That’s Pretty Interesting: With Robert Covington, radical Rockets are going small and thinking big on defense

With Robert Covington in the fold, the Houston Rockets are getting radical. For their opponents trying to contain James Harden and Russell Westbrook, it is 48 minutes of smallball hell. The offensive formula is simple: surround two of the most dangerous drivers in the planet with as much shooting as possible, so it is virtually impossible to stop the Rockets from creating 3s and shots at the rim.

By leaning so heavily in this direction, Houston is doubling down on the team-building philosophy that has guided the franchise throughout the Harden era: Maximize the stars. This, however, is not unorthodox thinking in today’s NBA — just about every team would like to play five-out on offense. The Rockets are just the first one willing to sacrifice the size and rim protection offered by a center in order to do so. 

The revolutionary idea behind trading Clint Capela for Covington is not that Daryl Morey’s front office thinks it will be so outrageously good at scoring that it’s worth it to take a step back on defense. It is that Houston believes that going small will make the team better on both ends. 

“With defense, we think you have to start at the perimeter and be solid there,” Morey told USA Today’s Mark Medina. “Unfortunately, rim protection is really difficult these days with the rules that they are if a guy is getting downhill. It’s very hard even if the center is back to handle that. You have to cut off penetration at the start with a strong perimeter and then get the rebound and get out and go.”

You don’t need rim protection if you don’t let anybody near the rim in the first place. And the Rockets, with their commitment to switching and their collection of strong, quick wings, believe they have the personnel to prove it.

This is a big swing. Houston ranks 15th in defensive rating, and it needs to dramatically improve to win a title. Ideally, Covington will make the Rockets’ defense look like the one that jammed up the Golden State Warriors’ system in the conference finals two years ago and hasn’t been the same since. 

That team was a pain to play against. Houston switched aggressively, with smart perimeter defenders like P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza who understood how to kill the rhythm of a possession. The results weren’t beautiful to watch, exactly — it essentially dared the other team to go matchup-hunting and try to score in isolation — but the execution was impressive.

When the Rockets are at their best defensively, opponents can’t even create an advantage. Here’s a Lakers possession from Covington’s debut that went nowhere until Avery Bradley decided to try a long 2 off the dribble:

And here are a couple of the worst shots the Jazz have attempted all season: 

And a couple of possessions even uglier than that:

It is not a coincidence that Houston’s 2018 and 2019 seasons ended with Tucker playing 40-plus minutes against the Warriors. The Rockets were way better on both ends with Capela off the court against Golden State in the series that ended nine months ago. Watching Covington’s first few games, it is not difficult to find examples of them giving up putbacks and alley-oops because of their lack of size, but they are betting that their versatility is more important.

Covington made first team All-Defense in 2018, but he is not a traditional stopper. Unlike Tucker, he isn’t quite beefy enough to hold his ground against powerhouse stars. He is a brilliant help defender, though, and is perpetually near the top of the league in deflections. 

“He’s very good off the ball, knowing how to position himself, anticipates, gets steals, denies passing lanes,” Morey said, via the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen. “On the ball, he’s a guy who can honestly take the ball from someone [like Kawhi Leonard does]. He’s somebody who really fits how coach [Mike] D’Antoni wants to play.”

It is fair to suggest that, given Houston’s penchant for switching, Covington’s defensive skills would be more valuable in a different scheme. Early returns, though, suggest the Rockets have needed Covington. When the offense is continually trying to force the ball inside, it is helpful to have a defender who always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

Against Los Angeles, Covington forced turnovers by getting his hand on multiple entry passes, and he blocked both JaVale McGee and Anthony Davis from behind:

And he showed off his anticipation and reaction time against Utah, too:

Regardless of how Houston plays from now until the end of the regular season, traditionalists will scoff at the notion that this can work in the playoffs. I’d feel more confident in the Rockets’ chances of making the Finals if they had one more high-end defender, and I’m a bit concerned that their forwards will be battered and bruised by the time the postseason starts. It is fascinating, though, to see a franchise buck convention with such conviction. If Houston has its priorities straight, it will change the league. 

Improvisational Jazz

After spending all that time on the Rockets’ defense, I must point out that Utah won that game on Sunday. It took Bojan Bogdanovic making one of the most preposterous game-winners I’ve ever seen, but that’s beside the point: The Jazz scored 117.7 points per 100 possessions against the team that exposed them in the last two playoffs. Houston won both of those series 4-1, largely by shutting down Utah’s ball movement and forcing Donovan Mitchell to try to put the team on his back. 

Mitchell has help now, and Utah’s offense is first in the league since Dec. 7, a 31-game sample. Its system is still a symphony of screens and well-timed cuts, but when it needs somebody to create a shot, it has options. Bogdanovic is averaging a career-high 21 points, but he wasn’t the hero against the Rockets until he beat the buzzer. And he was only in the position to take that shot because of Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson.

Conley’s stats this season still look uninspiring, but he has played his best basketball as a Jazzman in the four games since he rejoined the starting lineup. Against Houston, Conley had 20 points and six assists while shooting 8 for 16, and on several occasions he manufactured layups out of thin air:

Clarkson’s shot selection is much more ambitious than Conley’s, even now that the 27-year-old guard has cut down on the long 2s that dragged down his efficiency for the first five years of his career. Sometimes, though, you need someone who isn’t afraid to challenge good defenders. Clarkson caught fire against the Rockets, scoring 30 points in 29 minutes on 12-for-19 shooting. Some of those shots were not easy:

Utah didn’t start the season smoothly, and it is still trying to figure out how to play when its five best players are on the court together. When the Jazz have struggled, though, it has been because they have so many ballhandlers, a hilarious issue considering what had plagued them in the past. The playoffs are largely about problem-solving, and this roster is much better equipped to solve problems now. 

Less is Morris

Marcus Morris seems like an ideal fit for the Los Angeles Clippers because he can do a bit of everything. On offense, Doc Rivers can use him as a floor-spacer, a post-up threat against switches and a playmaker. On defense, Rivers can match him up against wings and bigs. Morris is a stretch 4, but he’s already played 3 for the Clippers and he will spend some time as a smallball center. 

“You can put me anywhere,” Morris told The Athletic’s Jovan Buha. “I can space out really well, give guys space, score it any way. I’m just ready to do what it takes for the team to win.”

The Clippers have been getting rave reviews for acquiring Morris before last Thursday’s trade deadline and keeping him away from their rival Lakers. Surrendering a first-round pick to get him seemed like an obvious move, if only because Morris will not be ignored on the perimeter in the playoffs. If this is going to work the way everybody is envisioning it, though, it will require some sacrifice. 

Before the trade, Morris was having a career year with the New York Knicks. He averaged 19.6 points on 14.8 field goal attempts, and he seemed thrilled that he was empowered to run pick-and-rolls and take a ton of pull-up jumpers. 

“The NBA is about opportunity,” Morris told The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov last month. “Being able to get out there and just show [it]. It took me a longer time to get on a team where it was needed as much. Every team I’ve been on I’ve always played more role to the best of my ability. I’m happy to be here to really showcase my talent and take my game to another level and continue to help my team and continue to win.”

Morris is no longer on a team that needs him to have a featured role in the offense. He will get his opportunities, but Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Lou Williams will do the heavy lifting. In a loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday, he started next to all three of them and scored 13 points on 5-for-12 shooting, with some questionable decisions in the fourth quarter. This will be an adjustment. 

Context is everything

In that Clippers-76ers game, Philadelphia started the red-hot Furkan Korkmaz in Al Horford’s place. It’s unclear if the Sixers have completely pulled the plug on their bully-ball experiment, but it certainly shouldn’t be surprising that they’re going a different way. They entered the game 20th in offensive rating.

It shouldn’t be surprising, either, if Horford immediately becomes one of the league’s best reserves. He has been infinitely better when separated from Embiid all season, and splitting them up creates the space for their teammates to do stuff like this:

I’m not bringing this up because Philadelphia’s fit issues need to be analyzed for the millionth time, but rather because it’s just one of many recent reminders that context is everything. It looked like Russell Westbrook was ruining the Rockets until they started playing him with four shooters and he stopped launching 3s. It looked like DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge were a horrible tandem until Aldridge started launching 3s.

If one of the defining themes of the season is that a player’s production cannot be separated from his environment, then how harshly should RJ Barrett be judged for his inefficient rookie season? Is Aaron Gordon worse than he used to be or merely a victim of his circumstances? I’m sure that the executives who run teams with poor spacing get annoyed at writers who constantly complain about it, but we don’t do that just because we’d like to watch better basketball. Teams that can’t put cohesive lineups on the court are hurting their own players’ trade value. 

Collins’ challenge

I listed John Collins as a loser of the trade deadline because I’m worried about possessions like this happening more often now that Capela is in the picture: 

I like the Dewayne Dedmon acquisition because he spaces the floor and we’ve seen it work with him and Collins before. As a value proposition, I like the Capela trade just fine (as long as the Rockets don’t win the championship and inspire everybody to go centerless, I guess). But before Collins’ role changes, it feels important to note how well he’s been playing in his current one.

Much like last season, when Collins dealt with an ankle injury for the first month, the 22-year-old didn’t get rolling right away. The difference is that the missed games were a result of a 25-game PED suspension this time, and he returned to a team that had already been branded as a disappointment. Quietly, Collins has built on his breakout season, with averages of 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 33.7 minutes in his last 15 games on 69.4 percent true shooting. In that stretch, he has made 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers. 

Collins is not yet, however, a proper stretch 4, and nor is he a polished playmaker. He is more adventurous with the ball in his hands than he used to be, but he’s most comfortable as a roll man. The player Collins wants to be fits fine with Capela. The player he is now likely doesn’t. In the preseason, I talked to him about learning from failure, how he sees his game developing and staying patient. 

“There’s no quick way or cookie-cutter or fast-paced way to get to the top,” Collins told me then. “It’s a slow grind. You have to go through the bumps. You have to figure out that learning curve and make changes and make adjustments.”

That’s even more important now.

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