Everything is bigger in Texas. Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming, Dikembe Mutumbo, Dwight Howard… Each legendary big man, at some point in his career, has put on Houston Rockets’ red. Murals of the larger than life Centers have been seen all over H-Town, and the big men have had a big impact on the city’s sports history. Houston’s place in the NBA history books is synonymous with gargantuan heroes of the hardwood because, again, everything is bigger in Texas.
Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.
In what appears to be one of the few blockbuster trades at the deadline, The Houston Rockets were involved in a four way trade that sent two of their centers to Atlanta and, in a very round about way, brought Robert Covington and Jordan Bell in from Minnesota. Houston then flipped Bell for Memphis’ Bruno Caboclo, a Brazilian perimeter shooter. Houston has gone without a traditional Center for 7 games now, and is 5-2 over that span. Houston has spent that time forfeiting the rebounding battles, but winning the war on the scoreboard.
What first made news about Houston’s “small ball” lineup just a week ago was just how small it was. Houston’s Friday night win over the Dallas Mavericks was the first time an NBA team won a game using no one over 6’6” since 1963, and PJ Tucker (6’5”) is now the shortest starting “Center” in league history. (The previous owner of that title? Former Houston Rocket Chuck Hayes, a whopping 6’6”.) In adding the 6’8” wing Robert Covington, and the 6’9” forward Bruno Caboclo, Houston seems to just be doubling down on the concept. Covington adds shooting and defense, and flipping Bell Caboclo adds even more.
Truthfully, in what is Mike D’Antoni’s last season under his current contract, it should be no surprise that this is where the Rockets are. Sure, historically the franchise has been all about the big man. But D’Antoni? The man who is famous for his seven seconds or less suns? A pioneer in the analytic trend outward, away from the bigs and the midrange, and to the most valuable shots? Of course he wants to move the game away from a traditional big man. And Daryl Morey? The General Manager famous for his devotion to the analytical numbers? Who’s known for being forward thinking in looking at shooting data? Of course he wanted to move away from a traditional big man.
That’s not to say that D’Antoni, Morey, or Houston are the only small ball lineup we’ve ever seen. A large part of the Golden State Warriors’ sustained success the last five years was the match up problems they created with their “death lineup.” In said lineup, Draymond Green’s defensive versatility meant the Warriors could have five interchangeable perimeter players on offense without bleeding points to big men on the other end. For extended periods of important games, most notably the clutch minutes of playoff and NBA Finals games, Golden State’s strength was choosing space over size. That strength was only enhanced by adding Kevin Durant, who can protect the rim like a seven-footer and stretch the floor offensively like a shooting guard. Andre Iguodala, who stands at 6’6” but has a 6’11” wingspan and the brute strength of a linebacker, also served as a “tweener” that helped diversify the defensive looks the Warriors had while still playing five perimeter players, offensively, for long periods of time.
But even the Warriors, in their smallest of small ball, almost always started a guy nearly or taller than seven feet. Whether it was Andrew Bogut, Zaza Pachulia, or Kevon Looney, they typically started with a center on the floor and could play them significant minutes to avoid getting beat up in the post. While Kevin Durant’s combination of size and athleticism let them play “small” longer, the Warriors spent the entire historic run with some form of a bruising, aggressive big man on the floor for important parts of important games.
Houston currently doesn’t even have that option. They have three players, at the time of writing this, on the roster over 6’8”. One is Tyson Chandler, the 37 year old veteran who is a noted teacher of the game to younger players that has seen much better playing days, but can certainly continue to add to this team in ways not seen in games. The second is Isaiah Hartenstein, a 21 year old former G-Leaguer who has is averaging under 12 minutes a game, and less than 5 minutes a night the last 10 games. While Hartenstein has promise, he’s had trouble staying in the lineup for Mike D’Antoni’s system. The third? The recently acquired 6’9” Caboclo, a long perimeter shooter.
So who’s left to jump at tip off? The 6’5” former MVP James Harden.
But does that matter? Houston has found success surrounding the perimeter with shooters. Making a traditional bigs go out and cover on the perimeter, even if it’s a stationary shooter in the corner, takes them away from the basket and opens up space for creators to drive. And if they don’t stay outside, and the shooter they’re covering shoots over 35% from the 3 point line,
But is that something that is sustainable? And even if sustainable, regardless of what Houston scores… Can they keep another team from scoring when they’re undersized at each spot?
The trade off, defensively, Houston has evidently made has been rebounds for turnovers. Houston, since playing small the last few games, has been severely outrebounded. Functionally, the team has used their point guard, Russell Westbrook, as a centerpiece in rebounding. The long armed perimeter players have been getting hands in passing lanes and causing turnovers at one of the highest rates in the league since going small.
Offensively is where the small ball has clearly shined. Westbrook’s shot chart has become center-esque. He has less than one three-point shot per game for over ten games now, but is posting more than 30 points a night. Removing a post man has opened up the lanes for him to maneuver and score inside, and essentially made him the Center on offense. But he doesn’t just post up on the block like a traditional center. Instead, in an effort to get a full speed running start in his attack at the basket, he is standing outside the threepoint line waiting to either catch a kick out or make a back cut. The guy feeding him the ball?
James Harden. Giving the former MVP more room to operate, find cutters, and kick out guys, without having a looming seven footer on the block to finish over has essentially taken them out of the game. Further, the lobs on the pick and roll that Harden and Capela had become famous for had fallen by the wayside much earlier this season. With Westbrook’s poor shooting from distance, help defenders had sagged off and clogged the roll man, and the Westbrook pick and roll was forcing inefficient long two point jumpshots.
While the team will be far from a well oiled machine for a while, the obvious problem with this plan lays in LA. The Clippers appear to be able to match up all along the perimeter with anyone. While they lack skill in combination of traditional size of their own, they are a very well built to compete against small ball. And the Lakers appear to be able to play a team of giants, where point LeBron and center Anthony Davis can play inside and outside, without trading perimeter play for size. Sure, Houston beat the Lakers in their one attempt… But does a one game sample size mean they’ll be able to do that in a grinding seven game series?
One thing is for certain with Houston: Under Daryl Morey, whenever something has not worked, they’ve changed course. Settling has not been his M.O. Need a star? Trade the future for the reigning 6th man of the year. A superstar Center is unhappy in LA? Bring on the Dwight Howard era. Linsanity available? Come on down to the H. Need to add a guard? Flip all the role players for CP3. Two years in, can’t seem to get over the hump? Flip him for a different all star guard. Can’t figure out how to unclog the middle for that guy? Take out the guy that was standing there. Houston is continually shifting what it’s doing, for better or worse.
The overall success of Houston’s model remains to be seen. The thought of intentionally going without a big man, the most important position in basketball for the majority of its history, may prove to be catastrophic. It may lead to a first round loss in embarrassing fashion and the final blow up of this six year run of “close but no cigar” Houston Rockets. It may lead to the only team in the west that can challenge either LA team in a seven game series just because of how unconventional it is.
As teams get closer to the All-Star break, they begin to tighten down and focus on finding their position. Oddly, Houston’s plan now seems clearer than it did a month ago. While they had lots of offensive fire power, the Rockets seemed to be square pegs and round holes. Now they have a plan, even if it is completely off the wall and off putting.
Regardless of the NBA world’s thoughts about that plan, or the success it does or does not hit, the interest and entertainment comes from the different. In a league where we see every seven footer trying to add ten more feet to their jumpshot’s range, Houston’s decided just to scrap the guy all together. In a league that’s become about fitting guys in space, Houston’s opted for smaller guys in the space.
And sometimes, when there seems to be no answer, maybe it really is that simple: the space on the floor is set. The NBA floor will always be 50 feet wide. The half-court line will always be 47 feet away from the basket. The basket will always be 10 feet off the ground. The three-point line will always be 23 ¾ away from the basket at the top of the key, 22 feet away in the corner. The space is set.
But the people on the floor? Clearly, that’s not as set as we all originally thought.
Bucking the trend will undoubtedly be the story of the 2020 Rockets. Truthfully, with James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the season will likely be called a failure without a very serious run at the NBA title. Putting all of the team’s collective chips in on a very specific strategy is more than a gamble. They’ve got two big, high value gambling chips on the table. Now, they’ve decided to put those and all of their chips on one single space.
Few would ever consider putting all of their chips on the niched spaces of the roulette table. No one goes “all in” on the “1st 12” range. Some would even call what Houston did putting it all on a single number That type of gamble is just too risky.
But for the brave that do? If it hits, it really hits.
And it can only hit like that when you go all in.
Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen
Zach LaVine is a 6’6 catch and shoot lob threat. This 25-year-old two-time slam dunk champion has spent his career trying to make it to the playoffs or keep the Chicago Bulls at 500. In contrast, he’s averaging over 25 points per game since 2019, per basketball reference. LaVine is bound to be an All-Star this year, having career highs in both points and FG shooting percentage. His skill set, and size, might be the missing piece for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers have themselves projected anywhere from a 2-4 seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is the best playmaker and on-ball defender on the team. Joel Embiid is a beast in the post and spreads the floor. Tobias Harris is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor and can create his own shot. Out of the three, the most tradeable player is Harris in exchange for LaVine. Depending on management, you can make LaVine sign an extension or throw in Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr. to offset the salary cap.
How would the 76ers offense and defense schemes work? In theory, depending on matchups, Simmons would play the four on defense for the most part and alternate with LaVine or another guard to play the one. This allows for more explosive offensive firepower surrounding Simmons and still creates space for Embiid to operate in the post or stretch the floor. This open space leaves room for your slashers, Simmons and LaVine.
With all the movement and attention on the central core, spot up, catch and shoot three-point shots will thrive. Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, & possibly Porter Jr. offer the Sixers solid shooting on the floor to make this a solid offense. Simmons at the four on defense allows him to turn into the point guard as soon as he gets the rebound hitting LaVine on the fast break for quick transition points.
LaVine can do something that Simmons can’t do, which is the ability to shoot from outside the paint. Whatever position you put them in, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and keep Philadelphia’s offense potent. Philly still has depth with Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey for guards if Simmons and LaVine ran as your forwards.
No one wants LaVine to have career numbers on a struggling team. Simmons and Embiid are rare in their skill set. They could use an independent scorer to take away attention and get a bucket when needed. With LaVine holding the ball more, there’s less talk about where Simmons sits in the offense with his lack of shooting. With the trade deadline coming, it will be interesting to see whether LaVine will stay a Bull or find himself with a contender for a ring.
Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.
Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.
Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.
Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.
Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.
Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.
If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.
Stephen Jackson: Journey Man
Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.
Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.
And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.
Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”
Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)
While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.
In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.
Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.
Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.
In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.
What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.
The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.
However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”
Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.
Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story. As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.
“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”
But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?
“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”
“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”
“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”
The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.
However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).
Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.
But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.
And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.
If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:
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