Go big or go home

How the Rockets have put all of their chips in on micro-ball

P.J. Tucker is a key member of the Rockets. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On January 26th, the Rockets lost a game to the Denver Nuggets in what would be one of their low-points of the season. It was their fifth loss in seven games and more importantly, they had tied the season series with Denver, meaning they would not have a standings tiebreaker at the end of the season. However, that wasn't why it was a low point for the Rockets.

It was a low point because Houston had historically dominated Denver (9-2 in the regular seasons the three years prior), and it looked like they finally caught up. Year after year, James Harden continuously made Denver's defense look like toilet paper (averaged 30.5 points, 10.0 assists, and 5.5 rebounds per game on 67.2% true shooting against them last season). This matchup was so bad for the Nuggets that they even tanked a game at the end of the season last year so they didn't have to play the Rockets in the second round.

And while James Harden still tortured Denver's defense, the Nuggets were no longer afraid of the Rockets. They successfully trapped Harden earlier in the season, Clint Capela's verticality no longer bothered the Nuggets (averaged 24.0 points and 11.0 rebounds on 69.6% true shooting against the Nuggets last year), and more importantly, Denver became a better basketball team while the Rockets seemingly stagnated, if not gotten worse.

So the Rockets did something interesting the next night. With Clint Capela injured, they elected not to play a traditional big man for 42 minutes against Utah (Isaiah Hartenstein received 6 minutes). And then they did it again four nights later, and then again, and then again. As fans grew frustrated about Hartenstein not receiving minutes, the Rockets continued on collecting wins with their unorthodox style of play. Soon enough, the trade deadline reared its' ugly head and Houston shocked the NBA world by trading their best young asset and most reliable traditional center in Clint Capela.

The only logical conclusion to draw from this is that Houston made an ideological shift along the way about the best way for them to play moving forward. It's made clear by how Hartenstein completely fell out of the rotation, despite making a pretty compelling case for minutes. It's also made clear by the way the Rockets were talking about the small units as a facilitator for their offense even before the trade went down.

"The underlying thing is we're just trying to really open it up for James [Harden] and Russell [Westbrook] to get to the rim," said Mike D'Antoni. "And that lineup permits that. Now can you play that well enough defensively and rebounding to make them blink and go small? Or make their bigs impose their will? And that's a challenge. We'll see."

Their dialogue after the trade went down only cemented what we already knew.

"I think you win championships in the NBA when you match your superstar's unique talents with the rest of the players on the roster, with high quality veterans like Robert Covington," said Daryl Morey after the trade. "We are very confident that the Russell Westbrook and James Harden tandem plays best with a spaced floor, up-tempo. On defense, we have lots of guys who can switch everything, guard smaller and bigger."

You don't have to read too much between the tea leaves to get what the Rockets are getting at. To maximize Russell Westbrook, Houston went into the trade deadline with the intention of dumping their best non-floor spacing threat and snagging someone who could space the floor and add to their newly created four-out system. And Westbrook has responded quite well to the extra space.

Russell Westbrook (last 10 games):

34.4 PPG

7.6 RPG

6.1 APG

1.7 SPG

56.2% True Shooting

It's also obvious, as they said themselves, that the Rockets wanted to get back to switching everything defensively again. Last season, the Rockets abandoned switching everything on defense because they lacked the personnel to do it properly. The prior season, Houston had Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and P.J. Tucker which made them extremely versatile on defense and they lost Mbah a Moute and Ariza in the summer. However, since then, Houston has recouped some of the versatility they had that season in the form of Danuel House and Robert Covington. Covington is just better defensively than 32-year-old Trevor Ariza.

Covington is a nice rebounder for his size, his communication and rotations on the weak-side are nearly flawless, and he has the athleticism to make some pretty freakish defensive plays.

'Without a doubt," said D'Antoni when asked if micro-ball could help improve Houston's defense. "We can take everyone out of their sets."

What D'Antoni is referring to is team's tendency to play iso-ball or post when they go up against the Rockets instead of their usual team offenses. The Lakers did this with Anthony Davis last Thursday and the Celtics even did it with Enes Kanter on Tuesday. Houston's switching forces teams to stop moving the ball so much because the passing lanes are tough to access. This makes iso-ball even more tempting, and when teams do that, they score less points per possession on average.

"They're just so physical," said Brad Stevens after his Celtics squad fell to the Rockets. "Like I said yesterday, you think because they're small that most things are a good idea, but they're so strong, they're built like linebackers all the way across the board. So posting is tough against these guys, even for bigger wings or centers or whatever the case may be."

It's tough to sort their defensive stats because the Phoenix game was such an anomaly without Russell Westbrook and on the second night of a back-to-back (127.0 Defensive RTG) and it distorts everything, so let's take it out of the sample size for the sake of argument.

Rockets Defensive RTG during micro-ball era:

108.9 (8th in the NBA)

So statistically, Mike D'Antoni is correct. The Rockets have been slightly better since they've converted to P.J. Tucker at center full-time. Houston's essentially given up on the rebounding battle (29th in rebounding percentage in the last 9 games) and doubled down in forced turnovers (18.6 opponent turnovers per game - 1st in the league in last 9 games). It's such a quirky strategy to depend on long-term, but that's what makes Houston's experiment so compelling. Nobody's done small-ball to this extent. Even the Warriors put up the facade of having Zaza Pachulia and Andrew Bogut play at least 20 minutes a night with the knowledge that it wasn't their best lineup.

It's also interesting how Houston's been slowly hedging to full-time micro ball for about three years. It's just trading Clint Capela that made it such a bold move. Just look at how much P.J. Tucker's been downsized over the years and you'll see that it was always moving this way, but the Rockets ripped the band-aid off at the trade deadline.

P.J. Tucker time at position

2017-18:

Shooting guard - 5% / Small forward - 39% / Power forward - 55% / Center - 2%

2018-19:

Shooting guard - 0% / Small forward - 11% / Power forward - 83% / Center - 6%

2019-20:

Shooting guard - 0% / Small forward - 0% / Power forward - 68% / Center - 32%

"That's how we play," said Tucker after the Rockets fell to the Jazz on Bojan Bogdanovic game winner. "That's what we're doing. It's not a test. It's us playing how we play and doing what we do."

It's very clear that the Rockets are committed to this style of play from top to bottom in the organization. Whether it pays off in the long run is anyone's guess, but it's certainly added a layer of intrigue to the season.

Image via: ESPN/YouTube/Screenshot

Kendrick Perkins joined Get Up on Tuesday and reacted to the Rockets win over the Knicks, and gave his reasons for why he has changed his mind about the Rockets' small-ball strategy.

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