Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets are stretching NBA math to its logical extreme

The Houston Rockets’ small-ball experiment might not result in a championship, but it’s taking Moreyball to its logical extreme.

Give the Houston Rockets credit: Regardless of whether their newfangled small-ball experiment results in a championship, they’re willing to challenge the NBA status quo.

Conventional wisdom dictates that teams need a big-bodied center to score near the basket, clean up on the glass and protect the rim. The Golden State Warriors were the exception to the rule in recent years when they slid Draymond Green to the 5 in the playoffs, but they trotted out bigs such as Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and Kevon Looney to soak up minutes at center during the regular season.

Ahead of Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, the Rockets decided to go one step further.

In a four-team megatrade, the Rockets sent starting center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks and landed Minnesota Timberwolves wing Robert Covington in return. That left them with a 6-foot-5 starting center in P.J. Tucker and no regular rotation player taller than the 6-foot-7 Covington.

Barring a surprise signing on the buyout market, the Rockets are banking on the offensive advantages of small ball to outweigh the defensive disadvantages. Teams will outscore them in the paint and outrebound them more often than not, but can they keep up from behind the 3-point line?

General manager Daryl Morey is betting not.

The Rockets had fared surprisingly well sans Capela this season, which may have encouraged them to embrace this small-ball gamble. They were 10-1 without him prior to the trade deadline, and what they lost in defense — teams averaged 1.4 more points per 100 possessions against them with him off the floor — they made up for with offense.

With Capela on the floor this season, the Rockets averaged 110.0 points per 100 possessions on offense, which would rank right around the league average. With him off the floor, they averaged a blistering 115.8 points per 100 possessions, which is only a hair behind the Dallas Mavericks’ league-leading mark.

To some extent, the Rockets’ acquisition of Russell Westbrook this past summer forced their hand with Capela. Swapping out Chris Paul, a career 36.9 percent 3-point shooter, for Westbrook (30.4 percent) necessitated putting more shooters around him to provide proper floor spacing. Westbrook is shooting a horrific 23.7 percent from 3-point range this year, and opponents were routinely double-teaming James Harden while daring the rest of the Rockets to make them pay.

In particular, pairing Westbrook with Harden and Capela caused the Rockets’ offense to sputter. When all three shared the court alongside one another, the Rockets averaged 105.5 points per 100 possessions, which would be tied with the Charlotte Hornets for the sixth-worst mark leaguewide. When Harden and Westbrook played together without Capela, they erupted for 116.0 points per 100 possessions, ahead of the Mavericks’ league-leading 115.9-per-100 mark.

The Rockets have also significantly dialed back their reliance on pick-and-rolls, which made Capela less useful offensively than he had been in years past. Two years ago, they finished more than a quarter of their possessions with a pick-and-roll ball-handler (17.6 percent) or roll man (8.3 percent). This year, however, they’re at the bottom of the league both in possessions finished by a pick-and-roll ball-handler (10.9 percent) or a roll man (4.5 percent).

Capela’s effectiveness in those plays has dipped in recent years, too. In 2017-18, he finished 32.1 percent of his possessions as a roll man and ranked in the 92nd percentile in terms of scoring efficiency on those plays. This year, he’s finishing only 17.0 percent of his possessions as a roll man and ranks in the 51st percentile in scoring efficiency.

The final nail in the coffin of the Rockets’ Capela era came the weekend before the trade deadline. With the big man sidelined by a foot injury, the Rockets became the first team since 1963 to play an entire game with no player listed above 6-foot-6, according to the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN’s Tim MacMahon). That didn’t stop them from beating both the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, though.

The Mavericks and Pelicans outrebounded the Rockets 115-80 in those two games, but the Rockets overwhelmed them from deep, shooting 38.5 percent on a whopping 48.0 attempts per game. They averaged 122.5 points in the two victories, and they followed that up by dropping 125 points on the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.

“They better beat us up inside pretty well before we have to change,” head coach Mike D’Antoni said after the victory over the Mavericks, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “We won’t blink too quick.”

Westbrook is doing his part to improve the Rockets’ offense by dialing back his 3-point attempts, too. After averaging 4.9 attempts from deep over his first 34 games with the Rockets, he has attempted a total of 12 over his last nine games. During that time, he’s averaging an absurd 34.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists while shooting 53.6 percent from the field.

The Rockets’ first two games after the trade deadline displayed both the upside and downside of their small-ball approach. On Thursday, the Rockets beat the jumbo-sized Los Angeles Lakers, 121-111, despite getting outscored in the paint 62-40. They kept the rebounding margin within reason (the Lakers outrebounded them 38-37) and buried the Lakers in a barrage of triples (19-of-42 compared to the Lakers’ 9-of-31).

The next night, the Phoenix Suns annihilated the Westbrook-less Rockets, 127-91. Like the Lakers, the Suns outscored the Rockets in the paint (50-36), but they also held a much larger advantage on the glass (51-29) and outshot them from deep as well (15-of-31 compared to 11-of-48).

The Rockets are bound to have more clunkers like their blowout loss against the Suns, but their embrace of a heavy 3-point volume should increase their variance positively, too. They’re currently averaging 43.9 triples per game, the second-highest mark in NBA history (trailing only last year’s Rockets), and that number may swell closer to 50 from here on out. Without Capela over their past seven games, the Rockets have launched an eye-popping 47.6 shots per game from deep.

This is the logical endgame of “Moreyball,” the offensive system that Morey pioneered years ago.

The Rockets have long embraced innovation under Morey. He pioneered the concept of “Moreyball,” which placed a greater emphasis on 3-pointers and shots closer to the basket while largely eschewing the mid-range. When most teams attempted to emulate the motion-heavy schemes of the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in the mid-2010s, the Rockets zagged toward an isolation-heavy offense tailored around Harden.

Over the past few years, a growing number of teams have adopted the Moreyball strategy. Teams are averaging an NBA-record 33.7 3-point attempts per game this season, up from 22.4 only five years prior. In turn, Morey’s Rockets are now searching for the next great NBA innovation.

Will their full-time small-ball experiment revolutionize the NBA, or will traditional bigs pummel them into submission? That will be one of the league’s most fascinating subplots for the next few months.

Next: Takeaways from Andrew Wiggins’ first game with the Warriors

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Early Bird Rights.

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