Why the Houston Rockets Small Ball Experiment Failed
By: Allen Chun
Just before the NBA was preparing to resume the 2019-2020 season at the Orlando Disney bubble, there were four teams that were favorites to win the championship in the betting markets: the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Houston Rockets. Analysts such as ESPN’s Ryan Clark and Golden State Warrior Draymond Green picked the Rockets to win the West due to the Rockets acquisition of former MVP Russell Westbrook and what he brought to the floor on both ends every night. With two of the best players in the league and a squad of well-rounded shooters, it certainly seemed as if the Rockets were gearing up for a serious run in the playoffs.
However, as teams were heading into the All-Star break, the Houston Rockets made a surprising move to trade their starting center Clint Capela away to the Atlanta Hawks in order to receive Robert Covington in a four team trade agreement.
Former Rockets GM Daryl Morey went on ESPN and explained that having Capela in the lineup "wasn't working good enough to win the championship". By acquiring Robert Covington, they received a perimeter defender who can guard the 1 to 5 and a reliable volume shooter. This made the transition to a complete small-ball lineup where no starter was taller than 6'7". While it seemed to work at first as they won 10 of their first 12 games and were third in offensive rating, the flaws of the team eventually revealed themselves during the bubble and in the playoffs.
The Rockets small ball experiment relied on having five shooters on the floor to stretch the floor and prevent defenders from constantly double teaming James Harden. The simple explanation to the failures of the Rockets play style came from their inability to grab rebounds, implement Russell Westbrook into their system, and consistently shoot the three. This article takes a deep dive into the specific weaknesses of the Houston Rockets and why their small ball style of basketball didn’t work with the lineup they’ve used during the 2019-2020 season.
Because the Rockets lack a prototypical center, they rely on all five players on the floor to rebound the basketball collectively. When the Rockets traded Clint Capela, they gave away a 6’10” glass-cleaning lockdown that averaged 13.8 rebounds per game. With the loss of Capela, the Rockets’ rebounding numbers plummeted from 45.6 rebounds per game before the All-Star break to 40.2 after the break.
While Coach D’Antoni might argue that Houston doesn’t need as many rebounds because they win the game by outscoring their opponent with three pointers, the case was not true in the playoffs. For example, in Game Four of the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals, the Rockets shot a high 42.4% on 33 attempts from the three. Despite this, they lost the game by 10 points to the Los Angeles Lakers primarily because they were outrebounded by 26 rebounds (52 to 26). The showcasing of the Rockets’ defeat to the Lakers highlights the disadvantages of not having a traditional center and has forced the Rockets to obtain big men Demarcus Cousins and Christian Wood for the next season.
Russell Westbrook doesn’t fit in the system.
Before arriving at Houston, Russell Westbrook was averaging a triple-double for three consecutive seasons. By trading a 35 year old Chris Paul for a 31 year old Westbrook who was more explosive and in his prime, the Rockets positioned themselves in a “win now” situation, poised to bring Houston their first ring since 1995.
But by trading Chris Paul, they gave away a respectable shooter for one of the worst volume three point shooters in the league. In the 2019-2020 season, Westbrook shot just 25.8% on 213 threes. When a player like Westbrook is on the floor with four other shooters, players defending Westbrook are prone to help off of him to defend James Harden from scoring. Because Harden has one of the highest usage rates in the league and Russell Westbrook is a such a ball dominant point guard, it was difficult for Westbrook to create his own shot with little time on the shot clock. During the playoffs, Houston had a better net rating when Westbrook was off the floor than when he was on the floor. In fact, their net rating without Westbrook matched the net rating of the Lakers, the 2020 NBA Champions.
So why did the Rockets acquire Westbrook in the first place? One reason could be because of the complications James Harden had with Chris Paul. Multiple league sources stated that the relationship between the two was at an “unsalvageable” point. Another source reported that Harden made the trade for Westbrook happen. Whether those rumors were true or not, one thing was certain: Coach Mike D’Antoni wanted to pull off something unique, as he had previously done in his career with the Suns seven second offense. In the 2018-2019 season, the Rockets ranked 27th in the league for pace. With Westbrook’s jumper being a liability on the floor, it seemed as if the Rockets were looking for a slashing playmaker who could put pressure on the rim with backdoor cuts, a huge amount of space to drive the basketball to the rim, and easy transition buckets.
The thing is, historically, players adjusted to the playing style of Westbrook. Even when Harden was in Oklahoma City, he adjusted to Westbrook as a bench player. But with Harden being the clear leader of the team and arguably the best pure scorer in the league, the new offense forced Westbrook to play the wing and run in transition without getting the ball first as he was used to.
The truth is, when you match two players that once led the league in turnovers per game, it isn’t going to be easy to implement a player like Westbrook into a five-out system when shooting isn’t his biggest strength. This isn’t to say Russell Westbrook is a bad player. The style of basketball has simply changed over the past few years, and Westbrook will need to adapt his game to become a threat from the midrange and three point shot.
The Rockets aren’t very good at shooting the three.
While it isn’t surprising to see that the Houston Rockets lead the league in three point field goals attempted, it is surprising to see that they rank 24th in three point field goal percentage. Their most efficient player from the three was Ben McLemore, a decent bench player who shot 40% from the three on 453 attempts.
Fans might counter by stating that Houston doesn’t need a high three point percentage to win games because they chuck up so many threes, but history has told us that being a deep range shooting team requires being efficient from the three point line.
Take the Warriors for example. Since the 2009-2010 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors have been in the top five for three point field goal percentage. The result? Five division titles, five trips to the Finals, and three championships.
Unfortunately, Houston is just trying too hard to be what the Warriors were. In the fourth quarter, the Rockets had the second worst three point field goal percentage in the league, which ultimately led to many unnecessary close games and did not fare well in the playoffs.
It’s unfair to say that Houston failed to work around their small ball lineup because teams such as the Lakers were eventually forced to play smaller in order to stretch the floor and match with Houston’s speed. Unfortunately, as long as they continue to shoot the three as they’ve done for the past five years, it won’t bring a championship home, especially with Harden forcing up more than 12 threes a game.
With the Rockets trading Robert Covington and Russell Westbrook, acquiring Demarcus Cousins and Christian Wood, and James Harden requesting a trade to a different team, it’s safe to say that the Rockets are going to be in the rebuilding phase of basketball in a few years. At the end of the day, Daryl Morey showcased the pros and cons of having five small players on the floor, and even though it failed, don’t be surprised if future teams attempt to emulate Houston’s strategy of having the focal point of offense at the three-point line.