A Unique New Approach

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The Houston Rockets are Pushing the Envelope, but will it Work?

It’s not often a championship contender changes its entire identity mid-season.

That is exactly what the Houston Rockets did at the NBA’s trade deadline just a month ago, shipping off Clint Capela and a number of their other bigs in favour for more wings. Robert Covington was the main coupe, but the Rockets also added the likes of DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Green, and Bruno Caboclo to the fold.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey has never been one to play things conservatively.

Known by many as a savant in the field of analytics, Morey is never afraid to stir the pot, but even this has many people seemingly shaking their heads in confusion. For the past month, the Rockets have been running a rotation smaller than any seen in the league in over 40 years.

That has come with its fair share of complications. In February, Rockets opponents have been a +9.1 on the glass. Through three disheartening games in March, that number dropped a tick to +8.4 in the favour of the opposition. To no one’s surprise, the 39-23 Rockets have been bullied on the glass and overwhelmed due to lack of size since the moves were made, but nevertheless, there seems to be little panic surrounding the team as the playoffs approach.

“Now, we know where we’ve got to go, and we’ll respond,” said Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni after a lopsided defeat earlier in the week at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers. “It won’t break us, but this will make us. I’ll have to look at the tape a little bit, and then figure [it] out. But most of the stuff, that’s what we do. Most of the times it’s good. Tonight, was really bad. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not going to end today. We’ll be back and guys will regather. We’ve got a great group. I’ve got to find out a little bit about the rotations and stuff. I’ve got to figure a few things out, and we will.”

After a 9-2 month of February, the Rockets dropped each of their three games in the month of March – two of which were to the dysfunctional New York Knicks and the rebuilding Charlotte Hornets.

The Rockets are very aware of the recipe for their own self-destruction, but simultaneously understand how they can overcome even the best competition the NBA has to offer.

Capela has been a double-double machine and the anchor for an already mediocre defensive group in Houston for years, but Morey appeared willing to turn his back on the center’s defensive productivity to promote a very different style of basketball. With that being said, it is important to understand the reason behind Morey’s madness.

In 11 games with Capela on the bench nursing an injury, the Rockets put together an 11-1 record, boasting big wins over playoff calibre opponents such as the Miami Heat and the Utah Jazz. Furthermore, during minutes in which Capela was on the court, the Rockets offensive rating would plummet from 115.8 to 110 – a grand total of 5.8 points. By all accounts, while a fantasy basketball beast, Capela’s box score numbers failed to paint an accurate representation of the big man’s fit in the Rockets system. Even the team’s defensive metrics, while slightly better with him on the floor, his presence over the past four seasons seemed inconsequential if we are to take a quick look at his on/off court defensive ratings.

The Rockets needed a solution and Morey decided to take the scorch earth route.

Since the trade, Russell Westbrook has been unleashed, seeing a 7 point spike in his offensive rating, an extra 3.1 points per game and a near 6 percent boost to his overall field goal percentage. Granted, only a small sample size, but with the extra spacing, Westbrook has been absolutely feasting in the paint, while also taking and making more open three-pointers. In six games post-All-Star break, the seemingly liberated Westbrook has converted on 40 percent of his three point attempts, a huge leap from his 23.8 percent mark in 45 games prior to the break.

The Rockets as a team has seen an increase in their points per game, three-point attempts, three-point makes, and even blocks and steals totals since the switch to a smaller lineup. Part of that has been the addition of Robert Covington, who since joining the Rockets has been averaging 13.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting an efficient 37.5 percent from long range and blocking more shots on a per contest (2.4) basis than the seven foot Capela has ever done in a Rockets uniform (1.5 blocks per game across six seasons).

“You can’t try to play matchup basketball,” said one Western Conference head coach of the new look Rockets. “That’s what they want. You have to beat them with [ball] movement.”

It’s easy to think the Rockets have been exposed over the past three games, when really, the blueprint has always been quite clear.

The Rockets mantra remains the same – let’s not forget – they will continue to live by three and die by the three, but for the purposes of a seven game series, the Rockets now have enough spacing to create more good looks and when healthy, have a plethora of competent shooters to blow any team out of the gym. At the same time, while consistently being bullied on the boards, their defensive has improved since the All-Star break.

“Teams think they have a mismatch by going inside,” a scout from an Eastern Conference team said, “and they don’t.”

Believing the Rockets have declined defensively due to the lack of size is fools-gold. This is the same Rockets team that since the retooling has pulled off impressive victories against the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and Utah Jazz – three teams with legitimate aspirations of reaching the conference finals.

“It’s kind of a unique team in that our little guys can guard big guys,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said of his team.

Keeping the Rockets off the offensive glass is one way to slow down this juggernaut, but more so, if opponents hope to compete, they must understand that they are entering a shootout. In each of their last three games, the Rockets opponents appeared unconscious from long range. The Hornets shoot 47 percent from the beyond the arc, while the Knicks hit 40 percent of their three-point looks. In their matchup against the Clippers, the Rockets simply struggled, hitting just 17 percent of their three-pointers against one of the best perimeter defenses in the league.

Against the Clippers, the combination of Harden, Westbrook, and Covington shot 0-for-13 from long range, a total that should be considered as nothing more than an outlier.

“There are going to be holes,” D’Antoni said. “It’s not going to be like it’s going to be an easy win. They’re going to exploit things if we can’t stay in front of our guys. Now it becomes, can you guard the guy in front of you?

“But it’s them, too. And we happen to think we have the best two one-on-one players in the league. Where’s their rim protection when we’re shooting 3s out there? If we can play our style the right way, then they’ve got to make a choice also.”

A perfect team does not exist.

The Lakers struggle mightily when LeBron James is off the floor, while the Milwaukee Bucks are built around a player who although dominant, has offensive limitations that are exposed against tougher defenders and more intricate defensive schemes. The Toronto Raptors, Clippers, and Boston Celtics all have their own deficiencies that opponents will look to take advantage of come the postseason.

No one can say that the Rockets are a team that found a revolutionary concept that transformed them into an unbeatable entity, but with that in mind, Morey may have found something that can very well them turn them into a very tough out come the 2020 postseason.

At the end of the day, that is all that matters.

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