russell? PJ doesn't guard the centers. Sometimes he guards centers; mostly it's James who guards the centers. James would rather fight down there than get over picks and go through picks and get knocked off and all that.

"Most of the time, PJ will be on the toughest guy—different guys through the league that are wing players. The LeBrons and all those guys. He'll guard those guys. He does have to box out centers sometimes, but like I said, everybody switches. He probably plays just as much on the perimeter as he does on the inside, and same for James, same for Russell, everybody."

It's clear what kind of team the Rockets want to be, and they're going to do it without fear of showing their cards and allowing opponents to game-plan for their small lineup.

"Well, they're really good at it, so more power to them," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "I think you have to play to your strengths, and each coach has to determine what that means for his team. For us, it meant shorter bursts; you know, 10 to 15 minutes a game with Draymond at center. But it wasn't something we wanted to do a whole lot of, just because we've generally had very deep teams, and, you know, it could wear us down. For us it was a different equation."

The Rockets aren't too worried. Their high-stakes bet is to maximize their strengths by giving Westbrook and Harden as much space to operate as possible. They believe the extra scoring punch they get from their added shooting will net out higher than whatever they give up defensively. And they'll force everyone to beat them at their game.

"You want to make people adjust, and I feel like that's what we're going to do," Carroll said. "Make people adjust and make them play the way we want to play."

If they can do that, it's possible no one in the league can keep up.


Stats via NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Synergy Sports or Cleaning the Glass unless noted otherwise and current entering Friday's games.

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