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P.J. Tucker is the smallest "center" in the NBA, but arguably the toughest.
P.J. Tucker is the smallest "center" in the NBA, but arguably the toughest.
Photo by Eric Sauseda

Four Rockets Players Replacing Height with Toughness

The Rockets playing "small ball" seems to be about the only thing people can talk about these days. They are either super high on the concept or see it as an "experiment" bound to fail. At this point, the team is 10-3 in games with the smaller lineup despite a brutal loss at New York on Monday, so it is clearly working. But, it's a small sample size with no proof it will have lasting success in the playoffs.

One significant issue in the narrative surrounding small ball is the focus solely on player height. Because basketball players are expected to be tall, we have always placed them into categories based almost entirely on how tall they were. A center is a "seven footer" even when some of the best in NBA history, including Hakeem Olajuwon, were at least a couple inches below that.

Regardless, the attribute of height is most often attributed to a player's success defensively. How can a guy who is 6'6" match up with a player four inches taller. As has been written about here, length — the player's wingspan — plays a critical factor. Robert Covington is well below the height of a traditional big man, but he has a wingspan that is much larger than most players six inches taller than he is.

Another factor that perhaps has been missed is toughness. As Boston Celtics coach (and Pete Buttigieg look alike) Brad Stevens said after the Rockets' win in Boston Saturday, the Rockets were physical with their players, throwing them out of their rhythm. Being tough is often equated with being big, but there are four Rockets players who have serious defensive tenacity minus the vertical size advantage.

Eric Gordon

Most people spend their time talking about Gordon as a three-point shooter. And he is a deadly sniper from distance. But, he also is one of the team's better perimeter defenders. He is a very strong guy. How else do you think he can make some of the difficult shots around the basket he does with regularity? He also has a low center of gravity allowing him to hold strong against players much larger than him. The combination of strength and quickness allows him to be switched off on centers or guards without having to worry if he can hold his own.

Robert Covington

We've talked about his length, but the 6'7" Covington is a physically imposing guy. He's built more like a traditional power forward with strong hands and the ability to bump guys off of their spot with his body. It's clear in his short time here that he has no problem mixing it up inside — he had 16 rebounds in Boston on Saturday — and his shot blocking has been an added bonus. Covington may be the team's best overall talent in the paint.

James Harden

For a former MVP who was mocked for his lack of hustle on defense, Harden has become one of the best post defenders in the NBA, regardless of position or size. Like Covington, he has extremely long arms, the same ones he uses on offense to show the ball and collect record numbers of fouls. Harden has always enjoyed bodying up players in the post. For years in practice, he would let young players post him up to work on their game around the basket. He usually won and we're now seeing that on the floor during games.

P.J. Tucker

Perhaps the Rockets under-the-radar MVP is the "Tuck Wagon." He is the smallest "center" in the NBA at 6'5-ish" but is one of the league's most outstanding defenders. Few are tougher and more intimidating on the floor despite his size. He pushes players much larger off of their positions with regularity and has earned respect around the NBA. If he doesn't make it onto the All Defensive Team this year, it will be a travesty. Tucker has also infused the team around him with a level of energy and defensive toughness it is difficult to see them possessing without him.

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