A Paradigm Shift

Grading the trade: Rockets trade Clint Capela for Robert Covington in massive four-team trade

In a massive four-team trade last night, the Houston Rockets completely changed course as an organization and traded center Clint Capela for forward Robert Covington. The trade involved 12 players and will ultimately go down as the largest trade in NBA history since Patrick Ewing was traded to Seattle in 2000.

The trade:

Hawks receive:
Clint Capela
Nenê Hilario

Rockets receive:
Robert Covington
Jordan Bell
2024 Hawks 2nd-round pick

Timberwolves receive:
Malik Beasley
Jarred Vanderbilt
Juancho Hernangomez
Evan Turner
2020 Brooklyn Nets 1st round pick

Nuggets receive:
Shabazz Napier
Gerald Green
Keita Bates-Diop
Noah Vonleh
2020 Rockets 1st-round pick

Essentially, the Rockets traded Clint Capela, Nene Hilario, Gerald Green, and their 2020 1st round pick in exchange for Robert Covington, Jordan Bell, and the Hawks 2024 2nd round pick.

Analysis from Houston's point of view:

For years, the Rockets have challenged conventional norms in basketball. Whether it's taking over 40 three-pointers a game or introducing reverse protections on draft picks. They've introduced new ideas to the NBA year after year and some ideas were so out there, the natural reaction is to scoff and question the logic behind everything. However, for the last couple years, the Rockets have played closer to a conventional basketball team. The league caught up on three-point shooting and they lost the lineup flexibility that made them so unique in 207-18 and almost won them a championship.

Tuesday night, the Rockets became bold again and decided they didn't need a traditional center to win basketball games at the highest level anymore.

It's so out-of-the-box that even those friendly with the analytics community are questioning the direction of the franchise. I mean, you still need ONE seven-footer to win the defensive rebounding battle, right? Can you realistically expect to win basketball games for a full season and the postseason by just forcing turnovers and bombing three-pointers?

I can't answer these questions, mostly because we've never seen anything like this before. Even the Warriors at the height of their dominance had token starting centers in Andrew Bogut and Zaza Pachulia. What I can say is that the Rockets believe in what they're doing at their core of their being. Houston genuinely believes swapping Clint Capela for Robert Covington makes them a better basketball team, otherwise they wouldn't have given up their first round pick to do so.

Make no mistake, just because the Rockets got under the luxury tax by a significant margin (roughly $5.8 million) doesn't mean this was a financially-driven move. I'm sure the fact that they did made it easier to sell the trade to ownership, but the Rockets could have gotten under the luxury tax this season by simply dumping Nene Hilario. This was a basketball move for Houston through and through.

Over the last four games, 90% of the minutes played by center for the Rockets have been by someone 6 foot 6 or smaller and they've won every single one of them. With Covington in the fold, not only do they plan to double-down on that strategy, they plan to refine it.

Offensively, it makes a lot of sense why the Rockets would want to play this way. When Houston traded for Russell Westbrook this summer, they compromised the floor spacing element they had with Chris Paul and could only surround James Harden with two shooters as opposed to three. Now they can go back to three and properly space the floor around Harden and Westbrook, but sacrifice the lob threat dynamic of Capela in the process. The Rockets have always had Capela in the dunker's spot (area near the rim, but not right next to it) and ready to catch lobs when second defenders commit to Harden or Westbrook. Now they'll have to make that second defender pay with an open three-point shot instead.

Defensively, with Danuel House, Eric Gordon, Tucker, and Covington, the Rockets finally have the versatility to play the way they've haven't been able to play since 2017-18: switching everything. In 2017-18, Houston had Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, and Luc Mbah a Moute which enabled them to do this. However, they abandoned this strategy last season once they realized they no-longer had the personnel to play that way anymore.

Which brings me to another point: the Rockets have finally found a proper replacement for Trevor Ariza for the first time since 2018. Covington is the closest thing you're going to get to an exact replica of what Ariza was in his mid-20s.

Size comparison:

Trevor Ariza height: 6'8"

Robert Covington height: 6'7"

Trevor Ariza wingspan: 7'2"

Robert Covington wingspan: 7'1"

As Ariza aged out and Houston had to part ways with him, the Rockets never found anyone to sufficiently fill that need. They tried to replace his production with James Ennis, Danuel House, Eric Gordon, and even Ben McLemore to no avail. With Covington, they may have landed on the right guy.

Ariza may have been a slightly better defensive player and Covington may be a slightly better offensive player, but this is as close as you're going to get.

The question the Rockets now have to ask themselves is how they're new lineups will face against other Western Conference contenders. Against a smaller team like the Clippers, the Rockets seem pretty well suited to switch everything and have enough defenders to guard both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George effectively. Against bigger teams like the Jazz, Lakers, and Nuggets, it may be a real conundrum.

To their credit, P.J. Tucker, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook are stout enough to defend post-play for a few possessions a game, but how that holds up for 48 minutes is a real question. The Rockets may intend to start big with whatever center they can scoop up at the deadline or the buyout market and end small so they don't wear Tucker and Harden out. And on the glass, the chances that they can out-rebound the likes of Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and Rudy Gobert are out of question. They are going to have to be comfortable giving up the idea of winning the rebounding battle in favor of forcing a heavy amount of turnovers - as unconventional as that may be for a basketball team.

Offensively, they'll be advantaged in that they'll be much quicker. Davis, Jokic, and Gobert will be disadvantaged trying to keep up with the Rockets in transition. The spaced floor means rim protectors will have to be further from the basket to close out on shooters. Ideally, this means they will be able to play these big men off the floor.

The battle no longer becomes about rebounding and it becomes "Can you out-rebound us enough to make up for the hell we rain down on you in transition and in space?"

And teams may make Houston pay. We'll see. It's definitely attacking everything we fundamentally know about basketball.

The Grade

B-

Explanation

It should be noted that at the time of writing this, the trade hasn't fully materialized yet as the Rockets are trying to expand on it. If they expand on it, they could add yet another wing or play it safe and grab a center. Whatever the case, it's very clear that Houston is not a finished product. If the trade were to go through as is, they would have two open roster spots, three trade exceptions over $3.2 million (including one that would be opened up worth over $5.8 million).

If you were to ask me what is a more valuable asset: Clint Capela on his salary plus a first round pick or Robert Covington on his salary, it may be the former. However, I'm not sure if this trade should be assessed in a vacuum like that. Considering everything listed above about Houston's newly adopted philosophy of going small and staying small for close to 40 minutes a game, Covington may be a more valuable asset than Capela to Houston at this point in time.

The Rockets have picked an identity for this team and they're clearly all in on it from top to bottom in the organization. We're just going to have to see how it succeeds for an 82-game season and a playoff run.

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