Houston Rockets' Small Ball Has Unleashed a New and Improved Russell Westbrook

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2020

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 26 : Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets looks on during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on February 26, 2020 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Clint Capela played his final game for the Houston Rockets against the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 29. He logged 17 minutes and was minus-15 in a 13-point loss.

Since then, the Rockets have deployed 6'5" P.J. Tucker as their starting center. They traded Capela to the Atlanta Hawks as part of a deal that brought Robert Covington to Houston. They've won far more games than they've lost. And they've unlocked a new level of efficiency previously unseen from Russell Westbrook.

After dismantling the Memphis Grizzlies, 140-112, on Wednesday, Houston is now 9-2 since that last game with Capela, and it's scoring 4.9 more points per 100 possessions than it did before the drastic lineup change.

The difference in playing style and aesthetics is glaring. The bold experiment is clearly working on the team level. But all that pales in comparison to what it is doing for the 2016-17 MVP as an individual.

With traditional centers no longer occupying the floor inside the three-point line, Westbrook is attacking space with a relentlessness few, if any, players can match.

His season had started to turn a corner a bit before Houston's philosophical shift, but he was averaging 26.3 points with a well-below-average 52.6 true shooting percentage through Jan. 29. Houston was a respectable plus-3.4 points per 100 possessions with Russ on the floor and plus-6.3 with him off.

After going for 33 points on 15-of-24 shooting in the blowout win over Memphis, Westbrook is now averaging 32.3 points since the stylistic shift on a 57.7 true shooting percentage that would top his season-long career high by over two percentage points. 

In the same stretch, Russ is scoring 20.8 points in the paint, 2.8 per game ahead of second-place Zion Williamson.

On top of what this has done for Westbrook, microball seems to agree with perennial MVP candidate James Harden, as well.

For much of the season, the two stars often seemed to be figuring each other out. When Russ got hot, it came at the expense of Harden—and vice versa. But in this post-Capela stretch, Harden's numbers have been huge, too: 33.2 points and 7.7 assists per game with a 66.1 true shooting percentage. 

With both MVPs locked in at the same time, Houston is starting to look like a title contender, regardless of how big the supporting cast is.

Of course, these lineup concepts aren't new to the NBA.

When the Utah Jazz hired Quin Snyder as their head coach in 2014, he opined on the possibilities of positionless basketball. As he told reporters at the time, "We don't want to define positions. We think basketball should be positionless. We want to have great shots each time down the floor."

Utah's personnel didn't really allow Snyder to pursue that vision, but he's not the only coach who has expressed such sentiments. The idea has been around for a while. The Golden State Warriors, for example, used it to devastating effect with Draymond Green at center during their half-decade dynasty. But that was just for relatively short bursts.

The Rockets are taking it further, and Warriors head coach Steve Kerr elaborated on the differences to Bleacher Report's Will Gottlieb

"Well, they're really good at it, so more power to them. 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 equation for Houston has an awful lot to do with Westbrook.

The Rockets have made no secret of their desire to get a ton of threes up in the Daryl Morey era. Acquiring Russ, a career 30.4 percent shooter from deep, seemed to fly in the face of that approach.

He tried to fit in over the first few months of the season, taking 4.9 threes per game in 2019. His 23.1 three-point percentage in that early part of the season, especially when combined with Capela's lack of range, made the floor far more crowded than normal for Houston.

In 2020, he's more than cut his average number of attempts in half. And without Capela chilling in the dunker's spot on the baseline, he has precious extra room on his drives inside.

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 26 : Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets shoots the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies on February 26, 2020 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Over the course of the entire season, Russ is averaging 30.4 points and 6.4 assists per 75 possessions with a 59.9 true shooting percentage when he plays without a traditional 5. The equation just made more sense with centers out of it.

This obviously isn't a perfect strategy, though. Good luck finding such a thing in the NBA.

Jonas Valanciunas had 16 points and 10 rebounds on 6-of-9 shooting against Houston on Wednesday. On one second-half possession, he made a deep post catch, turned around and dunked as if Harden weren't even there. The Rockets' lack of size can be exploited on the defensive interior. 

But over the balance of an entire game, Houston has to feel pretty good about its chances to overwhelm its opponent in the post with threes and fast-break opportunities. Perhaps more dominant bigs like Nikola Jokic or Anthony Davis can punish the Rockets for this unconventional style, but don't expect them to adjust with heavy minutes from Tyson Chandler or Isaiah Hartenstein.

"Big" for Houston now means Jeff Green (6'8", 235 lbs), Covington (6'7", 211 lbs) or DeMarre Carroll (6'6", 215 lbs). The Rockets are all in on this strategy.

And after decades of basketball conditioning us to expect a conventional big in the middle of the floor, Harden and this supercharged version of Russ may have to win it all to bring converts around to the latest evolution of Moreyball.

Its first month in action makes that feel possible.

       

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference, PBPStats.com or Cleaning the Glass.

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