While P.J. Tucker has assumed the role of starting center for the Houston Rockets, it’s Russell Westbrook that’s truly playing that role for Mike D’Antoni.
If people thought the Houston Rockets had exhausted their bag of tricks in an effort to reach their ultimate goal of an NBA championship, they learned on February 4th that H-Town had plenty left. On that day, Daryl Morey, Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets threw all their chips into small ball by trading away 6-10 center Clint Capela in exchange for 6-7 guard Robert Covington.
Morey confirmed the strategy a few days later, explaining that mostly playing a lineup of shooters and wing defenders with a stretch four gives the team its best shot at winning a title. D’Antoni’s starting lineups have proven that since the trade, as the Rockets have been rolling with a starting five all 6-foot-7 and under.
While many in NBA circles and on social media have questioned the Rockets’ unprecedented strategy, it immediately led to a convincing victory over the Los Angeles Lakers and was one Bojan Bogdanovic prayer away from working against Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz.
Small ball is here to stay in Houston and it’s all designed to help Russell Westbrook thrive. P.J. Tucker has officially been starting as the team’s center, although the Rockets’ style has been as such that there aren’t really any true positions on the court. For example, James Harden and Covington have both attempted jump balls since the lineup shift, a task normally assigned for starting centers.
As shown by the high quality of play the Rockets have demonstrated with Westbrook playing in this new lineup as opposed to how they played against Phoenix when he was out, he’s the true center of the team in more ways than one. While no one can compare to Harden’s one-on-one skills, Houston plays at its best when Russell is the one out there making things happen.
While he’s officially a point guard, The Brodie plays far beyond his position. Russell is currently averaging 14.8 points in the paint per game, which is third in the entire NBA. The rest of the top five? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Montrezl Harrell, Zion Williamson and Andre Drummond. So how is Russ so successful at getting inside and scoring? The best way to find that out is to hear from the man himself:
Westbrook relentlessly attacked the rim to the tune of 39 points on Sunday against the Utah Jazz, finishing on more than one occasion right over the 7-1 Gobert. He also pulled down his fair share of rebounds with six, which is something he’s been doing his entire career.
Russell is pulling down eight rebounds per game so far this season, with 6.3 of those being on the defensive end of the floor. Of course, centers are counted on throughout the league to be their team’s leading rebounder and that’s just what he’s doing with Capela now departed.
With Westbrook being just 6-3, his ability to contest shots and get blocks is understandably limited, which is traditionally something centers are expected to do. Still, Russell brings so many other things to the table when he’s on the floor that the team doesn’t miss too much in that regard.
The only way small ball as a full strategy works is because of Westbrook’s skillset. As I’ve mentioned before, the Rockets might want to consider a different strategy for the games where Russ needs to sit out.
When Russell is on the floor, however, he’s definitely the team’s center in every sense of the word.