The Houston Rockets came into the season as an oddly constructed team. After the Chris Paul experiment failed to produce the results that the team was looking for, the team reunited its superstar, James Harden, with former teammate and fellow former-MVP Russell Westbrook.
The new-look Rockets took some time to click, but after a trade-deadline move to get smaller, the team is in an even odder situation. In fact, the NBA has never seen a team quite like the current Houston Rockets.
The Houston Rockets’ inconsistent start to this season
The Rockets struggled to approach the new season with any consistency, much as they have in the past. When things were going well, the team was rolling off eight-game winning streaks when other teams weren’t careful.
When things were going poorly, however, the losses began to mount. This inability to stay consistent has been a Hallmark of the Harden era, and despite the addition of Westbrook, nothing changed.
While Harden began the year scoring at a clip that even he had never scored at before, by January things began to slow down. His points per game, which were once in the high-thirties, went down to 28 points per game during January. This might be good for any other player, but that dramatic drop-off makes the 28-point total pale.
Furthermore, Westbrook was continuing to figure out his role inside the offense. While he did have some amazing performances, Westbrook’s historically bad shooting was not getting any better, and the number of shots he took was beginning to wear. The Rockets were a playoff team at 32-18, but these issues meant that the team was struggling to form a new identity.
All of this changed at the deadline, however. Days before the trade deadline, the Rockets made a massive trade that shook the league.
Four teams, 14 players
The team traded center Clint Capela in a four-team, 14-player trade that landed the team Robert Covington, but cost them starting center Clint Capela.
This, combined with other roster moves shrunk down the Rockets’ average size. While the team maintains players such as Tyson Chandler, their rotation is dominated by guys who are shorter than 6’6″.
The Houston Rockets have never fancied themselves a normal team, but this tiny lineup took the cake as one of the shortest in recent memory. In a conference with several all-star and superstar big men, many saw the Rockets’ new roster as a problem if they faced teams with any height, whatsoever. As the team began to play, however, things went differently than expected.
The micro-ball era
With Capela, who had already missed some time with injury, out of the picture, the team’s center duties would largely fall on the shoulders of PJ Tucker. Tucker is known as a good player, but it was not that long ago that he was playing small forward. At 6’5″ tall, Tucker is smaller than most other centers by more than a few inches.
Despite this, Tucker has been able to hang on. The Houston Rockets used their advantages with pace and ball-movement to make up for their size, and as far as Tucker goes, he’s always been able to blend in. He spoke about this ability with The Ringer before the trade went down.
“I’m a chameleon, man,” Tucker said.
“You’ve gotta be to be a good role player, a good journeyman. You’ve gotta be able to be a chameleon, be able to switch up with different styles and different ways to play basketball. It’s all basketball. It’s all your personnel and reaching the full potential of the guys you’ve got and the ways you want to play.”
How do the Houston Rockets win?
Capela was a valuable piece for the Rockets, but with 62 points coming from Harden and Westbrook combined, his role on offense was already limited. This means that the team, which famously plays along the perimeter, didn’t need to change the offense too much. As far as defense goes, the team already played looser than many NBA teams.
This, combined with Covington’s ability to play bigger than he is and Westbrook’s power at a small size, has the Rockets changing the game. The team doesn’t necessarily need a center, instead taking turns letting other players, mostly Tucker, hold center duties while everybody pitches in.
On many plays, point guard Westbrook is holding the role down low as the team’s center, with many considering him the starting big man in the offense. Whatever is happening, it is working.
The Houston Rockets have gone 7-2 since the trade and only look better with every game. Playoffs are a different animal, but the micro-ball experience in Houston is already turning basketball on its side. Come playoffs, however, the team’s bold strategy will be put to the test.