As we start a new NBA season, now is as good a time as ever to reflect on the uniqueness of the season that ended 72 days ago. The Orlando Bubble, as it will forever be known, saw 22 NBA teams enter Disneyworld to complete the 2019-2020 season, and by the end of it only the Los Angeles Lakers stood tall. Ten weeks later, the 2020-2021 season has begun in what is the shortest turnaround for an NBA season in the league’s history.
One of the most tumultuous franchises this offseason has been the Houston Rockets. The Russell Westbrook experiment lasted only one season before he demanded a trade and was sent to the Washington Wizards in exchange for their own disgruntled star point guard John Wall. When Houston was eliminated from the playoffs, general manager Daryl Morey and head coach Mike D’antoni left on their own accord, signalling the start of a near complete overhaul for the Rockets. Lost in the shuffle was the implementation, success, and inevitably the utter failure of D’antoni’s small-ball strategy that the Rockets incorporated in the bubble.
The basketball world was shocked when the Rockets traded Clint Capela to Atlanta in a last minute deal at the NBA’s trade deadline in February. Without any other big man on the roster, many wondered if the Rockets were going to make another trade to fill that void. They didn’t. Instead, for the rest of the season power forwards (at best) Robert Covington (6’7”) and PJ Tucker (6’5”) rotated into the center position. Morey daringly asked the question to all other NBA franchises: Do centers matter? The answer was a resounding maybe they didn’t matter, until they did.
Analytics tells us that foot speed and three-point shooting may be the kryptonite to lumbering centers. They lack the agility to switch off like smaller forwards or guards do. The Rockets cruised through the regular season led by Westbrook and James Harden, and a lineup composed of a mish-mash of wing players. But you can only be so creative in the NBA until other teams catch on. It took seven games for the Rockets to dispose of the Oklahoma City Thunder, another team that used analytics to maximize their efficiency. The three-headed point guard death lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroeder were first in defensive and offensive net-rating and it wasn’t even close. Then the Rockets met the Lakers in the second round, and that is where this experiment eventually fell off the rails.
What happens when you do play a team that has big men that can match your foot speed and hit shots from anywhere on the court? Your 6’5” center becomes no match for 6’10” Anthony Davis, a once in a generation talent. The Lakers out-rebounded the Rockets 227-163 in the series, and dispatched the Pocket Rockets in five games.
The center position is changing in the NBA and it has been for some time. Using a versatile power forward like Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, or Draymond Green can give you clear advantages on the offensive side of the ball, while you sacrifice some on the defensive side. The Rockets notably signed Christian Wood and Demarcus Cousins this offseason, so new GM Rafael Stone and new head coach Stephen Silas may be abandoning the small-ball strategy.
It should be noted that aside from Cousins and Wood, there is very little in the way of players with any sort of size so the organization’s philosophy may be intact to a certain extent. One look at the two teams in last season’s NBA finals who leaned heavily on Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo, respectively, may be a counterargument to this, but the small-ball philosophy has had too much recent success in the Lebron-led Miami Heat and the Golden State Warriors to ever be dismissed as irrelevant. In a sports world where analytics is slowly taking over and revolutionizing old concepts, the small-ball Rockets are a reminder that while it is a viable strategy, you also need the right personnel to pull it off.
WORDS: Mike Sak