Houston Rockets go all in on ‘radical’ height gamble

Mike D’Antoni wants to be a trendsetter.

He has for his entire career, and what he’s doing with the 2019-20 Houston Rockets is yet another example of it.

When Clint Capela went down with a foot injury a few weeks into the new year, the Rockets’ head coach chose not to replace his centre’s spot in the starting lineup with another big-man. Instead, he put the 6’5 PJ Tucker in a slot generally reserved for 7-footers.

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D’Antoni then kept going to that tact, playing extremely small; rarely playing centres at all.

The trade deadline proved just how much the Rockets were willing to commit to the new strategy. They dealt away Capela and Nene, two of their bigs, and got more wings in return. Robert Covington came into the fold, along with Bruno Caboclo, solidifying the tactic: the Rockets will unashamedly play small ball all the time.

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Sports Illustrated’s Michael Shapiro called D’Antoni an “NBA radical,” while The Ringer’s Rob Mahoney pointed out just how much the spacing could help James Harden.

“After a trade this blunt, there can be no real question as to how the Rockets want to play…” Mahoney wrote.

Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni isn’t afraid to shake things up.

Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t afraid to shake things up.Source: AP

“Rather than change the polarizing, iso-heavy style that has made them a top-three offense to this point, the Rockets chose instead to prioritize the fit of the players involved. James Harden is going to work over defenders from the top of the floor. Capela played well in service of that, but Covington clears even more space for an already well-spaced system.

“At the point where Harden doesn’t really need a ball screen from Capela (or even the implicit threat of his rolls to the rim) to score, it’s possible that a shooter and defender like Covington could offer the broader utility. It’s just hard to say, considering how far the Rockets have veered from basketball convention.”

After the deadline, the Rockets had just two true centres on their roster: Isaiah Hartenstein and Tyson Chandler. Still, none are in D’Antoni’s rotation.

The Rockets have gone all in on playing extreme small ball — no centres allowed — and so their likely playoff rotation and those players’ heights looks something like this.

PG: Russell Westbrook (6’3), Austin Rivers (6’3)

SG: James Harden (6’5)

SF: Eric Gordon (6’3), Ben McLemore (6’3)

PF: Robert Covington (6’7)

C: PJ Tucker (6’5)

Of course, by now we should know that those positional labels mean nothing. When it comes to D’Antoni’s Rockets, they’re just placeholders.

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