Change is scary.
Instinct and logic tussle with each other often in the modern world, and one of the most prevalent ways is that we – in this time of airbags and parachutes and bowling bumpers – still hold great anxiety about things changing. That preference for the known is just a natural reaction to help us avoid risk; we cling to what we know because we know it’s safe.
The major problem with allowing our basest self-preservation instincts to run wild, however, is that we then never push ourselves to be better than just surviving. Even if the upside is a massive upgrade, we fear the risk of what we could lose, and then avoid the potential danger – and potential windfall.
Most NBA teams take the same approach: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Houston Rockets, though, are the evolutionary Leeroy Jenkins of the league, charging ahead with what they feel confident in because of the upside and in spite of the risks. This trade deadline they essentially doubled down on their three-and-iso approach by trading away most of the rim-running bigs on the roster – including starter and $90 million man Clint Capela – in order to maximize spacing and speed.
The Rockets’ full-tilt small ball approach is a game-changing philosophical shift, so we need to look at how it’s changing the value of their players for fantasy basketball.
The Theory of the Case
In summary of the Rockets’ deadline moves: big, bad; space and speed, good. We’re in the small ball era in Houston, and they are fully committed.
In a series of deals, Houston dealt center Clint Capela for three-and-D wing Robert Covington, acquiring young center Jordan Bell in the process – who they promptly sent out for fellow wing Bruno Caboclo. If you want a fuller rundown of those moves, Conrad Garcia of The Dream Shake on SB Nation did a great write-up of their deadline moves.
What we are most interested in for fantasy and dynasty leagues is why would Houston rid itself of an integral piece of their offense?
As noted by NBA Stats, the last four years have seen the Rockets’ percent of possessions finished by a pick-and-roll participant (either the ball handler or the roll man) dwindle. The graph below outlines its decline in their repertoire.
This was partly a result of the Rockets’ increased reliance on the one-on-one isolation game that guard James Harden excels so well at. Isolation needs spacing, which the pick-and-roll by its very nature works against, and while the pick-and-roll manufactures mismatches, the Rockets didn’t need that thanks to Harden’s improvisational isolation skill – where he is a mismatch for everyone.
While the percent of pick-and-roll plays declined, Capela’s offensive output on them faded too: in 2017-18 his scoring on those plays was in the top 10 percent of the league’s roll men, and this year he was barely holding onto the top 50 percent. And it’s not like Capela could just pivot to fitting in this five-out scheme and thrive as a stretch big: in not one of his six seasons has he even attempted a three-pointer, and the highest percentage of his shots in a season to come from further than 10 feet is a whopping 0.8 percent.
Progress can sometimes be ruthless, and Capela could no longer hang; what has replaced him?
Putting it in Practice
It has been just over a month since the deadline and the Rockets’ pledge of allegiance to small ball. In the 14 games since then, we’ve begun to get an idea of how this offense looks in its final form.
On a team level, results have only incrementally changed, but they are somewhat telling. The table below shows the change in per-48-minute production for the Rockets as a whole since trading Capela and fully committing to their five-out strategy.
If nothing else, this is a solid proof of concept.
The Rockets have essentially traded just fewer than one two-point and one free throw attempt per game in favor of an additional three-point attempt per game, while also improving their shooting efficiency across the board. We can also see the effects of the increase in quick scoring, rather than setting up a two-person play, in the fact that (while small) there is a 0.2 shot attempt per game increase.
The one thing that falls flat is the idea that the all-out iso would be the rocket fuel – pun intended – for their offense and drastically increase scoring. The theory is there, however, with a slight uptick in points per 48 minutes, and the potential for even more given how their shot distribution looks now.
Confirmation, or Bias?
When we look at how the production is allocated to certain positions, there is much more to indicate effects of the personnel changes, and the biggest difference is diminished playing time for true bigs.
Leaving aside Covington and other acquisitions, there has also been a drastic decrease in playing time available for others playing traditional 4 and 5 spots. The three forwards/centers remaining on Houston’s roster from before the deadline – Isaiah Hartenstein, Tyson Chandler, and P.J. Tucker – have combined to average 17.6 fewer minutes per game after the deadline. Hartenstein and Chandler have actually combined for just 4 game appearances and 18 minutes played after the Rockets traded away Capela. Even Tucker, who has started all 14 post-deadline games, has seen a drop in minutes.
The biggest benefactor of these changes has been guard Russell Westbrook, who is now working as the team’s de facto center. Russ is consuming the touches near the rim, attempting 14.9 shots per game at a distance of 10 feet or less (2nd in the NBA since February 4th), which helps to mitigate his below-average shooting. The difference between Russ playing the small ball 5 and someone like Capela is that Russ can shoot when called upon, or he can kick the ball back out to an open teammate, and he has the agility to dodge the physical bodying of defending centers in the paint – not to mention he is at least average at the charity stripe when he is bodied up and draws the foul.
What that looks like in fantasy terms is that Westbrook is taking an average of 4.6 more two-point attempts per 36 minutes, while attempting 2.0 fewer threes, and that is turning into an average 5.1 more points per 36 minutes.
With Westbrook being allowed to drive down more now, one would think that would detract from Harden’s value, but it doesn’t really; while he is attempting 2.1 fewer shots per 36 minutes, and therefore scoring 3.3 fewer points, some of that is balanced by him averaging 0.5 more steals and 1.0 more rebounds per 36. Without the space-eating presence of the 6-foot-10 Capela, the team is overall pulling down fewer rebounds, but some value in that department has opened up for Harden and Danuel House.
Another result of forwards who traditionally played low – like P.J. Tucker – playing further out in this scheme, is that they are earning fewer rebounds, but receiving more chances to score and shoot threes.
The Rockets’ new-look small ball strategy flips a lot of our expectations on their heads: much like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s three-guard lineup, Houston’s five-out approach swaps size for speed, and reduces some chances for defensive stats (especially for bigs) but increases scoring opportunities all around. Will those opportunities turn into more scoring? Only time will tell. But the Rockets, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden have to be happy with their newest experiment so far.
Fantasy owners just need to adjust their expectations for the team’s fantasy flight path, recognizing that deep roster stashes like Isaiah Hartenstein may not pan out as their stuck out of the Houston rotation, and bigs this team drafts going forward may end up nothing more than future trade chips. The Rockets are in full small-ball mode.