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Houston Rockets' experiment might just work

The NBA returns after a week’s break for the All-Star Game, and among the six games on top are the Houston Rockets at Golden State. The Warriors long ago quit trying, but the nightcap on TNT’s doubleheader remains interesting.

Because the Rockets have gone rogue. Already an outlier when it comes to traditional NBA strategy, Houston doubled down. The Rockets traded center Clint Capela to the Hawks in a four-team deal that netted Houston wing man Robert Covington.

And the NBA’s most unique roster got even wilder. The Rockets are playing 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker as their center, if that’s what you want to call him. He’s a center on defense. But offensively, the Rockets mostly spread the floor with no one in the middle and let James Harden or Russell Westbrook drive and kick.

The Rockets are 3-point shooting fiends and even moreso now. Houston’s inside game is Westbrook barreling to the basket, only this time there is less congestion.

Most are skeptical of Houston’s long-term success with such a lineup. Houston is 2-2 since the trade, but those two victories are impressive – 121-111 at the Lakers, and 116-105 at home over the Celtics.

And even those who believe Houston can have some regular-season success do not feel the same about the playoffs. The game slows and becomes more of a grind in the post-season. Smart coaches with good rosters can gameplan more extensively, and the Rockets will have fewer options than most teams.

Still, I’m not so sure.

We all know the game has changed. It’s a shooters game. It’s a spread-the-floor game. Centers are less valuable than ever before. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made a good point the other day on an nbcsports.com podcast with Tom Haberstroh – Cuban said NBA centers will become like NFL tailbacks; every team has them and uses them, but they rarely are valued and they rarely are built around.

Think about this. For years, even before the recent revolution, NBA teams would go small, and opponents usually adjust with a small lineup themselves. How often do you see an NBA team go big, followed by an opponent adjusting by going big itself? Hardly ever.

Think about the way the game is officiated. In the post, Steven Adams and Nikola Jokic and Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert can be waging hand-to-hand combat, literally fighting, almost with fists. Out in public, what they do would be called a brawl. And there is no whistle. Out on the perimeter, you can barely touch Harden or Steph Curry on a shot, and tweet, tweet, tweet, foul. Chris Paul literally can swing the ball into your minding-its-own-business arm, and the foul is on you.

It's crazy. But who can blame the Rockets for playing towards that kind of game?

The truth is, basketball quickness always has trumped basketball size. Now, the best teams are big and quick. But small, quick teams will take big and slow teams almost every time.

Go deep into the NBA playoffs, and teams will have big and quick. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam. Heck, the Clippers have both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They’re not quaking over Houston’s mighty mites.

But the Rockets won’t be an easy out. Five players on the court who can either shoot well or score easily or both? That’s hard to deal with. Yes, you can pummel Houston the backboards, but an offensive rebounding assault comes with a risk. If the Rockets get the rebound, they’re off to the races, and they’re not necessarily going to the basket – they’re going to the 3-point line, trying to get one of their shooters an open shot.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and it’s one I’m not convinced the Rockets will lose.

Related Photos
Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook (0) drives toward the basket as Boston Celtics' Daniel Theis, left, defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook (0) drives toward the basket as Boston Celtics' Daniel Theis, left, defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c3f6d9366d776691ef3a9cfc848ec774.jpg" alt="Photo - Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook (0) drives toward the basket as Boston Celtics' Daniel Theis, left, defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)" title="Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook (0) drives toward the basket as Boston Celtics' Daniel Theis, left, defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)"><figcaption>Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook (0) drives toward the basket as Boston Celtics' Daniel Theis, left, defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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