For better or worse, the NBA is forging ahead with its plan to restart the 2019-20 season at the end of the month in Orlando, Florida. As teams report to Walt Disney World for training camp, we will dive deep into the big-picture basketball questions left to be answered between now and October.
If ever an unconventional sixth seed were to win an NBA championship, it would be this season.
The Houston Rockets are nothing if not unconventional. These are not the 1994-95 Rockets, the only seed lower than fourth to win a title, who boasted Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. This edition jettisoned every traditional big in its rotation to surround former MVP guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook with lengthy swingmen, leaving only 37-year-old center Tyson Chandler on the end of bench.
Gone is Clint Capela, the starting center on the 65-win Rockets that took the Golden State Warriors to seven games in the 2018 Western Conference finals, along with a pair of his backups, one seldom-used and the other never-used. In their place are Robert Covington and a cast of well-traveled wings, including Jeff Green and Bruno Caboclo, now the two tallest options to fill out the rotation at 6-foot-8.
The 6-5 P.J. Tucker is Houston’s starting center. He is 35 years old. The 6-7 Covington is the starting power forward. He is on his third team since November 2018. To say this is an experiment is being kind.
This is a Hail Mary. The Rockets are trying to catch lightning in a bottle, or a bubble, so to speak.
There is a method to this madness. By trading Chris Paul for Westbrook last July, a deal necessitated by the former All-Star point guard’s reportedly “unsalvageable” relationship with Harden, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey created an inevitable on-court clash: Westbrook’s poor outside shooting was not a great spacing fit next to Harden, at least not with a non-shooting big like Capela also sharing the court.
Harden’s transcendent ability to break down opponents off the dribble in one-on-one matchups lessened the need for Capela as a rim-running pick-and-roll partner. Ideally, Morey would surround Harden with four shooters spreading the floor for a generational offensive talent to attack and kick, but you kind of have to make room for a triple-double artist making $39 million, even if he shoots 25 percent from deep.
So, the Rockets carved out more space for Westbrook and Harden to operate by eliminating Capela, hoping the strength of Tucker and length of Covington could replicate much of the rebounding and rim protection they lost in the process. The results, at least in the 14 games they played together, are mixed.
Houston is 7-6 since inserting Covington into the starting lineup. The Rockets bookended five straight wins around the All-Star break with impressive victories against the Boston Celtics, and then embarked on a four-game losing streak that included games against the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets.
Lineups with Harden, Westbrook, Covington and Tucker on the floor are outscoring opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions in a limited sample size, according to Cleaning the Glass. In his 11 games since the Capela trade, Westbrook is averaging 31.7 points (on 56/39/73 shooting splits), 8.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 35.9 minutes a game. He was averaging a 26-8-7 on 45/23/79 splits prior to the deal.
These are encouraging signs that this Rockets experiment could work, especially with the midseason training camp in Orlando allotting them time to familiarize newcomers Covington, Green, Caboclo, DeMarre Carroll and David Nwaba with the system over the next three weeks. There should also be concerns that the four-month hiatus provided opponents plenty of time to game plan for their gimmick.
Post-trade games against the two Los Angeles teams are a microcosm of the good and bad that comes with an all-in small-ball strategy built around Harden and Westbrook. Houston caught the Lakers by surprise in its first game with Covington, converting 19 of 42 3-pointers and running JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard off the floor. In space, Westbrook relentlessly attacked the paint, scoring 41 points.
A roster featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis at the forward positions is built to punish smaller teams, but the Rockets’ shooting bent them to their will, and the Lakers did not have the horses to run with them on the wings. Avery Bradley’s decision to opt out of the season restart thins their herd even more, leaving them vulnerable if Houston catches fire. There is, of course, a flip side to that coin.
With 10 games of film on the Covington-boosted Rockets, the Clippers were prepared to meet them at all angles. With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at their forward positions and a plethora of small-ball weapons to unleash depending on offensive or defensive priorities, the Clips can just be better than Houston at what the Rockets do best. This time, there was no running an opponent off the floor.
Clippers guards and wings stayed home at the 3-point line, where Houston made just seven of their 42 attempts, and funneled the two Rockets stars toward either Ivica Zubac or Montrezl Harrell, who dominated the paint on both ends of the floor to the tune of 36 points, 22 rebounds and three blocks.
Two things here: 1) New-look Houston is almost entirely reliant on its 3-point shooting, making a cold streak as likely as a hot one, and any single-game clip within four percentage points of its season average (34.8%) has yielded a 3-1 record; and 2) the Rockets definitely do not want to face the Clippers in the playoffs.
One wild card, though: The Rockets, perhaps more than any other team but the Philadelphia Sixers, will benefit from the break. Harden has long shown signs of tiring in the playoffs, and he is reportedly in great shape (with the caveat that everyone is in great shape for training camp until they are not). Westbrook was working his way back from offseason knee surgery throughout this season. Eric Gordon’s troubling season was plagued by a seven-week absence for his own knee surgery. And Tucker surely needed an extended rest, given his age, nagging shoulder injury, and the onus put on him as an undersized center.
The eight-game seeding schedule in Orlando should tell us a lot about what Houston’s chances will be. They start with the Dallas Mavericks, and a loss would inch them within a game of falling to seventh place, where they would almost surely meet the Clippers in the first round. The Rockets then face the Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers and Lakers, a slew of teams with an arsenal to test their center-less lineups, before the schedule lightens for a few games until they end with the behemoth Sixers.
Houston does have a decent shot at avoiding the Clippers until the Western Conference finals. It sits sixth by way of a tiebreaker with the fifth-place Oklahoma City Thunder, and both teams trail an undermanned Utah Jazz team by a single game. Jumping into third is less likely (and less advantageous).
The Rockets should be able to handle the Jazz or Thunder in a 4-5 matchup, which would set the stage for a small ball vs. bully ball battle between the Rockets and Lakers. As difficult as James, Davis and Howard may be to deal with in the post, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and J.R. Smith trying to keep track of Harden, Westbrook and Houston’s wings is a pretty comparable advantage.
Then, Houston will hope it survives the attrition rate of a condensed schedule and the coronavirus better than the Clippers, and anything can happen in a seven-game Finals at Walt Disney World. Everything is going to be weird in the bubble, and the Rockets already hold the title as the weirdest team in Orlando.
Check out the NBA Disney World bubble in augmented reality:
More from our NBA restart series:
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