With Clint Capela trade, Rockets make major gamble on Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball strategy

first_imgThe Rockets’ role in Tuesday night’s wild 12-player, four-team trade comes down to one idea: In the modern NBA, a team does not need a traditional center in order to succeed.By sending Clint Capela to the Hawks and acquiring Robert Covington from the Timberwolves, Houston announced loud and clear it believes that statement to be true. That falls in line with what Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said after a recent win over the Mavericks, a game in which Capela didn’t play. TRADE RUMORS: Which players could Lakers target?”We’re just trying to really open it up for James (Harden) and Russell (Westbrook) to get to the rim so we can get layups. Those are the best shots, or fouled,” D’Antoni said. “That lineup permits that. Now, can you play that well enough defensively and rebound to make them blink, and then they go small? Or do their bigs impose their will? It’s a challenge. We’ll see.”Mike D’Antoni on small unit (continued): “We’re just trying to open it up for James and Russ to get to the rim so we can get layups. Those are the best shots. That lineup permits that.” pic.twitter.com/ssFL39A3q0— Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) February 1, 2020While other championship-level teams have utilized small-ball units — most notably the “Death Lineup” and “Hamptons Five” Warriors — the Rockets are pushing the strategy to its limits.When the trade becomes official, Covington will be the fourth-tallest player (6-7) on Houston’s roster behind only Jordan Bell (6-8), Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein (7-0), and the impact of Chandler and Hartenstein has essentially been nonexistent since mid-January. The Rockets have been thriving without a typical big on the floor this season, going 10-1 without Capela and 5-0 in games with no players taller than 6-6 logging more than 10 minutes.Fewer than two years removed from signing a $90 million contract, Capela’s place in the Rockets’ plans shifted considerably in the past few months. ​Capela is running pick-and-rolls far less frequently in 2019-20 than he did last season, and the increased focus on isolations for Harden and Westbrook created a scenario in which PJ Tucker’s ability to shoot corner 3-pointers is more valuable than Capela’s vertical spacing.However, it should be noted that Capela leads the NBA in cuts. Those possessions don’t follow the usual pick-and-roll setup, but Capela’s presence near the rim creates opportunities in the same way. Help defenders must decide whether to stick with Capela in the paint or lean out toward a shooter on the perimeter. Capela’s absence eliminates the lob threat. Capela is just so good at roaming the baseline and knowing when to cut when he isn’t directly involved in a play.Per Synergy, Capela is leading the league with 5.8 points per game on cuts this season. Ranked first in that category in 2018-19, third in 2017-18, first in 2016-17. pic.twitter.com/u8olCNoWnz— Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles) February 5, 2020Swapping Capela for Covington also allows the Rockets to comfortably use a more switch-heavy scheme defensively, a tactic that frustrated the Warriors’ egalitarian offense. Houston has been average in terms of defensive rating in 2019-20, and its numbers were only slightly better with Capela on the floor. And yet, the Western Conference will present the Rockets with (literally) huge problems. The Lakers, Nuggets and Jazz could crash the boards in a playoff series against Houston. Tucker will battle inside, but it’s a lot to ask him to bang with the likes of Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert.It’s possible Covington gets stuck on bigs for certain stretches. His size and wingspan compare favorably with other power forwards asked to perform similar duties. Maybe the flexibility on both ends will outweigh the frontcourt concerns. It’s all about making the opponent blink first.Even if the Rockets add another piece before Thursday’s trade deadline, it’s clear D’Antoni’s primary lineups won’t include a rim-running center. As he said, small-ball is going to be a challenge. We’ll see.last_img

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