(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Article written by Itamar Roitman (@itamar1710)

This is part of a series of articles in which @itamar1710 will write about the Houston Rockets’ off-season.
Up first, about the state of small ball.

The Houston Rockets just lost their last 2 playoffs games to go out in embarrassing fashion. They were a popular upset pick, but their offense outside of James Harden was inconsistent and unreliable, the co-star just had arguably the worst series of his career, and their defense fell apart, unable to stop the opposing star player or the role players. It feels like the window is closing.

Oh, you thought I was talking about this year? This is what many wrote after the Rockets lost game 6 to the Golden State Warriors 118-113 in the second round of the 2019 playoffs. And a year later, they’re stuck at the same spot- with even fewer avenues to improve.

In the 2019 playoffs, the Rockets beat a good Jazz team in the first round in 5 games, before winning back-to-back games to tie the series against what might be the greatest team of all time, the KD Warriors. Kevin Durant then got injured, the Rockets’ mentality changed, and they lost the next 2 games. But they were good. They started the season off with an 11-14 record but played at a 60 win pace the rest of the way. They were a Paul George game-winner away from the 2nd seed. Every game against the Warriors was decided within 6 points.

One might argue that if they keep the same team and trade Clint Capela for Robert Covington, they beat the Los Angeles Lakers and quite possibly win the 2020 NBA championship.

But, as you all know, that’s not what happened.

The 2020 Rockets finished their season on a pace to win 50 games, which is the 3rd worst mark in the Harden era, ahead only of the 2016 and 2013 Rockets. They barely won game 7 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that they should have had no trouble dealing with. And in the 2nd round, they lost 4 consecutive games to the Los Angeles Lakers, failing to attack a 3-2 zone and the constant traps. They didn’t look like a real threat once in the entire post-season.

So what now? Let’s try and figure out what they should do next.

Defensive recap

Houston’s decision to trade Clint Capela for Robert Covington wasn’t just based on the offensive side of the floor. A lot of the talk has been about how the Rockets have gone small to space the floor out for their 2 stars, which is true, but it was also made to improve their defense.

Through 47 regular-season games, before making the trade,  the Houston Rockets were ranked 15th at defensive rating. And since Robert Covington played his first game back in a Rockets uniform, they ranked 9th, excelling at forcing turnovers, getting deflections and limiting the amount of 3s opposing teams shoot.

The trade gave the Rockets players an identity to play for, as well as one of the best 3&D wings in the history of the game. The system doesn’t work without Covington.

One of the defensive advantages of small ball is that big, unskilled players are so excited about Houston’s seeming lack of rim protection, they try to score themselves, often without success, hurting the team’s offense. We saw that in the Rockets-Blazers seeding game with how often the Blazers went to the post with Jusuf Nurkic, and even a little in the Rockets-Lakers series with Javale McGee.

But that can also serve as a disadvantage. Restricted area shots are so efficient, that getting to the rim is much more valuable than finishing there at a high rate. And if teams are more encouraged to drive against the Rockets, that automatically makes their offense better.

A switch-everything defense absolutely can work, as we saw in the 2018 Western Conference Finals and this season against the Thunder. In the Rockets-Thunder regular-season matchups, the Thunder hunted Clint Capela repeatedly and successfully, but they struggled in the playoffs, lacking the proper personnel to attack small-ball, as Houston’s defense flustered OKC and had the best 1st round defensive rating for any team.

However, the playoffs are about adjustments, and the Rockets simply didn’t have the personnel to make the necessary defensive adjustments.  The Lakers are a much different team than the Thunder, and they tore the Rockets’ defense apart, shooting an outstanding 76% in the restricted area, getting there at will. The Rockets couldn’t match up with the Lakers in transition and didn’t do a very good job in the half-court.

The struggle to defend the rim wasn’t anything new for the Rockets- in the regular season, since the Covington trade, the Rockets ranked 9th worst at both restricted area shots allowed per game and FG% allowed in the restricted area. Hard to imagine a noticeable improvement coming next year with the same system in place, and it’s nearly impossible to have an elite defense when your rim protection is poor. The mid-season defensive shift was necessary, but it wasn’t enough to create a championship-caliber defense.

That is not to say that small ball is not the answer. The Toronto Raptors played the final 16 minutes of game 6 of the 2nd round with Pascal Siakam at center. The Boston Celtics’ biggest starter is 6’8 Daniel Theis, and the lineup of their 5 best players, which they used to beat the Heat in game 3, features Jayson Tatum as the tallest player. The Heat’s biggest starter in the playoffs has been 6’9 Bam Adebayo, who can defend perimeter players like the best of them, and even they have gone small with Andre Iguodala playing the 5 at times.

However, the key difference is that those teams don’t play small without a center, all the time. The Warriors didn’t, either, only unleashing their small lineups with Draymond Green at the 5 for stretches. Playing small for such an extensive period of time is simply exhausting and isn’t as effective.

The solution seems simple- get a stop-gap big, play him for 20-30 minutes a night, and go small when necessary. However, the problem with that relates to the other main reason the Rockets chose to go small, and not trade Clint Capela for a different center- to create more space for Russell Westbrook to attack.

Offensive recap

In the 2018-2019 season, Russell Westbrook had a 50.1 TS%, recording the 2nd most inefficient season of 2010s with at least 20 FGAs attempted per game. In the 2019-2020 season, his true shooting percentage with a center on the floor was a nearly-identical 49.9, compared to a much improved 57% without one. Russell Westbrook needs spacing.  And you shouldn’t expect the Rockets to sign a rim-running center in the foreseeable future.

The trade didn’t only affect Westbrook’s play. James Harden benefited from it in some ways, too. Teams often tried to make Clint Capela the decision-maker by trapping James Harden, so much that the Rockets almost stopped running Harden-Capela pick and rolls, sticking Capela in the dunker spot.

James Harden shot 62% in the restricted area prior to the Capela trade, and 68% after it was made. The new-found spacing helped him finish at the rim, and turn the less-efficient floaters into more 3-point assists. He made 63% of his 2 point shots in the regular season and playoffs. His isolation scoring didn’t miss a beat.

Harden, however, sometimes had to work harder for those baskets. He appreciates having a bigger guy who can set him screens to free him up from pesky defenders, have some roll gravity, can be used to hunt bad matchups, and in general make his job easier on the offensive end of the floor.

We saw some of that with how Harden played when Jeff Green was on the court with him. Granted, Green is far from a traditional center, but he is a competent roll man and a good finisher at the basket, as well as a guy who can make decisions on the short roll and pop out to the 3 point line. Despite his defensive deficiencies, he should be back next year on a smaller role.

It must be noted, however, that going small didn’t make Houston’s offense elite. The potential and the flashes are there, but the Rockets offensive rating before the trade (113.1) was actually better than their offensive rating after the trade (111.4), despite Houston’s EFG% & TOV% improvement. How did that happen? Let’s take a look.

Here are Houston’s four factors before and after the transition to micro-ball, and how that mark would rank over the course of the 2019-2020 season:

The Rockets prior to January 30th53.7 (7th)29.6 (2nd)14.4 (15th)27.1 (13th)
The Rockets since January 30th53.9 (6th)27.3 (7th)13.2 (5th)20.7 (30th)

The Rockets only played 25 regular-season games after Clint Capela played his final game in a Rockets jersey, with Russell Westbrook only participating in 17 of them. These numbers should be treated with caution. But it’s impossible to ignore the huge OREB% discrepancy, which hurt the Rockets’ 3-point-happy offense.

To put it bluntly: It’s very hard to put up the same offensive numbers when you give up roughly 2 shooting possessions per game.

The Rockets can and should point out how they only shot 34.3 3PT% during the micro-ball era, which would rank 26th for the season. Eric Gordon shot 24.7% from beyond the arc, Robert Covington only shot 31.5% and P.J Tucker 34.8%. None of these marks are likely to sustain for next season, and Houston might bring in more shooters in the off-season.

But even if the Rockets shot league-average 35.8 percent from 3, their offensive rating would be 113.6, which would be an improvement over Houston’s pre-trade offensive rating, but still the worst mark in the D’antoni era, and over 2 points per 100 possessions short of Dallas’ absurd 115.9 mark.

It comes down to a question of quality vs quantity, and the Rockets’ quality has to be very high to compensate for the lack of opportunities for 2nd chance points.

So, how do you fix that? I have come with 2 pretty simple solutions

Solution number 1: Just shoot better

As complicated as it sounds, the Rockets can help their offense by simply hitting more shots. Their volume of 3s and layups attempted (they were still 11th at restricted area shots attempts per game after the shift to Micro-ball) is great, but at the end of the day, you shoot shots to make them. A positive regression to the mean, as well as signing knockdown 3 point shooters in free agency like Justin Holiday would do wonders. Utilizing Ben McLemore as a bigger part of the offense would be wise.

The Dallas Mavericks just shot the 4th most 3s per possession in NBA history and hit 36.7% of their attempts- it’s possible to shoot a good percentage on high volume.

Solution number 2: Get a stretch big

That seems to be the obvious next-move for the Rockets, as they attempt to find a way to build a championship winning-team around Harden and Westbrook. The Rockets desperately lack size, and a big could help their offensive & defensive rebounding, as well as rim protection, and just make life easier on both ends of the court. Playing so small is putting yourself at a disadvantage, one that Houston should attempt to avoid. Getting Westbrook a competent pick and roll partner could help his playmaking as well, which took a big dip between the 2018-2019 and the 2019-2020 seasons, and used to be his most valuable asset.

Some possible options are free agents Aron Baynes, Paul Millsap, Bobby Portis, Dario Saric, JaMychal Green, Meyers Leonard and Chris Boucher, along with cheap trade targets like Mo Bamba and Luke Kornet. Even if it’s mainly for the Harden minutes, I imagine that getting a serviceable big man is Houston’s biggest priority at the moment.

The Rockets only played their 37 total games under Micro-Ball and came up short. With so limited ways to improve the roster, their best shot might be to run it back next year with some tinkering, and hope that finally, for the first time in the Harden era, they can beat the odds and break through.

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