Since the trade deadline this year, P.J. Tucker has been listed at the centre position for Houston. That may be true for defence but the offence tells a different story.
After yelling back-and-forth with a fan in Utah, Russell Westbrook sprints towards the rim on a James Harden drive, catches an alley-oop and throws it down all over the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert.
There’s nothing new about that last paragraph. What’s different is that both players involved in the dunk play the same position, centre.
The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s small-ball darling team for most of the last five years (outside of the Golden State Warriors’ death lineup and Hamptons Five of course). They found hidden gem Clint Capela at the end of the first round in the 2014 draft and built him into a prototypical rim-runner and defender.
The league-wide belief was that although small-ball would be effective for limited amounts of time game-by-game, every team still needed a seven-foot behemoth stomping around for 30 minutes per game to defend each opposing team’s big man.
The Rockets peaked when they made it to, and subsequently lost, the Western Conference Finals to the aforementioned Warriors in 2018. That season was the height of small ball, with the Warriors predominantly using six-foot-seven Draymond Green as their centre, defending and effectively nullifying Clint Capela.
The Rockets signed Capela to a five-year, $80 million deal in 2018 and seemed to have regretted it from the day it was signed. Daryl Morey acted on this and traded Capela to the Atlanta Hawks in a massive four-team trade in order to acquire defensive stalwart and prophesied three-point sniper Robert Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
At the time of the trade, I was very high on the Rockets leaning so heavily into small ball, and I thought Covington would be the key to unlock the five-out system Houston had been searching for since they acquired James Harden in 2012.
As NBA fans and scholars alike have come to learn, the five-out system doesn’t work if you don’t have five formidable shooters on the court at any given time.
This is where head coach Mike D’Antoni’s brilliance comes to fruition. The Rockets never needed to play five-out in order to solve all of their problems, they were just playing four-out with the wrong centre.
NBA coaches have been putting their slowest (and usually biggest) defender on the worst three-point shooter of the opposing team in small ball situations. This allows them to sit deeper in the key during defensive possessions and be more of a general disruption as they don’t need to worry about the man they are leaving.
For the last few years, that has made total sense and is the most logical way for a team to use their on-court resources.
The reason this new-look Rockets team is different is that whenever another team comes to face Houston, the worst three-point shooter on the court is six-foot-three pitbull Westbrook, ready to attack whoever is in front of him relentlessly for 48 minutes per game.
Westbrook and his immense first-step have been tormenting the Rockets’ last ten opponents to the tune of over 34 points per game on over 53 percent shooting. He’s only taking 2.4 threes per game, which is down two whole attempts, as he now has the freedom to attack the empty space under the rim with reckless abandon.
He has made an example of not-so-fleet-footed Frenchman Rudy Gobert with some furious drives to the basket, a well-balanced mid-ranged game and an arrogant cradle rocking celebration to go along with them. He torched the Lakers and Celtics for 41 points each and thrived whilst attacking the NBA’s third and fourth best defences.
Ten games is still a small sample size, but not many of the other teams in the NBA have the personnel available to properly match-up with what the Rockets throw out night by night. If Houston can continue to get super-human efforts from all of their undersized defenders like P.J. Tucker and Covington nightly, then Westbrook and Harden sure do seem like they can carry the offensive load.
This mini Russell Westbrook transformation has been a wonder to watch and I hope it continues because it is making Russ fun again. The Rockets are dangerous again, and this time maybe for real.