Will Going All-Small Ball be Houston Rockets’ Downfall?

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Houston Rockets are trading Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday as part of a massive four-team trade which brings back Robert Covington and Jordan Bell to the Rockets. They also send out their 2020 first-round pick and get back the Golden State Warriors’ 2024 second-round pick.

Houston still has up to $12 million in space that might help them land another center before Thursday’s trade deadline, with various reports saying they are looking for a rotation-level center, which may or may not include one of the Marcus Brothers (Marcus or Markieff) from the New York Knicks or Detroit Pistons, respectively. They can use up to $5.8 million of that and remain under the cap.

For now, the Rockets have Tyson Chandler, Isaiah Hartenstein and Bell. Yet, all of them are more end-of-the-bench options than “heavy-playoff-minutes-rotation” rotation guys.

That’s not the group you want going up against Anthony Davis in as postseason series.

P.J. Tucker will continue to start at center for now, and the Rockets have indeed played back-to-back games without putting a player on the court taller than 6’6″. That’s the first (and second) time in 57 years a team has done that! (Although, technically, the 7’0″ Hartenstein played three minutes against the Hornets on Feb. 4.)

They’ve also been out-rebounded by almost 16 boards per contest in those three games. According to NBA.com, Houston’s given up an average of 21.0 second-chance points. They’ve been out-shot (53.4 effective field-goal percentage to  52.5), and their opponents are getting to the stripe more (.266 free-throw rate to .217). So that seems problematic.

Jan 11, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets forward PJ Tucker (17) walks off the court after an apparent injury during the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

But…

While you can make a solid argument that Capela is the best player of anyone involved in the entire four-team trade, the Rockets had evolved away from him with their offense enough that his value to them isn’t his full value.

Kevin Pelton notes for ESPN:

Per Second Spectrum, the number of Harden-Capela pick-and-rolls Houston has run has decreased from 41.2 per 100 possessions in 2016-17 to just 18.1 so far this season. And Capela hadn’t found the same kind of pick-and-roll chemistry with Westbrook. Those plays have yielded just 0.83 points per chance this season, which ranks 100th out of the 107 duos with at least 200 pick-and-rolls this season.

Oh, and Houston won all three games of the games mentioned above.

According to NBA.com, they’ve had a 120.1 offensive rating against a 110.0 defensive rating. And it’s not just those three games, either. The Rockets are 10-1 on the season when Capela hasn’t played.

So the operative question here is: How in the heck are they winning when they’re getting outshot and out-rebounded so badly? And does Covington work with that?

How they’re winning is an answer that might surprise some. The team that deploys noted turnover machines James Harden and Russell Westbrook, yet they’re suddenly taking very good care of the ball. Their 6.7 turnovers per game is by far the best in the league over those same three games. While a lot of Houston’s points came off those Harden-to-Capela lobs, a lot of their turnovers came off those drives with defenders stripping Harden’s dribble in traffic.

With the extra space

At the same time, the Rockets are forcing 19.0 turnovers per game, also best in the league. They’re leading the league in steals too, with an average of 12.0.

And that’s how they’re making up for those lost possessions on the board. That matters because overall a bucket is easier to get off a steal than a defensive rebound. Sure, Houston is giving up a net difference in 6.7 second-chance points, but they’re notching 14.7 more in points off turnovers.

And this is where Robert Covington steps in: He’s not filling just filling up a hole, he’s building on what the Rockets do best. He’s one of those guys whose impact is far better than his box score numbers. He can be to the Rockets what Andre Iguodala was to the Hampton Five with PJ Tucker in the role of Draymond Green.

Convington is both a terrific perimeter defender and a downright thief. He’s averaging 1.7 steals per game this year while getting next-to-no help with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Over the last three years, only nine players have more steals than RoCo’s 291, and two of them are Harden (362) who is second. Westbrook (358) is third.

Covington is also an elite man-to-man perimeter defender who was First Team All-Defense in 2017-18.

Jan 11, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Robert Covington (33) attempt to get a loose ball during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Offensively, he’s 36 percent for his career from deep, and last year he was at 39 percent on catch-and-shoots, though that’s come down a bit this year as Minnesota’s offense struggles. He’s not a primary ball-handler, but he absolutely fits as a tertiary shot-creator.

Remember, that’s the type of player who really thrived in Houston over the last few years of the Harden era. But those options have largely dwindled to Eric Gordon (who has been unhealthy) and P.J. Tucker while the Rockets have slowly eroded their depth due to age and reported financial concerns.

So, while they’re still constrained under the luxury tax and can’t really restock the deck, Daryl Morey is essentially doubling down on his team’s strongest suit in order to reshuffle the deck a little. That it cost a hard-working, talented center like Capela—who did a fantastic job developing within the Rockets’ system over the past couple years—is unfortunate, but the counterpoint is that he is still part of that old breed of center who lacks range and essentially just finishes lobs and garbage putbacks while providing rebounding and shot-blocking.

That stuff is still valuable in today’s NBA, but not to the extent it used to be. Not when you can field five shooters/scorer at once who also force a ton of turnovers in other ways.

Covington is the kind of guy who won’t make a bad team good, but he absolutely can make a good team better.

I’d still be concerned about the Rockets not having a “real” center for the moment. But if they can get a competent presence in the middle (i.e. Dewayne Dedmon of the Sacramento Kings or Aron Baynes of the Phoenix Suns) off the bad-team trade scrap heap, the Rockets have probably taken a step forward while holding enough cards for the few teams big enough and talented enough to make them pay.

But if they can’t land someone, they’re playing an exceedingly dangerous game and will be one bad playoff matchup away from yet another flameout.

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