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.
Mike Conley Jr. Removed From the Utah Jazz Starting Lineup Amid Slump
When the Memphis Grizzlies traded for Mike Conley Jr. in July, it appeared that he was the finishing piece that would put their roster over the top.
Conley was coming off a season with the Grizzlies in which he averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game as one of the best point guards in the NBA.
Utah expected him to be the perfect fit alongside All-Star shooting guard Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt, but that hasn’t worked out as planned.
Now the Jazz have decided to make a move to spark their team after losing eight of their last 12 games by sliding Conley to the bench.
The move to add Royce O’Neale into the starting lineup is aimed to bolster the defense of that group, with O’Neale being the teams best perimeter defender.
By moving O’Neale to play with that unit, Joe Ingles can slid into the backcourt alongside Mitchell and take on a more prominent role on offense.
Ingles and Rudy Gobert are potent together in the pick and roll and taking the ball out of Conley’s hands with that starting group is aimed to help that pairing flourish as well.
On the other hand, Conley now moves to the bench, where he can form a really dynamic scoring punch with Jordan Clarkson.
Conley is averaging 13.4 points and a career-low 4.1 assists per game across 34 games played with the Jazz.
Next year will be the final season of a massive five-year, $152.6 million contract he signed with the Grizzlies. The Jazz are on the hook to pay Conley $34.5 million for the 2020-21 NBA season.
Hornets’ Guard Malik Monk Suspended Indefinitely for Violating Anti-Drug Policy
Malik Monk was in the middle of his pivotal third season in the NBA and was just hitting his stride with a recent hot streak.
Unfortunately that string of good play now comes to the end due to his conduct off the court, as Monk has been suspended indefinitely by the NBA for violating their anti-drug policy.
There is no indication what Monk has failed the test for, but he will need to follow the NBA’s program to be reinstated into the league.
Monk was the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, after being the SEC Player of the Year in his lone season at Kentucky.
Since entering the league, Monk has struggled to find his footing and that same level of success, but he was just recently on a great run of scoring.
The suspension paired with his better play has led some to question whether it was performance-enhancing drugs that he was suspended for, although we don’t know that at this time.
When Deandre Ayton and John Collins were suspended this season, each received 25-game bans and were then able to return to the floor.
The substances they were suspended for were also announced to the public at the time of their suspensions.
The fact that we don’t know what he was suspended for, or how long of a suspension he will receive is certainly an interesting distinction when it comes to Monk.
It will be interesting to see what information comes out about Monk’s suspension in the coming days and if an actual timetable is put on his return.
Stephen Curry to Return to the Lineup on Sunday Against the Washington Wizards
The Golden State Warriors season essentially ended on October 30th, when an awkward fall resulted in a broken hand for Stephen Curry.
Curry has since been sidelined for four months and in his absence, the Warriors have gone 11-43 and sit with the wowarst record in the NBA.
Luckily things are about to get a lot better for Warriors fans, as Curry is set to return to lineup for Golden State on Sunday.
Adding a six-time All-Star, three-time champion and two-time MVP back into the starting lineup is sure to help the Warriors win a few more games down the stretch.
In the four games Curry played this year he shot 24% from three-point range, which is something he will look to clean up over the final games of this season.
Golden State has their eyes toward the future, looking to land a top lottery pick to their roster and incumbent Big Three of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
The Warriors have 25 games left this season and are four games behind the closest team for the worst record in the NBA.
As long as Golden State finishes with one of the three worst records in the NBA, they will have the best possible odds of winning the lottery. So Curry’s arrival should not hurt their position in that regard.
Instead Curry will bring some excitement to an ailing fan base, while building some chemistry with Andrew Wiggins and the other young Warriors that may be on the roster next season.
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