The Rockets are betting big on going small

Leave it to the Houston Rockets to find a way to bewilder the NBA establishment. With the trade deadline approaching, many were wondering what Houston was going to do after they traded their center, Clint Cappela for Timberowolves’ Swingman Robert Covington.

Last week the Rockets started playing with ultra-small lineups that featured six foot, seven inch PJ Tucker. Head Coach Mike D’Antoni had been experimenting with smaller lineups throughout the year, but many were shocked by this drastic change.

We’ve seen small lineups shake up the NBA establishment for awhile now. The vaunted Warriors “death lineup” featured Draymond Green at center, and was a cornerstone of the Warriors success in many of their championship runs. The death lineup did happen to feature a seven-footer, it just so happened that the seven-footer, Kevin Durant, plays forward and is one of the best shooters in the history of the league.

The idea of going small is simple, create space with good shooters all over the court, and be able to switch everything on defense. The theory goes that in today’s NBA, the more shooters you have on the court the better. You can overcome size mismatches with speed and shooting. Most teams still carry a traditional center in their starting lineup to set screens, protect the paint and grab rebounds, but Houston is now deciding to just roll without a big man.

Before Houston played the Los Angeles Lakers last week, the Inside the NBA Crew had a good long laugh at the idea of guys like PJ Tucker trying to guard Anthony Davis.They thought the idea of playing so small against the Lakers was ludicrous.

Bill Simmons tweeted this early in the game voicing his displeasure:

I’m out. I can’t watch this. And they wonder why NBA ratings are going down.

Houston won the game 121–111. The Lakers, for all of their extra size, only grabbed one more rebound. Russell Westbrook dropped 41 points, 8 rebounds and five assists, and looked better than he had all season. Since switching to ultra small ball Westbrook has averaged over 30 points a game. Having four shooters surrounding Brody means that teams cannot pack the paint against him, and his game has blossomed.

Coach D’Antoni had this to say after the win against the Lakers:

Any time you try something different, these guys have got to believe in it,” This helps. This helps a lot. Because if you come in here and get spanked, we’re all little, and it’s, ‘Oh, maybe we can’t do this.’ So they’re fired up, and we’ll keep trying.

If there is a knock on the Houston Rockets during the James Harden era it’s that their style of play is awful to watch. Too many possessions become a one-on-one affair, with Harden doing his witchcraft at the top of the key, only to take a late in the possession step-back jumper, or try to draw a foul on a drive. Without a center around to set screens for Harden, the bearded one has had to be a little more creative his assists are up, free-throw attempts are down, and with Westbrook taking off, Harden’s usage rate is down.

The basic tenets of Moreyball have not changed, they still shoot a crazy number of threes, 44 a game throughout the season, but now that they are playing without a traditional center they are now chucking 53 longballs a night. Fifty-three! That’s over ten more than the second place team (Atlanta) in that span.

The question facing Houston is whether or not they can make this style of play work in the playoffs. In Sunday’s nail biting 114–113 loss against the Jazz the Rockets were out rebounded 48–36, and yet Utah needed a last second three from Bohan Bogdanovic to come out on top. It should also be noted that the Jazz, who trailed by 11 points at one point in the game, made their comeback with their 7’1’’ Center, Rudy Gobert on the bench.

It’s still too early to say whether or not the Rockets have found their version of the death lineup. The death lineup would only be deployed when they really wanted to put their boot on their opponents throat. How are players like Tucker, who just got his contract fully guaranteed for next season, going to handle the extra wear-and-tear of having to go up against seven footers night-after-night? Even when the Golden State Warriors were in league destroying mode, they would often start their games with a traditional big. We are really in uncharted territory here.

It was clear that Houston needed to shake things up if they wanted to make a run at a title this year. They had to find a way to get the most out of Russell Westbrook, while keeping James Harden fresh for the playoffs. We are still waiting for the returns to fully come in, but kudos to D’Antoni, Morey, and this Rockets team for going all-in on small ball. The team that has often been written off as boring to watch, is now anything but. Here’s to the little revolution.

Part time basketball writer, full time NBA Junkie Email:, tweet @justinjacobs