In recent years Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets has been one of the most innovative coaches in the NBA, and it seems like he might be onto something with his super small-ball lineup.
Yes. You read it right, super small-ball. The Rockets have doubled down on their strict threes and layup diet on offense and implemented trotting out a lineup of players who are no taller than 6 foot 7.
On February 6, 2020, the Houston Rockets rolled into Staples Center with a lineup consisting of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Eric Gordon, Danuel House Jr, and PJ Tucker at the five spot (mind you he’s only 6'5). The Rockets that night had the shortest starting lineup since 1963. Conventional wisdom would say that the much bigger and more physical Los Angeles Lakers walked away that night as the victorious squad. That wasn’t the case as the Rockets left Staples with a 121–111 victory, all of this while James Harden only put up 14 points in the box score. On that day, the Rockets and D’Antoni began to plant the seed of super small ball potentially working long term.
Ever since the sixth of February, the Rockets have had a 7–3 record. It might be too premature to hail this new strategy as the solution to all the Rocket’s problems, but this start isn’t too shabby.
The greatest revelation in this nine-game stretch has been Russell Westbrook. The absence of Capella in the paint allows for there to be more spacing, which only means that Westbrook can attack the rim freely and kick out to the four shooters surrounding him. Westbrook’s averages of 27 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5 assists during this 10-game stretch has been one of the more intriguing stories as the playoffs approach. The new system is utilizing all of Westbrooks’s strong suits (scoring in transition and attacking the rack) while keeping James Harden as the prominent piece of the team’s offense.
Through the transition into the super small ball system, the Rockets have been able to double down on their three-pointers and layups offensive philosophy. The starting lineup is filled with capable shooters in Pj Tucker, Danuel House Jr, Robert Covington, and of course Harden (one of the NBA’s greatest buckets). Surrounding Westbrook with shooters should prove useful for the Rockets offensively and again they have Harden (a proven bucket) to bail them out when he goes into iso mode.
A lot of the moves that Darryl Morrey (the Rockets’ general manager) made during and after the trade deadline brings focus to the steady improvements they are trying to make defensively. Eliminating Clint Capella from the roster leaves a glaring problem for the Rockets who already weren’t already a strong team defensively; paint protection. Capella’s presence down low gave the Rockets a defensive anchor to help compensate for the defensive lapses they had on the perimeter. To battle, the loss of Capella Morrey brought in wings Robert Convington, Jeff Green, and DeMarre Carrol. All three of the players are capable defenders and they all fit the small-ball requirements that the Rockets are pushing for (they can shoot threes and they aren’t seven feet tall).
So far everything is looking promising for the Rockets. They’re starting to figure everything out and they are seeing the product on the court, but this is only the regular season. This isn’t the playoffs. Playoff basketball is a whole different beast. The past five years have shown that the Houston Rockets are always among the premier teams in the regular season behind Harden’s play-making and D’Antoni’s offensive schemes. It was also in those same five years that we saw the Rockets fall short of reaching the NBA finals behind Harden’s play-making and D’Antoni’s offensive schemes.
In those five years, the Rockets reached their peak in the 2017–2018 season. Behind James Harden and Chris Paul, the Rockets ended the regular season with a league-best 65–17 record. The success the Rockets saw in that regular season had started to translate itself into their playoff run. They found themselves up 3–2 in the conference finals against the Golden State Warriors (who would end up sweeping the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals). If it wasn’t for an injury to Chris Paul, many believe it would have been the Rockets lifting up the Larry O’Brien trophy that year. This failure was the first instance of Harden sharing the backcourt with another elite guard on the Rockets, and it proved to be their most successful season. Fast forward three years and the Rockets have swapped Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook with hopes that the duo of Harden and Westbrook will do what Harden and Paul couldn’t.
James Harden is the best player on this team without a doubt, but Russell Westbrook is the most important player in this new offense. Super small-ball (still sounds dumb as hell) has unleashed Westbrook and if Harden wants to win as bad as he says he does he might have to take the backseat and adjust (something all great players have done at some point). This offense is foolproof, but behind one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history (Harden) and the most athletic point guard in NBA history (Westbrook) anything can happen.