How small ball is elevating the Houston Rockets’ defense more than ever

Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

The Houston Rockets’ switching defense has made them more active in the passing lanes and could elevate them to a top 10 defense post-All-Star break.

It all came together in the 2017-18 season when the Houston Rockets had a lineup of Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela. To close games, they also had Luc Mbah a Moute available to replace Capela and run their own version of small ball.

With that lineup, the Rockets would switch one-through-five on the court and gave the Warriors their toughest fight out of any team in the Western Conference during their championship runs.

This year’s version of the team has made small ball switching a full game experience. Starting no player taller than 6-7, the Rockets’ switching defense has increased turnovers forced and contested shots, all while keeping the team from being destroyed on the boards.

This lineup, with the addition of Robert Covington, has not only improved the offense as expected but has unleashed a more engaged team on the defensive end. With their improvements, the Rockets have a chance to become a top 10 defense for the second half of the season.

Notable Stats After the Trade

When the Rockets traded away Capela, most people immediately had the opinion that the defense would suffer from not having rim protection. The popular sentiment was that the Rockets wouldn’t be able to get any stops on defense with such a small lineup.

What wasn’t discussed enough, though, was the fact that since the Rockets were going exclusively small, they would be even more active playing passing lanes.

Since the trade four games ago, the Rockets are in the top eight in steals and top ten in blocked shots. During that stretch, the Rockets have had more blocks than the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat.

Robert Covington recovers to swat it away!

☘️ 53
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?: @NBAonTNT

— NBA (@NBA) February 12, 2020

Overall, it seems like the entire team is more engaged since the trade for Covington. Even in a loss to the Jazz where they were starting 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert, the Rockets still had more blocks than the Jazz in that contest.

Covington, Tucker, and Harden have long wingspans that make up for their lack of height. While the Rockets are last during this stretch in total rebounds as you’d expect, they also make up for it by forcing turnovers by playing the passing lanes heavily.

Everyone Has Elevated Their Individual Defense

Back when Hakeem Olajuwon was dominating the paint, other Rockets always knew that if they were beaten, The Dream would clean it up. Capela, of course, isn’t Olajuwon but he did provide a safety blanket for the rest of the team.

But with Capela traded away, the Rockets’ perimeter players seem more engaged on the defensive end. Each player knows that if they are beaten in their one-on-one matchup, there is a good chance it will lead to a layup or a wide-open 3-point shot.

Without that security blanket, everyone is forced to focus more on stopping their man individually. Communication on defense has been an issue all year, but with fewer back-to-back games and Eric Gordon coming back after the break, the Rockets should be able to improve that area as well.

The Team’s Height Doesn’t Mean They Can Be Pushed Around

What many people who opposed the Capela trade didn’t take into account was the Rockets’ entire starting five are all individually strong, as Boston Celtics Coach Brad Steven recently discussed:

“They’re special at switching. I always say they’ve got a bunch of guys that look like linebackers. They’re strong. They kind of steer you into their switches. They’re physical. Then, when teams start staring at the switching, they really hurt you.”

Even with several inches of advantage, it’s hard to move the Rockets off the block, and posting up is more difficult than it looks. For years, Harden has been one of the best post defenders in the league, while Tucker is frequently near the top of the league in contested shots.

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However this season ends, one thing is for sure: the Rockets will win or lose on their own terms. There’s still work to be done after the All-Star break, such as crashing the glass harder, but if the Rockets can continue to improve overall, they have a real chance to be a top 10 defense after the All-Star break.