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The Rockets May Be Short, But They’re Not Exactly Small

Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni knows that his team is unique. “It’s not like everybody can do this,” he said this week.

The “this” to which D’Antoni refers is the gambit that is dominating the posttrade deadline conversation in the NBA. Houston has gone all-in on small ball, and since the team acquired Robert Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves,1 D’Antoni has allocated only 29 total minutes (out of a possible 2,425) to players listed taller than 6-foot-8.

To call the Rockets an outlier on this front would be an enormous understatement. Every other NBA team has given at least 156 minutes to such players during the same timespan, and 27 of the 29 other teams have given at least 10 times as many minutes to those players as the Rockets have.

So far, the experiment is working as intended. Houston is 7-3 since the trade, with that record including road victories over the Lakers, Jazz and Celtics. According to PBPStats.com, the Rockets have used 10 distinct five-man units for at least 10 total minutes in that span. Those units have combined to play 285 minutes and outscore their opponents by 56 points. On a per-game basis, that works out to a plus-9.4 point differential, a mark that would rank second in the NBA behind only a Milwaukee Bucks team on a rocketship toward 70 wins.

The offensive success the small-ball Rockets have experienced comes as no real surprise. Spreading the floor in a five-out system around James Harden and Russell Westbrook was bound to make this scoring machine hum even more efficiently. But what Houston has done on defense is eye-opening.

Teams that go small typically do so while knowingly making the trade-off of a dip in point-prevention in exchange for a boost to the offense. The Rockets have experienced no such dip just yet. Their defensive rating in 50 games prior to acquiring Covington was 109.6; in the 10 games that he’s been on the team, it’s 109.7. Those 10 units mentioned above have been even stingier, allowing only 108.1 points per 100 possessions — the equivalent of the eighth-best defense in the NBA.

It’s here that it becomes important to remember that while the Rockets might be short, they’re not all that small. Sure, Houston is at a height disadvantage almost all of the time, but there are other ways to measure size. And when you look at the weight of Houston’s core rotation players — both individually and as part of the team’s most-used five-man lineups — it becomes clear the Rockets are not giving up all that much.

Houston’s 10 most-used five-man units feature 10 total players and check in with collective weights ranging from 1,030 to 1,106 pounds. The lightest of those units (the one featuring Westbrook, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, Thabo Sefolosha and Danuel House Jr.) has unsurprisingly been out-weighed every second it’s been on the floor. But some of the lineups — including the all-important ones that feature Westbrook, Harden, Covington and P.J. Tucker on the floor at the same time — have barely been outweighed at all.

Houston may be shorter, but it’s rarely smaller

Number of minutes the Rockets’ 10 most-used lineups have been outweighed by opposing teams, Feb. 6 through March 2, 2020

Lineup Weight Total Minutes Minutes outweighed
Westbrook, Harden, House, Covington, Tucker 1091 132 8
Westbrook, Harden, Gordon, Covington, Tucker 1091 25 8
Harden, Rivers, House, Covington, Tucker 1091 23 5
Harden, Gordon, House, Covington, Tucker 1106 22 0
Westbrook, Harden, McLemore, Covington, Tucker 1071 18 11
Westbrook, Rivers, Gordon, McLemore, Green 1045 17 17
Harden, Rivers, McLemore, Covington, Tucker 1071 15 12
Westbrook, Rivers, McLemore, Sefolosha, House 1030 12 12
Westbrook, Harden, Gordon, House, Tucker 1095 11 11
Harden, McLemore, House, Covington, Tucker 1086 10 5

Sources: Basketball-reference.com, PBPStats.com

Combined, these 10 units have been at a weight disadvantage for only 89 of their 285 minutes, which works out to a rate of 31.2 percent. And the rate is even lower for units featuring all four of the key players. In 175 minutes, the most-used five-man lineups featuring Westbrook, Harden, Covington and Tucker have been at a collective weight disadvantage just 15.4 percent of the time.

Even more interesting is the breakdown of where any weight disadvantages have come. The positions that seem to be of most concern when discussing the Rockets’ usage of small lineups — guard and center — are the positions at which the Rockets have been outweighed least often. Instead, it’s more often opposing forwards who have outweighed Covington, House, McLemore and Eric Gordon.

Houston is most likely to be undersized at forward

Share of minutes outweighed by the opponent by position on the court of the Rockets, broken down by lineup used, Feb. 6 through March 2, 2020

10 most-used lineups Lineups with Westbrook-Harden-Covington-Tucker
Position Minutes outweighed % of all min. Minutes outweighed % of all min.
Point guard 67 23.5% 46 26.3%
Shooting guard 94 33.0 48 27.4
Small forward 174 61.1 101 57.7
Power forward 183 64.2 105 60.0
Center 79 27.7 31 17.7

Sources: Basketball-reference.com, PBPStats.com

But is this really that big of a deal? Does Utah’s Joe Ingles weighing 226 pounds compared to House weighing 215 really put the Rockets at that much of a disadvantage? How about Memphis’ Kyle Anderson at 230 against Covington at 211? Do we really think 210-pound Brad Wanamaker of the Celtics is overpowering the 200-pound Westbrook?

D’Antoni certainly doesn’t think so.

“We’re lucky because we’ve got an odd team,” he says. “James guards the post so well. Eric Gordon guards the post so well. And Tuck can guard on the perimeter. Robert Covington can really block shots.”

Covington can indeed block shots. He has blocked more than all but three players in the league since he arrived in Houston. And Tucker can indeed guard on the perimeter. Only four players have defended a guard in isolation more often than Tucker has this season, according to Second Spectrum, and among the 119 who have defended 50 or more such isolations, he ranks 41st in points allowed per possession.

And Harden and Gordon can indeed guard the post, but they’re not the only ones. Harden has been posted up against more often than any other player in the NBA, per Second Spectrum. Tucker has been posted up third-most often. Gordon, Covington and House are also among the 111 players who have defended at least 50 post-ups this season. Those five players rank third (Harden), 18th (Covington), 27th (House), 38th (Tucker) and 44th (Gordon) among that group in points allowed per possession when they get posted up. That places them all in the top half of the league — and three of them inside the top 25 percent.

D’Antoni and the Rockets are just fine inviting those post-ups, which they’ve faced 20 percent more often since going small full-time. Considering that they are the second-best post-up defense in the league, per Second Spectrum, they’re obviously doing something right.

“We can double-team. We’re quicker, we’re faster, we’re just as long,” D’Antoni said of his team’s continued success defending the post with this smaller alignment.

Teams pounding the ball down to the block have allowed the Rockets an opportunity to swarm — and to in turn create more turnovers. “We have quicker guys. We have more athletic guys. We have guys that we switch into passing lanes,” D’Antoni said. “We have teams that try to post people up, and so they’re forcing the ball a little bit more into areas that we know they’re going to force it in, so we get our hands on it and get some more steals.”

Houston forced a turnover on 14.7 percent of opponent possessions prior to acquiring Covington, a rate that ranked a respectable 12th in the NBA. Since then, however, Rocket opponents have coughed it up on 17.0 percent of their possessions. That’s the fourth-highest rate in the league. Forcing turnovers more often has helped the Rockets overcome their defensive rebounding deficiencies. They were already among the worst defensive rebounding teams in the NBA (22nd in defensive rebound rate prior to the trade), but now they’re tied for dead last. If you force a turnover before your opponent even attempts a shot, though, there’s no chance of them grabbing an offensive rebound.

As they move toward the postseason, the Rockets are likely to face a healthy dose of skepticism, largely from traditionalists who rail against any kind of change to the way things have always been done. D’Antoni, though, is undeterred by the skeptics.

“It’s the best way for us to play,” he says. “I think it was pretty evident that as we went forward, we weren’t gonna win the other way. This gives us a heck of a shot. And that’s all we can ask for.”

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Footnotes

  1. In a trade that also sent former Rockets center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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