Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey explained how the small ball style of play unleashed Russell Westbrook.
The Houston Rockets made the infamous decision to shift to the small ball strategy midway through the 2019-20 NBA season. The Rockets were far from the first team to employ such a strategy, as Don Nelson employed a similar strategy with the Golden State Warriors during the Run TMC era, which started in the late 1980’s.
The Warriors also ran a similar strategy in recent years with the use of their Hampton Five lineup, which moved 6-foot-6 forward Draymond Green to the center position. When the Rockets announced they were switching to the small ball lineup, what seemingly went forgotten by the media is the fact that the Dubs won two of the last three titles by employing such a strategy.
Yet and still, all of the talking heads were quick to instantly point out that the Rockets wouldn’t experience success without Clint Capela, despite the fact that the Rockets went 10-1 without Capela in the lineup this season. The Rockets opted to move P.J. Tucker to the center position, which not only shows Tucker’s versatility, but also exhibits his ability to defend any position on the court, which allowed the small ball strategy to be even more effective.
As the NBA season nears a return, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey remains excited about the Rockets’ small ball scheme, as he explained on SportsTalk 790’s The A-Team.
Morey explains how Westbrook thrived in microball strategy
“Obviously we’re playing small but people forget that unlocked Russell alot on the offensive end and James on the offensive end. But it also unlocked us on the defensive end. Not many guards average in their career multiple times over 10 rebounds a game.
And the fact that Eric is thick and strong and James, allows us to play this way. Everyone makes it sounds like its a gimmick but really the players we have are dictating the best way to play. And what I love about coach is that he recognizes that and is able to optimize that.”
The change in strategy was designed to unleash prime Russell Westbrook, as the five-out lineup moved Russ to center on the offensive end, which proved to be problematic for opposing bigs. The Rockets traded Clint Capela at the trade deadline, and Westbrook’s performance skyrocketed after that point.
In the 11 games Russ played after the Capela trade, he averaged 31.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 5.4 assists, while making 54.6 percent of his shots from the floor and 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers. The Rockets went 7-4 during that stretch of games, pulling off impressive victories against playoff teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, who they defeated twice.
James Harden posted averages of 29.4 points, 7.5 assists, and 5.9 rebounds, while making 43 percent of his shots after the Capela trade. Harden benefited most from having a big man, both from a standpoint of throwing lobs and using pick-and-roll action. Morey later explained that Danuel House could be used in such a way, citing House’s ability to play above the rim.
Aside from Westbrook, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the small ball strategy has been Robert Covington, who emerged as an elite rim protector, who has the ability to defend any position on the floor, while averaging 12.8 points on 35.7 percent from deep.
The Rockets’ small ball strategy could certainly prove to be beneficial against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, who have struggled to contain Westbrook this season. But the LA Clippers seem to match up well on paper, as they employ such a strategy of their own.
The Rockets went 8-6 with Covington on the roster, which gave them a glimpse of what worked well and what areas they’ll need to adjust, which will certainly come in handy once the games resume.