It was an interesting guessing game that started even before the 2019-20 season of the NBA commenced: how far will the Houston Rockets go playing their brand of small ball?
Now we have an answer: a 1-4 second-round exit compliments of the Los Angeles Lakers and their four-game masterclass on roster-tweaking and defense that adapts.
Houston now faces a fork in the road: Mike D’Antoni has left. It will not be a simple matter of getting a new coach to fill the vacancy because there is the question of whether or not they get to keep the offense-focused small ball identity they’ve built. Mike D’Antoni is the best in the business for this particular type of approach to winning games, and it plays to the strengths of James Harden and company.
Will Houston hire a new coach who promises to continue this particular brand of Houston Rockets basketball, or will they choose a coach who will lead the team towards a different direction?
If Houston’s front office chooses a coach with the deliberate intention of rebuilding from the ground up, this is them saying they’ve given up on their 3-and-D style of play.
Reconfiguring roster, roles, and approach to both ends of the floor means changing Houston basketball and (possibly) changing James Harden basketball as well. Some will support it, others will dislike it. Regardless, it is too early to say whether this change is good or bad.
However, a massive facelift heading to the 2020-21 season certainly means we don’t get to see Houston’s small ball reach its full potential. It is unfortunate because Houston’s small ball has shown promise and sting (when players play it the right way). It is the reason why Houston finished fourth overall in a very competitive Western Conference ahead of talented squads like Utah, Dallas, OKC, and Portland.
Losing to the Los Angeles Lakers should be more of a learning experience for the Rockets rather than a sign to start moving towards a different direction. The problem in that series is that after Game 1, LA made changes, but Houston didn’t; a classic survival of the fittest.
Three things define small ball: movement, three-point shooting, and defense. The Golden State Warriors were nearly invincible because they are all aces in all three categories.
Houston, in their series with LA, shot itself in the foot because of lackadaisical defense.
If there is one thing Houston should let go, it is the notion that they can get away with not playing defense hoping their offense will tow them to the finish line first. An overwhelming offense is not always promised, but effective defense always rewards the diligent and committed.
Houston should start having an appreciation in combining berserker-level three-point shooting with bear hug-level stifling defense. They can do it. They’ve done it before. It is just a matter of being consistent and raising the intensity as demanded by playoff basketball.
Another key takeaway from the LA-Houston series is movement. Houston should be more creative, but more importantly, the players on the floor should be constantly dynamic and have purposeful motion. It was evident what LA wanted to do to Houston: double team Harden or play box-and-one when Eric Gordon is the primary shooter. Even when this was revealed and plain evident, I noticed how action on Houston’s offensive sets didn’t show any significant change enough to force LA’s defense to scramble or suffer its penalty.
Priding itself as a haven for legit gunners, it is surprising that Houston didn’t make LA pay for double-teaming Harden or playing box-and-one. I think the reason why is because they fell into the trap set by LA: encourage Houston to abandon swinging the ball across the arc and opt to attack the perimeter instead. It got Westbrook and Jeff Green going, but at a cost: losing their overall rhythm as a three-point shooting team. It got so bad that at one point, even Austin Rivers is hesitant to shoot an open three, and when he did, you can see the form is off and the confidence in the shot is not there.
Contrary to what others say that Houston will win or lose by Harden’s hand, I think this year’s Rockets have proven that they’ve shifted towards winning by committee and Harden is getting better and better in his role as playmaker.
Where (or how) they go next season—big or small—will be our new guessing game.