Short jokes aside, wingspan is the difference for the Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

The Houston Rockets have heard all the short jokes by now, but looking at players’ wingspans instead of height shows how small ball is working.

The Houston Rockets, if you’re going strictly by height, have the smallest starting lineup in the league. The tallest player in their regular rotation is Robert Covington, who stands at just 6-foot-7.

What most fans and critics of the small-ball strategy seem to be missing, however, is that there is more to a player than just their height. Wingspan is becoming a big part of scouting reports when discussing players coming out of college and even current NBA players.

Players like James Harden, Covington, and Russell Westbrook may not be the tallest players on the court but their long wingspans make a big difference. While the Rockets may lack vertical height, we may need to start measuring them in a different way to get a true sense of their effectiveness on the court.

Wingspan is the Secret to the Team’s Deceptive Defense

In basketball and football, a fingertip-to-fingertip measurement is used to determine the player’s wingspan. According to studies, the average adult man has an arm span of about 2.1 inches longer than his height. Wingspan is the measurement that should be more widely talked about when discussing the Rockets.

As stated before, the Rockets are going all-in on their one-through-five switchable lineups. It may often seem like they are at a disadvantage switching onto players like Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid, but the Rockets have several players whose wingspan is well above what’s to be expected given their height.

James Harden is a perfect example, as he stands 6-foot-5 but has a wingspan of 6-11. This is a big reason, along with his solid base, as to why he is one of the best post defenders in the league, which was on full display at the All-Star game.

James Harden is in the 95th percentile in post-up defense. Opposing players are shooting 26.8% against him on post-ups. He's always been a good post-up defender, so don't understand this strategy. If you want to "take advantage" of Harden defensively, posting him up isn't optimal

— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) February 17, 2020

Robert Covington, who the Rockets traded for right before the trade deadline, has a wingspan of 7-foot-2 which, for context, is only one inch shorter than that of Tyson Chandler. This gives Covington the ability to sometimes block shots as if he is a traditional center.

Robert Covington recovers to swat it away!

☘️ 53
? 57

?: @NBAonTNT

— NBA (@NBA) February 12, 2020

Russell Westbrook, who stands at 6-3, has a 6-8 wingspan. Along with his tremendous natural athleticism, this is a big reason he is a top 15 rebounder every year. The team’s starting center, P.J. Tucker, stands at 6-5 but has a 6-9¾ wingspan.

The reason wingspan is more important for Houston than it is for just about every other team is that it helps the Rockets’ switch-everything defense, as each player can guard any position. This is part of the reason the Rockets haven’t had many problems not playing a traditional center.

How Long Wingspan and Switching on D Go Hand-in-hand

As mentioned earlier, the Rockets switch everything on pick and rolls with their new rotation. Before, when Capela was roaming the paint, they would occasionally ask him to switch onto guards at the 3-point line.

In 2017 Capela thrived in those situations, but as the years went by, Capela was starting to become a step slower on switches. The Rockets coaching staff noticed this and started dropping Capela into the paint instead of having him always switch.

Now with several players the same size, the Rockets are switching on virtually every pick and roll play. Harden especially thrives guarding bigger players in the post as teams still try to force post-ups against him. This is part of the reason the Rockets have been forcing more turnovers since they promoted Tucker to starting center.

The Rockets are not going to beat teams by running post-up plays and intimidating teams at the rim. Honestly, that wasn’t their style even when Capela was here.

Next. 3 Ways Jeff Green can help the Rockets

What needs to be talked about more is the fact that the Rockets may be one of the shorter teams when it comes to height, but their wingspan makes them stand deceptively tall.