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Edited — Original: Boston Globe

The Secrets Behind the Rockets’ Small-Ball Defense

Why Houston believes their “small-ball” approach is more than a gimmick

Spencer Young
Aug 30, 2020 · 11 min read

IN THE WANING hours before the NBA trade deadline, Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey had a pressing choice to make. Their starting center, Clint Capela, was nursing a significant heel injury, having missed the past 11 games, and Houston was playing P.J. Tucker at center full-time.

D’Antoni, for the record, was on a hot seat, on the last year of his contract with his team no longer playing like the juggernaut they were from 2017–2019.

So he and Morey made their choice: it was time to go all-in.

The collective basketball world was shocked when Houston traded Capela to the Hawks in a three-team deal that landed them Robert Covington, a former undrafted forward who was originally picked up by Morey. Covington was supposed to a the ideal piece for Houston, a player whose “3 & D” skillset made Morey’s statistical models identify him as a hidden gem all those years ago.

But that also meant, after Houston waived Isaiah Hartenstein and elected to swap the incumbent Jordan Bell for Bruno Caboclo, that the Rockets’ tallest player was now Jeff Green, and their starting center was now the 6'5" P.J. Tucker.

Mismatches abound… right? Not so fast.

Based on two years of statistical evidence, film, and the inevitable trend of basketball as a whole, these Rockets may not be so radical after all. Perhaps, this team is the final development after two years of pushing the Warriors to the brink in the Playoffs.

Without question, the events and transactions made by Houston have pushed them towards small-ball. We’ve seen this strategy work before — the Hampton’s Five and LeBron-at-center lineups battled in the Finals for many seasons — and Houston themselves have played small-lineups frequently over the past two seasons.

So maybe, just maybe, Houston can leverage their new, unique defensive scheme to win that elusive championship.

THE ROCKETS SMALL-BALL approach didn’t come out of nowhere.

It is best if we begin this story four seasons ago, when D’Antoni first joined James Harden and Daryl Morey in Houston.

With Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon joining the team on major salaries, plus Harden’s defensive reputation hitting its lowest point in the previous year, the expectation was for Houston’s defense to nosedive and render their offensive potency null.

Instead, replacing the disgraced Dwight Howard with Clint Capela proved to be a game-changer for D’Antoni, who combined with Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza to help Houston stay only slightly below-average on defense while their offense soared.

In fact, it was Houston’s offense which ruined their season, particularly a Game 6 loss against the Spurs who were missing Leonard in which Harden only managed to score 10 points.

The Rockets traded for Chris Paul in the offseason, who wasn't necessarily a better on-ball defender than Patrick Beverley, but his overall leadership, plus the additions of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, made Houston a top-10 defense, something that never seemed to be possible under D’Antoni and Harden.

And they did so with a revolutionary strategy.

After benching Ryan Anderson for the defensive-minded Tucker, Houston saw far better results as a two-way unit who switched every screen on defense. Remember when the Rockets bet on Clint Capela to replace Dwight Howard? Well, he turned out to be the perfect big man in a switching screen.

Houston’s scheme worked well during the first two rounds, and even for spurts against the Warriors. Experts remarked at how good the Rockets were at stalling a lethal Golden State offense.

The reason was simple: with perceived mismatches, Golden State was happy to bog down their ball movement to watch as Kevin Durant and Steph Curry took jumpers in isolation, Klay Thompson would try to beat his man off-the-dribble, and even Draymond Green would try to post up smaller players.

Houston’s offense was awful for stretches in that 2018 Conference Finals, needing Chris Paul’s heroic shot-making to even approach triple-digits in Games 4 and 5. Their defense, however, the same switching defense that was questioned by pundits and fans alike, was somehow stopping the best team of the past decade.

It was in this series, when Steve Kerr would play Draymond Green at center, that D’Antoni was forced to answer the question which no team had found an answer for: how do you stop a five-out lineup featuring three of the greatest shooters to ever play, as well as four elite perimeter defenders.

D’Antoni’s answer wasn’t bad. Here were his (defensive) matchups:

  • Steph Curry vs. Eric Gordon: Gordon returned to full health this season, and his speed and athleticism made him D’Antoni’s top choice against quick gaurds
  • Klay Thompson vs. Chris Paul: Since Thompson’s movement was slowed by Golden State’s isolations, the aging Chris Paul could “rest” on defense, knowing Thompson didn’t have the foot speed to blow by him
  • Kevin Durant vs. Trevor Ariza: To his credit, Ariza was Durant’s shadow this series, chasing him everywhere. Unfortunately, his efforts weren’t enough.
  • Andre Iguodala vs. James Harden: Harden rested on defense, knowing he needed the extra energy to go out Iguodala on offense.
  • Draymond Green vs. P.J. Tucker: These two physical heavyweights battled all series and played the same role: defend, rebound, set screens, and hit corner threes.

That Rockets team was so, so close. Within twenty-seven misses of punishing a frustrated Warriors team, in fact.

A FEW CHANGES happened in the 2018–2019 season that contributed to Houston’s worse defense and their slow start, two issues that compounded each other.

  • Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute left for the Suns and Clippers, respectively. Their replacement, James Ennis III, struggled in the switching scheme.
  • Signings like Michael Carter-Williams and Carmelo Anthony flopped.
  • Eric Gordon and Chris Paul each struggled with injuries during the season.
  • Teams realized how to take advantage of the switching scheme, particularly when screening against the 6'0" Paul.

After starting 10–11, changes needed to be made. Houston’s playoff chances even appeared to be in danger without change, as Chris Paul went down with yet another hamstring injury midway through November.

Here’s what changed:

  • Danuel House Jr. moved to the regular rotation and thrived as a 3 & D piece.
  • Austin Rivers came from waivers and was a tenacious on-ball defender at the point guard position.
  • James Harden took over the offense and boosted his averages to 36 points per game, an unprecedented figure in the past decade.
  • Eric Gordon moved into the starting lineup, giving D’Antoni another good on-ball defender to start games.

The result was a terrific finish to the season, a top-10 defense for the second straight year, and a second-round rematch against the Warriors. Two things changed: firstly, Tucker was clearly overworked trying to guard Durant. Secondly, and more importantly, the Warriors started games with their “Hampton’s Five” lineup, while D’Antoni continued to start games with Capela.

Having mobile, long defenders on Capela made his offensive game negligible and proved to be a defensive struggle for him. It was here, with Capela posting awful on/off splits compared to “Tuckwagon” (Tucker at center) lineups, that the seeds of Houston’s current small-ball scheme began.

In the offseason, as the team pursued a trade for Jimmy Butler before settling on swapping Paul for Russell Westbrook, they didn’t hide the fact that they were shopping Gordon and Capela + picks to get a star.

When Butler “ghosted” them, Daryl Morey quickly offered Gordon and extension and brought back Capela as a starter, having extended him in the season prior.

Westbrook, Harden, House Jr., Tucker, Capela. This was the lineup that Morey chose to finally win his first championship. Yet, as time would tell, drastic change was needed.

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Houston’s strong defenders are no longer a luxury: they are a necessity. (Edited: Original NBAE/Getty)

THROUGH THE FIRST few months of the NBA season, the Rockets were middling.

Harden’s individual brilliance — almost 39 points per game to start the 2020 season — were keeping Houston afloat. But Gordon was back on the shelf after struggling with knee issues, Capela saw his impact diminish after a career season in 2018–2019, and, most importantly, Russell Westbrook was having the worst season of his career.

It is imperative to note why Morey would cater to Westbrook.

The first and most prudent reason is his contract: no team would trade for Westbrook without multiple picks attached, so Houston was essentially locked into going all-in with Westbrook and Harden.

The second reason was somewhat predictable. After a career-worst shooting season in his final year in OKC, Westbrook saw little to no improvement in his three-point shooting, killing the team’s spacing in clutch situations. Westbrook being a non-threat from three paired with Capela roaming the paint meant Harden was taking extremely contested shots and facing double-teams on a regular basis.

D’Antoni, for his part, didn’t do enough to maximize Capela. He scrapped pick-and-rolls in favor of isolations, choosing to place Capela in the dunker’s spot. This, however, minimized the big man’s impact and ruined his offensive value.

So that takes us back to the trade deadline, where Houston traded for Robert Covington, the ultimate 3 & D wing. With him, Tucker, Gordon, and the elite rebounding (for a guard) of Westbrook and Harden, Morey bet his team’s individual defensive talents could be harnessed into building a championship team. Let’s take a look at some key concepts.

The Rockets Defense: A Final Breakdown:

Here are three concepts that dictate Houston’s defense, which was elite through the first two games of the playoffs and good during Games 3 and 4:

  1. Switch all screens: this three year-old strategy has evolved over the seasons, but remains the core of Houston’s defense. Among the changes this season is the “Scram switch,” where weakside defenders switch assignments after screens are set to prevent bigger players from posting up on mismatches.
  2. Stay in front of ball-handlers at the point of attack: though far from easy, Houston has a few strong point-of-attack defenders who can stay in front of their man in isolation. Not being beat off the dribble helps the team survive, as their rebounding is still a major issue.
  3. Form a “Shell”: with so many undersized players, forming a strong help-side defense is imperative, as teams run more isolations and post-ups against the Rockets than they do against conservative defensive coverages. While the “Shell” defense isn’t unique to Houston, it is more important for the Rockets to their players positioned to play help defense due to their undersized lineups.

The following clip puts these ideas together: good “shell” defense, ambitious weak-side help, and elite on-ball defense all contributed the Houston dominating Games 1 and 2 against the Thunder.

Via Uncommon NBA highlights on YouTube

Unfortunately, they may have brought out the best of Thunder by pure accident, as Steven Adams figures to have his role largely reduced after OKC won Games 3 and 4 while playing Danilo Gallinari at center.

In a perfect world, the length of Danuel House Jr., P.J. Tucker, and Robert Covington could thwart the driving ability of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. However, over the course of 48 minutes, that hasn’t proved to be sustainable.

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A visual of Houston’s “SHELL” defense. Made with Google Slides

The biggest change between Games 1–2 and Games 3–4 for OKC was simple: spacing. In the first two games, they were invited into taking contested shots in isolation, with Steven Adams clogging up the paint.

The Thunder weren’t alone is this predicament either.

Said Brad Stevens, a coaching genius whose team full of skilled wings and guards has struggled to beat Houston in recent years, “it’s hard to post linebackers.”

In other words, trying to isolate against Houston’s perceived mismatches has proved to be more difficult than it seems.

P.J. Tucker is listed at 6'5", 245 pounds, packing muscle on his stout frame while being one of the toughest, grittiest defenders in the league. He has taken on the toughest assignments all season long for D’Antoni.

Harden and Gordon, meanwhile, are two of the strongest guards in the league. Gordon uses his strength to switch on screens and wall off ball-handlers, while Harden’s bulk and dexterity made him an ideal candidate to guard limited centers and power forwards who can’t take advantage of his size on offense. According to ESPN, this season, Harden allowed only 0.60 points per post-up on 29.5% shooting, continuing the trend of his post defense being elite.

Russell Westbrook may not be an elite defender, but his biggest weakness — off-ball defense — is minimized in Houston’s scheme, while the value of his rebounding is amplified.

Covington, while the slightest build among Houston’s starters, was likened to a volleyball player by Steve Kerr, a fitting comparison for a player whose destructive off-ball defense led to 1.6 steals and 2.2 blocks for the Rockets.

It is these five, along with House Jr., Rivers, Jeff Green, and DeMarre Carroll who take up the bulk of Houston’s minutes, with only Ben McLemore standing out as a complete defensive mismatch.

As Harden said after being targeted in the 2020 All-Star Game, “Come try [isolating us],” Harden said, “and the s — — won’t work.”

SO WHERE DO teams see a weakness in Houston’s scheme?

First, it’s easy to highlight their biggest weakness: rebounding. The Rockets were 29th in defensive rebounding after making the trade, and it could be argued that Westbrook was the team’s best rebounder based on the entirety of the season.

This issue won’t go away either: before the NBA shut down, Houston was faltering, losing many games by double-digits as more energetic teams punished them by simply out-rebounding them.

But contrary to popular belief, Houston’s second-worst issue isn’t post-defense or isolation defense — it is help defense.

Though the Rockets ideally would play their “shell” scheme to make up for their lack of size, their focus falters over the course of a game, and when teams get to the rim, they are usually met by Harden, Tucker, or Gordon, who will not (and cannot) give up their body to protect the rim every time.

Harden as post-up defender is admirable, but he strikes little fear as a help defender, as he usually offers little more than low-effort swipes at the ball to try and stop the league’s best finishers at the rim.

Only Covington would qualify as a “rim-protector,” but his slighter frame prevents him from stopping agile power forwards and centers as a help defender, and his expertise is in playing the passing lanes, not blocking shots.

So in the end, will this work for Houston?

I liken their strategy to Miami’s zone defense, a game-plan that appears to be a gimmick (two-three zones are usually left in amateur basketball), but makes opposing offense’s bog down their offense and overthink their decisions.

Luck hasn’t been on D’Antoni, Morey, or Harden’s side in the past, but maybe, just maybe, they will be rewarded for fully buying into a defensive scheme that has never been consistently utilized over an entire NBA season.

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Spencer Young

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Student. Fan. Writer. Words in Bleacher Report, others. Check out our official website: https://officialbballuniversity.com

Basketball University

Weekly articles analyzing a variety of basketball-related topics

Spencer Young

Written by

Student. Fan. Writer. Words in Bleacher Report, others. Check out our official website: https://officialbballuniversity.com

Basketball University

Weekly articles analyzing a variety of basketball-related topics

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