The Small-Ball Era in Houston Has Arrived


Sitting at 32-18 and 6th place in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets (now 34-20) knew they needed to make a change before the trade deadline. Despite having former MVPs James Harden and Russell Westbrook, nothing was consistently clicking on a game-by-game basis. With limited assets and cap flexibility (and a stingy owner), Daryl Morey’s only realistic option was to trade Clint Capela – the team’s second-longest tenured player, who had been developing into one of the better centers in the league over the past few seasons.

The trade netted them 6’7″ swingman Robert Covington, among other pieces. Covington not only filled an immediate need on the perimeter, but he also suddenly became the tallest member of the Rockets’ rotation. Enter: Small Ball.

The Loss of Capela

As noted above, Capela – a young player on a friendly contract – was the only real asset that Morey had to offer to teams.  With Capela’s departure, the Rockets lost a number of things. Most importantly, they lost the ability to do this:


I dearly hope that these two in-arena entertainment products find a second life in Atlanta.

In terms of the game itself, the Rockets lost, well, a center. The team still technically rosters big men Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein, but both players have not been getting any minutes for various (sometimes unclear) reasons. For all intents and purposes, the Rockets no longer have a center.

The most glaring issue from this is the lack of rebounding. With no one over 6’7″ getting consistent minutes, the Rockets are at a huge disadvantage on the glass. Since the trade, they are second to last in the league at rebounding rate – just slightly ahead of the lowly Warriors (sorry, had to throw in a dig at the Warriors while I still can).

On offense, the Rockets lost one of their major go-to plays: the Harden-Capela pick-and-roll. Here’s a standard example of how well it worked:

I’ve written about the effectiveness of this play many times before, but it’s hard to overstate how consistently clueless it rendered opposing defenses. Every time it was run, Harden either had an opportunity for a stepback 3, an easy drive to the lane, or, most likely, Capela was wide open for a lob in the paint. Now, however, the Rockets can’t really run this set as well. They still set a lot of picks for each other in order to attack mismatches, but there’s no one left that can roll to the basket like Capela could.

Capela had carved out a nice role in Houston. Without him, the Rockets are forced play a completely different brand of basketball on both ends of the floor. Morey and D’Antoni are making the bet, though, that the added benefits of their new schemes will outweigh the loss of Capela…

The Philosophy

A lot of fans and media members were shocked by the Rockets’ trade. How can you possibly compete for a championship without a starting center?! Here’s Bill Simmons’ hypothesis as to why the Rockets made the move:

Despite the odd sarcasm and cynicism, Simmons almost gets it right here. One of the major reasons as to why this move helps is the extra spacing on offense.

The Rockets are – and have been for the last few years – a three-point shooting team. Therefore, Westbrook’s arrival this summer was pretty much the beginning of the end for Capela. It would be counter-intuitive to have two non-shooters in the starting lineup on a team that mainly shoots threes. Capela’s inability to step outside the paint hampered Westbrook’s driving ability, and, conversely, Westbrook’s inability to shoot allowed defenses to more easily collapse on Capela. One had to go. It certainly wasn’t going to be Westbrook.

Westbrook has had a great season (27/8/7 on 46% shooting), but his net rating with Capela for the year was only at 2.2. For reference, his net rating with Covington (in, granted, a small sample size) is at 22.9. With Capela, there were extra defenders coming at Westbrook every time he drove the lane. With the small-ball system in place, though, every defender is forced to stay on their man on the perimeter. Westbrook has just his defender to beat toward the basket – a matchup that more often than not leads to an easy layup or dunk. Look at how lost Gobert is here:

The other major reason for small-ball is a lot more nuanced.

Perhaps the biggest competition for the Rockets in the Western Conference this season is the Lakers. The reason for this is not just their star power, but their incredible size. Between AD, Howard, and McGee (not to mention LeBron), the Lakers can simply bully many teams off the court. The Rockets were aware of this fact. The Rockets were also aware that they were going to get bullied off the court with or without Capela. Capela is a seven-footer, but he’s a little bit tentative, and he can’t realistically compete inside with the Lakers’ bigs. What’s the point, then, of having a center for the sole reason of creating more standardized matchups?

What the Lakers don’t have is good guard play. Therefore, the Rockets’ plan is to overwhelm this aspect of the Lakers’ roster. By having a limited amount of size, the Rockets can play their way, rather than just accept and succumb to the playing style of the Lakers. In simplest terms, the ideal plan is for the guards on the Rockets to dominate the Laker guards by more than the Laker bigs can beat up on the Rockets. As I will document below, this plan worked well in their first matchup.

The Start of Small-Ball

Since the Capela trade, the Rockets have gone 2-2. When you look closer, though, it’s more impressive. They have double digit wins against the Lakers and Celtics, and nearly beat the Jazz if not for a ridiculous buzzer beating heave by Bogdan Bogdanovic. There was an ugly loss to the Suns, but I’m personally not putting much stock into it. The game was on a back-to-back and Westbrook and Eric Gordon were both inactive.


The Celtics game was probably the cleanest game start to finish, but I want to focus specifically on the matchup against the Lakers. The Rockets not only won the game, but they won the game playing their way. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee – both having resurgent years – played a combined 20 minutes. The dominant two-headed monster at center was relegated to the bench for nearly half the game. Even though Anthony Davis played great (32 points and 13 boards), the Lakers’ size advantage was essentially neutralized. With five guards/floor spacers on the court at all times for the Rockets, the Lakers couldn’t realistically have either of their centers play effective minutes. Seriously – who was Dwight Howard expected to guard?

Robert Covington has quickly become a vital part of the roster. Not only is he hitting his threes and spacing the floor, but he has established himself as a defensive leader. Last game alone, he had four blocks and three steals. Take a look at this clip:

This is textbook defensive positioning. He is simultaneously a step away from LeBron up top if the pass goes there, and right in place to block Davis is the post. Covington’s awareness is something that the Rockets have lacked on defense since Trevor Ariza, and he adds an additional level of athleticism that Ariza didn’t have.


Right now, the biggest issue is rebounding. As I have stated, the Rockets are second to last in the league in rebounding rate since the trade. While the team has good individual rebounders, the size disadvantage is simply too much to overcome at points.

One other thing that I haven’t touched on is fatigue. It has yet to be a noticeable issue, but the switching style deployed takes an unbelievable amount of effort. With no center to stabilize things, everyone has to not only guard their own man, but also help down low on pretty much every possession. However, the individual Rocket players have actually been getting less minutes since the trade. D’Antoni has done a good job thus far of spreading out playing time and not wearing down guys like Harden and Tucker. It remains to be seen how long that trend will continue.

The Road Ahead

Right now, the Rockets sit at 34-20 and 5th in the Western Conference. They are 7.5 games back of the first-place Lakers, but just 3.5 games back of the Nuggets for second. With a couple of games against some easy Eastern Conference teams in the next few weeks, the Rockets have an opportunity to put themselves back in contention.

Whatever happens, though, small-ball is certainly here to stay.

Follow us on Twitter @RocketsLead for the latest Rockets news and insight.

About Zach Zola

Zach Zola is a student at Brown University studying English. He grew up in New York, but has been a die-hard Rockets fan since the days of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. He believes that James Harden is the only King James in the NBA.

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