Welcome back. Let's talk Rockets.
State of the Rockets: Trade deadline fall-out, Russell Westbrook in open space, and more
Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):
As of two weeks ago:
Offensive RTG: 113.5 (T-4th)
Defensive RTG: 109.4 (15th)
Net RTG: +4.1 (8th)
As of this week:
Offensive RTG: 113.4 (5th)
Defensive RTG: 110.1 (15th)
Net RTG: +3.3 (10th)
1. Rockets trade Clint Capela for Robert Covington
If you'd like to read something more expansive about the trade, I graded it from Houston's perspective the day it went down.
The big story here is Houston's embrace of micro-ball. Yes, I've been saying that a lot and that's because I'm trying to make it a thing (and it's working).
But more importantly, I'm trying to give what the Rockets are doing the proper distinction it deserves. Don't let anyone tell you that what Houston is doing isn't unique or that it's been done before. While it's true that small ball isn't a unique concept in the NBA and teams employ it pretty regularly today. However, it's intellectually dishonest to suggest that a team has embraced ever embraced it to this extent.
Let's start with a more recent example in Golden State. Yes, the Warriors would play Draymond Green at center quite a bit. Things reached a tipping point in 2016-17 when the Warriors played Green over 500 minutes at the center position (21% of his minutes). However, the Warriors played the positional charade and always started Zaza Pachulia at center, even when they knew it wasn't their best lineup.
The Rockets have effectively thrown that charade out the window. Tucker has started in 12 games for the Rockets this season and with 29 games remaining, has played nearly 600 minutes at center (33% of his minutes). By trading Capela, Houston has told the world they will no longer start a traditional center for the rest of the season. The league hasn't seen anything like this before.
The reason I call it micro-ball is because it's literally too unprecedented to refer to it as something that's been done before. Even if they disagree with it, everyone around the league is paying a close eye to what Houston is doing for this closing stretch. Watching the Rockets is like watching an entirely new brand of basketball being born (and possibly dying, if this fails) before our very eyes.
2. The Rockets are switching everything again
This ties into trading for Clint Capela, but by playing five players 6'7" or shorter for 48 minutes a game, Houston's best strategy has been to go back to switching everything on defense. The last time the Rockets did this to success was two years ago when they had the 6th best defense in the NBA. After losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in the offseason, Houston no longer had the all personnel play this way and therefore abandoned it a couple months into the season.
Since then, the Rockets have acquired Danuel House, Robert Covington, Austin Rivers, and Thabo Sefolosha. Theoretically, the Rockets now have the defensive versatility to play that way again. This really showed through against the Lakers where Houston started doing it again, mixed in with the occasional double team for Anthony Davis. The Rockets only allowed 18 points from the Lakers in the fourth quarter and posted a defensive rating of 108.0 (higher than Houston's season average).
It's unclear whether this style will help elevate them defensively, but it's very clear that what they were doing previously wasn't working (15th in Defensive RTG). Covington's addition is huge as his rotations and weak-side defense really help compensate for a lot of what the Rockets lack in defensive personnel.
3. Russell Westbrook is very good in open space
For the first time in his professional career, Russell Westbrook will be playing with four shooters spacing the floor around him at all times. This was not possible with Clint Capela as there was a big man in the lane at all times defending Capela's lob threat.
Even in Oklahoma City, the Thunder would run into this problem with Steven Adams. Now, not only does he not have to worry about the additional big, the Rockets actually have better shooters than Westbrook ever had in Oklahoma City. It's not a coincidence that Westbrook has rebounded his true shooting percentage to where it was two years ago. The Rockets have created an environment where both James Harden and Westbrook can succeed offensively.
Week of games in review:
The Rockets' Thursday night's matchup against the Lakers was just fun. Not only was it the perfect proving ground for Houston's new playstyle, it felt like a closely contested battle between two legitimate title contenders. Now, the validity to that statement can only be proven if Houston makes a strong post All-Star break run, but it just felt like a heavyweight matchup. The Rockets weren't rattled when the Lakers made runs and vise-versa.
The contrasting styles made for entertaining basketball and almost distracted you from Chris Webber on the broadcast and the TNT crew at halftime sounding like disgruntled players from the 1990s. Let's be clear: this game proves nothing. We need a larger sample size to see if Houston made the right call at the trade deadline, but it's certainly a nice reference point to keep in mind.
As for Houston's Friday night matchup against the Phoenix Suns, they looked like a team missing their second and third best players on the second half of a road back-to-back. It's not to excuse how sluggish they looked, but tired legs is the only way you can explain how poorly the Rockets shot the basketball (34.1% from the field) and executed defensively (126.6 defensive rating).
Questions for the coming week:
1. What shakes loose from the buyout market and can Houston capitalize on it?
At 6 foot 9 with a 7 foot 3 wingspan, Marvin Williams checked all the boxes for the perfect kind of addition Houston could make on the buyout market. Unfortunately for the Rockets, the Milwaukee Bucks swooped in and signed Williams pretty quickly, leaving the rest of the buyout market kind of barren and mysterious.
Tristan Thompson's a name that would make sense if he were bought out, considering his ability to play in a switching defense and play big off the bench if Houston needs him to. However, it's unclear of Thompson gets bought out and if he does, the Lakers and Clippers are also looking to be players on the buyout market with presumed interest in Thompson.
Perhaps center John Henson gets bought out by the Detroit Pistons and the Rockets sniff around. There's also a small possibility the Mavericks explore buyout talks with Courtney Lee considering he's completely fallen out of their rotation. Who knows, really?
The market looks pretty grim right now, but since Houston has two open roster spots, it's something to keep an eye on.
2. How strong can Houston close out before the All-Star break?
With Tuesday being their last game before a week off, Houston can see the finish line, but there are some tough obstacles to climb before they get there. The first being the Utah Jazz, a team the Rockets, strangely enough, haven't played yet this season. Rudy Gobert poses an interesting challenge to the micro-ball Rockets. The Lakers presented a tough battle on the glass with their size, but statistically the Jazz are an even better defensive rebounding team (5th in the NBA). Offensively, Houston should take advantage of making Gobert get out of the paint to defend P.J. Tucker, but we'll see.
The Celtics are also a team the Rockets haven't played yet this year. Boston's one of the few teams in the NBA that won't get flummoxed by Houston's new approach as head coach Brad Stevens is a really creative basketball tactician. With Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics also possess the defensive versatility to match up with Houston's micro-ball unit. Smart has defended James Harden really well in the past, but Harden's pretty good at learning from his past battles and making the necessary adjustments in the next matchup.
Either way, fun week of games ahead for the Rockets.