Though the Houston Rockets have recently gone all-in on small ball, they might be better served starting a traditional big when Russell Westbrook sits out.
Only two games have passed since the Houston Rockets traded away their best big man in Clint Capela for a reliable, 6-7 defender and shooter in Robert Covington. In those games, they’re 1-1 after an impressive victory over the Western-Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers followed by a disappointing blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns without Russell Westbrook.
In the game against the Lakers, Westbrook showcased his skills beautifully, scoring 41 points, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out five assists. The majority of his buckets were against bigger players such as Anthony Davis, which was surprising to many that were expecting the Lakers’ big lineup to dominate the small Rockets on both ends of the floor.
Thursday night against the Phoenix Suns, however, was a different story. Granted, Houston was on the second night of a back-to-back, Eric Gordon left the game with an injury after nine minutes and the team couldn’t hit a 3-pointer to save their lives, but a 36-point loss still needs some dissecting.
Overall, there’s no need to panic over a loss to a Suns team in which Kelly Oubre Jr scored 39 points on 14-of-19 from the field, but there might be something more to why the Rockets were down by 20 points after one quarter.
Mike D’Antoni‘s teams have frequently had a run-and-gun, shoot quickly style based on small ball, but he’s never quite gone this far. TNT certainly tried to make it known that playing a lineup full of 6-7 and under players is a recipe for failure.
Still, with Russ leading the way, Houston was able to defeat the Vegas favorites to win it all this season by 10. Without the Brodie, however, the Rockets’ small-ball strategy didn’t work quite as well on Friday.
Phoenix outrebounded the Rockets 51-29 on the night. With such a small lineup, the Rockets are expected to give up a lot of boards but make up for it on the other end with their explosive offense. The problem is Russell Westbrook is the fuel for that offense and is now the team’s best rebounder with Capela gone.
It’s a small sample size, but it doesn’t seem like the full small ball mode Houston is experimenting with will work well without Russ on the floor. His rebounding is key to not letting the Rockets get destroyed on the glass and what he brings overall can’t be replaced by Covington.
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Next time Russell Westbrook has to sit out, Mike D’Antoni should consider a starting lineup of James Harden, Robert Covington, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Isaiah Hartenstein. This would give the Rockets a much better chance on the glass as well as an interior presence.
While Hartenstein is no Capela, I have to think Harden misses being able to lob the ball over the top of defenses when they collapse on him, and he has the height to be able to catch and finish those.
Can the Houston Rockets win by playing small ball without Westbrook? Sure, but they will have to shoot lights out to do so, and I don’t see it working long term without him.
The Rockets have three more back-to-backs left on the schedule: one in March and two in April.
We’ll have to see if any adjustments are made by D’Antoni going forward.