Rockets Smallball to Be Tested in Shortened Season

The Rockets will need Robert Covington to play big (literally) when the team returns to action.
The Rockets will need Robert Covington to play big (literally) when the team returns to action. Photo by Eric Sauseda
When the NBA finally makes its return from its conronavirus-induced quarantine, things will go quickly. Teams will play about seven games before getting to the postseason, not much time to ramp up, which means those squads who start fast will have a leg up on any team that doesn't.

It's been a while since we've seen any basketball, so we will forgive you if you had forgotten that the Rockets were starting P.J. Tucker at center who is probably six-foot-four-inches on a good day. Their biggest guy is the starting lineup is Robert Covington, who is only six-foot-seven but has a wingspan of over seven feet. The goal is to force teams to spread out their bigger players and guard guys who are much quicker. The tradeoff is small guys trying to guard big players on the other end.

They dabbled with GM Daryl Morey's "smallball" concept but this year, after acquiring Covington for Clint Capela, they went all in. And they were still in the early stages when the league had to put a hard pause on the season. The success or failure of the moves made earlier this year and the team's commitment to playing small will be put to the test during the final, likely intense last couple months of the season. But there are some reasons to hope for Rockets fans.

This worked quite well for Golden State, but it wasn't really discussed because they typically started a somewhat traditional center. But their "Hamptons Five" lineup with Draymond Green at center and Kevin Durant at forward wasn't all that dissimilar to what the Rockets are rolling out on the court to start (and finish) games.

There are good reasons to believe that a smaller, quicker lineup could work in a shortened season. One of the most common arguments when it comes to playing fast and small has been that it wears players out. Coach Mike D'Antoni has been criticized over the years for exhausting his players during the regular season, costing them health and energy in the playoffs. The thought has been that he treated guys like sprinters when they were running a marathon. With the last two months off and time to recover, the final portion of the NBA season and postseason will be more of a sprint, which favors the Rockets..

Compressed timelines also tend to favor the hot hand. That extra energy from the time off means fresher legs and if good shooters are hitting shots, it is difficult to defend, no matter the opponent's size.

The disadvantage for this particular Rockets team is the short period of time they have had together. Covington was only with the team for about three weeks, and while he was starting to pay real dividends, it was cut short with the season. Finding a groove in "training camp" will be critical for the entire team given they've only had a handful of games together. Teams with multiple seasons as a unit like Milwaukee would certainly seem to have the advantage here.

Most importantly, this is a team that has to shoot well. They will want to play as up tempo as possible, but that will tend to lead to other teams doing the same. Missed shots and smaller big men means long rebounds and fast breaks for opponents. They can't just play fast. They have to make shots.

Arguably, the Rockets could be the most fun team to watch once the season starts again on July 31. They certainly would be one of the few contenders who has the most immediate upside if they can pull it all together. If not, they could go from boom to bust rather quickly.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke