Why Houston's Small Ball Might Actually Work

The Houston Rockets recently took part in a 4 team trade on February 5. All in all, 12 players were included, making it the largest NBA trade in over 20 years. In the deal, Houston sent Clint Capela to Atlanta, while they received Robert Covington from Minnesota. Looking from Houston’s perspective, undergoing this trade means more than just a slight roster change – Houston has now fully committed to a new, possibly groundbreaking style of basketball – small ball.

In short, a “small ball” lineup consists of 5 players who lack in areas of height, strength, or interior presence. Instead, the lineup consists of smaller players who have strengths in the areas of perimeter shooting and quickness. To execute this idea, the center position is usually eliminated, and positions will instead be referred to simply as “backcourt” and “frontcourt”.

Tim MacMahon/ ESPN

Houston took this raw idea to a new, unprecedented level. Traditionally, a coach might sub a small ball lineup during certain fragments of the game, with opponent matchups, strength, tendencies, and schemes in mind. These fragments can differ with each situation, but it certainly doesn’t last for the entirety of the game. However, by trading Capela, Houston only has 2 players in their entire roster over 6’9, both of whom average a mere 3.2 points and 3.3 rebounds together this season. This suggests that Houston will be committing to play small ball for the majority of each game, and the entirety of the season. 

With this commitment, there are glaring discrepancies that might shine through Houston’s gameplan. Without any center, how will the Rockets secure rebounds? How will they establish a defensive presence inside the paint? How will they contain interior dominant forces like Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid?

The answer – they can’t.

One of the consequences Coach D’Antoni now has to deal with is not being able to rebound, contest, or block shots inside the lane. Since these components of the game are crucial, the Rockets organization had to have thought this through to ensure they made the right decision. And at the end, even though they will be giving up their ability to compete using traditional elements of the game, the front office was confident in being able to flourish by expanding on their abilities to compete using different, unique ideas such as the small ball method. In other words, the Rockets believe they will exceed expectations offensively to make up for what they will lose defensively.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In order for the small ball lineup to be executed, each player on the roster must contain specific attributes that will thrive with the Rockets offensive system. To begin with, every player on the floor must be able to shoot at a consistently high rate. Every player must also demonstrate high IQ by making the right decisions during crucial moments in the game. Every player must be able to defend the perimeter well, to shut off that side of the offense for the opponent. Finally, while not as crucial, having guys who can handle the ball and get by defenders easily will help tremendously in the success of each possession. 

Fortunately, Houston’s front office knew about these needs when shaping their team around their two former MVPs. Over the last few seasons, they have acquired and developed many players that fit these requirements. Guards like Gordon and Rivers are quick off the dribble and can penetrate the lane with ease. Forwards like Tucker, and now Covington, can defend the perimeter and make high IQ decisions for the team. But most importantly, all of their role players are terrific at shooting from beyond the arc. All in all, the role players and their attributes make it possible for Houston to execute the small ball game plan, thanks to a grand scheme operated by Rockets GM Daryl Morey.

So how exactly will these attributes help the Rockets on the court? 

To start, one must understand how Houston’s offensive game plan changed after Capela’s departure. 

With Capela, no matter how many shooters Houston had on the court, their talents would be negated with Capela’s presence. If he was in the paint, he caused too much traffic for movement, and he blocked the lane from allowing Harden and Russ to drive. And as soon as he moved outside, he was deemed useless because of his inability to shoot. Because of this, Capela’s defender would often be the primary “trap” or “help” defender, making it harder for Houston to make its shots. Thus, for Houston to score, Harden would end up having to force ill-advised shots, such as his renowned original stepback, the “double” stepback, or more recently, his one-legged stepback. These shot attempts are difficult on their own, let alone when being guarded by 2 or more defenders, giving Houston a smaller chance to succeed.

After Capela’s departure, however, Houston’s offensive scheme shifted dramatically. With all 5 on-court players being able to shoot, D’Antoni now adopted the “5 out offense”, in which all 5 players are situated on the perimeter – 2 in the corners, 2 on the wings, and 1 on top. With this offense, there is more visual movement, continuity, tempo, and pace, with every player touching the ball and shooting when open. 

Coach Keith/ CoachBase

Here are some aspects of the small ball (5 out) offense that increase Houston’s chance of success:

  1. In a normal situation, Houston’s offense flourishes when utilizing superstars Harden and Westbrook, both Harden and Westbrook are iso-heavy players – their production primarily comes from their ability to generate offense through dribble penetration. Their vast array of handles in their arsenal make it effortless for them to get by their defender to create shots. In a real game situation, if Harden or Westbrook gets by the primary defender, the help defense has 2 options. If the help defense stays home on the perimeter, Russ or Harden get an easy dunk. If the help rotates, one simple pass is necessary to get a wide-open 3. Whichever scheme the defense chooses, Houston will always get an efficient shot up, as a result of how the small ball method positions Houston’s shooters on the court.
Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
  1. If the opponent wants to avoid the first scenario, they might trap or double the superstars, preventing their ability to succeed off the dribble. However, to be able to trap or double, one defender must leave their assignment, which means one Houston player is open. For Harden and Westbrook, it’s just a matter of finding which teammate is open and hitting them in a timely manner. One technique that the 2 MVPs use is the skip pass, in which the ball goes above multiple defenders to get to its destination. The skip pass can get the ball to the open teammate, but more importantly, the skip is fast enough for the teammate to shoot before the defense has enough time to rotate. If the defense decides to trap Harden or Westbrook, they are skilled playmakers who can use the skip pass to find the open teammate, without enough time for the defense to recover. This is all a result of how small ball allows Houston to space the floor.
Yi-Chin Lee/ Houston Chronicle
  1. Even when Russ and Harden are both off the floor, Houston can still have the advantage using small ball. With Houston players on the perimeter, the opponent’s big men are being pulled from the paint to the 3 point line. Since most big men don’t contain the attributes necessary to guard the perimeter, they are not only useless, but they are vulnerable. For example, most big men don’t possess lateral quickness. Because these bigs can’t move their feet on the perimeter, faster Houston frontcourt players, such as Covington or House Jr., can get by and score with ease. Additionally, since these big men are the primary rebounders and shot blockers for the opponent’s defense, the overall team defense instantly becomes weaker when the bigs are forced outside.

To recap, many features of small ball put Houston in position to succeed. Houston can now always count on their 2 superstars to produce, using their abilities to dribble penetrate, finish inside, play-make, and skip pass. And if the MVPs aren’t on the floor, small ball instantaneously makes the opponent’s defense weaker, while utilizing Houston’s role players to play to their strengths. Ultimately, no matter what the defense does, the Rockets will always be able to produce on paper. With the trade, Morey puts his team in the best position to succeed, given the attributes each player has.

All in all, it’s a matter of execution that will determine if the Rockets win or not. If they make their shots like they did against the Lakers last Thursday, they will have a strong chance of winning. If they don’t make their shots, like in the case against Phoenix last Friday, they won’t put themselves in a position to win. And are the Rockets going to make all their shots every game for the rest of the season? No. But Daryl Morey and the Rockets can still rejoice knowing they made the right decision to put their team in position to succeed at a high level. And if everyone else in the organization does what they’re supposed to do, Houston fans can breathe easy knowing they are indeed one step closer to contending for an NBA championship.

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