After a perfectly bizarre All-Star weekend, the Rockets are back in gear Thursday night against the Warriors. The figurative second half was good to the Rockets last season as they narrowly missed the second seed on the final day of the season.
In 2020, they are battling for legitimacy among a group of very talented teams in the Western Conference. They begin three-and-a-half games out of the second spot, but also just one-and-a-half out of seventh place. The West is crazy. If they plan to move up instead of down, they are going to need to make some improvements.
Their first big change was going all in on small ball, trading Clint Capela and landing Robert Covington in return, making them even smaller than they had been. So far so good as they have gone 6-1 with the tiny lineup with only a 30-foot miracle heave against Utah keeping them from 7-0. Still, there is plenty they will need to do if they want to compete for a title.
A lack of size also means an increase in speed. This team can run at will and should be getting out on the break as often as possible. Not only is their size ideal, they have one of the best open court players in the NBA in Russell Westbrook to lead them. They should be near the top of the NBA in pace by the end of the season, even with their half-court, spread the floor game, or something went wrong.
Spread the floor.
Speaking of, with no Caplea in the lane and five shooters on the floor most of the time, they should be getting wide open shots from all over the half court. Driving lanes for Westbrook and James Harden ought to be big enough for them to drive a truck through and shooters will get more uncontested three pointers than they have ever seen. They of course have to make shots, but the very fact that they are going to get one-on-one matchups with quick guys on slow big men should hopefully begin to negate some of the criticisms of small ball right away.
Adjust when shots aren't falling.
Westbrook was not shooting well from distance early in the year. Instead of forcing it, he became more aggressive and started taking the ball into the lane. When Capela went out with an injury, the lane opened and the Rockets started winning with consistency. The entire team should be taking Westbrook's example, Harden in particular. The last thing this team needs is another 0-27 game in the playoffs. When shots aren't falling from long range, get to the basket and the free throw line. Don't settle. With this team's speed, the shouldn't have to.
Swarm on defense.
One of the biggest arguments against small ball is how to defend and rebound against teams with length. Take a page from the '90s era Seattle Sonics and swarm everyone. With so many players of similar size, they can switch and use strategic double teams to negate the size of opponents. It won't be easy. It will take a gang rebounding mentality and players who are smart enough to understand the correct rotations on the defensive end of the floor. In fact, since they have gone small ball, they have been in the top 10 in defensive rating in the NBA as compared to between 15th and 18th with a more traditional lineup. If they can hold their own on the boards and play fast, they will be a nightmare for opponents, no matter what their size.