In a copycat league, experimentation is how innovation takes place. Some team, coach or front office has to be bold enough to try something new in the pursuit of success. If it fails, others will be detracted from trying it. If it succeeds, it's the new style all others are copying en masse.
We've seen this manifest itself a few ways over the last fifteen years. The Boston Celtics were the first to completely overhaul chemistry overnight, with ground-shaking trades to land Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They didn't popularize superstars teaming up, but showed the pathway for how a roster can be constructed on the fly around such a team, using several mid-season veteran acquisitions to field a competitive group. Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns popularized pace, spacing and 3-point shooting like never before.
Several years later, the Golden State Warriors brought sweeping change to the game's style. They brought back a switching defense and won championships due to the presence of Draymond Green as their "small-ball 5" for spurts. The term, now widely known and duplicated, wasn't without its detractors when first inculcated.
So what teams are brave enough to experiment with new ideas and see if they can pioneer the NBA's next sweeping revolution? We may be seeing the most drastic two-tiered shift ever, as the Houston Rockets are trailblazing with a radical plan on both ends of the floor.
An Isolation-Heavy Offense
A small caveat with this one: Houston's approach is borne out of their possession of the league's best isolation player. According to Synergy, James Harden has 991 points from isolations alone in 2019-20. Only 55 players in the entire NBA had that many points total. Special players require adaptation, and Harden's style of play is one of the most radical shifts in recent memory.
Part of the stigma comes from how Harden is viewed as a player. Naysayers view his foul-drawing tactics as deplorable, question the legality of his footwork and dismiss his statistical output as only a byproduct of a system catered around him. But in order to get that long leash, Harden has to prove able to sustain his success on high volume. He's done that, for three consecutive years.
Each season that passes sees D'Antoni and the Rockets lean into this in heavier ways. This year, the isolation approach isn't just built around Harden, but his teammate, former MVP Russell Westbrook. Only two NBA players have more than 300 isolation possessions this year: Harden (886) and Westbrook (394). The next highest, Damian Lillard, is trailing Russ by over 100.
At 40-24, the Rockets are only a game back of the four-seed as play resumes shortly. Harden and Westbrook's 1,280 isos are more than the Hawks, Pacers, Suns and Magic combined. We likely won't see this become a sweeping trend across the league, but its success could enable a team with one fantastic scorer the gumption to play exclusively through that threat in the future. Seeing Houston post the second-best offensive rating this season is a huge win for its merits.
The Full-Time, Small-Ball 5
On February 5th, the Rockets shipped away starting center Clint Capela in a four-team deal, bringing back defensive-minded forward Robert Covington. The move left the Rockets without a starting center and only two players on their roster over 6'10". Those two, Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein, appeared in fewer than half of their team's games. We've never seen something this drastic before, and it's a move few anticipated at the trade deadline. It's also been met with concern for breaking up a well-functioning machine and giving up on a talented youngster in Capela.
The willingness to try this approach actually makes sense. The Rockets run almost twice as many isolations as they do pick-and-rolls. There's more value in offense in a player who can shoot the 3-point shot and space the floor than one who can set screens and finish dump-downs. In the Western Conference, the only contenders with centers who are offensive threats are the Denver Nuggets, and luring Nikola Jokic into an isolation-battle on the blocks, where he's not on the perimeter carving up defenses, is a bold strategy. The downside of playing no bigs is mitigated by the absence of those who can punish them for doing so.
The linchpin of this strategy is PJ Tucker, the do-it-all garbage man on Houston's frontline. While only 6'5", Tucker's ability to guard bigs one-on-one will be tested, albeit individually exhausted. The size of wings like Covington, Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll, all late-year additions, blanket Tucker and give different looks to opponents whenever they'd like.
Six years ago, Steve Kerr and the Warriors popularized playing small, but even they did it in relatively short doses. For my memory, this is the first time a primary lineup has been this small. Not only will wins and losses be a good judge of this strategy, but there are a few metrics I'll be laser-focused on: net rating, defensive rebounding percentage, field goal defense inside of 6 feet and on/off stats for Tucker.
After the trade, Houston went 8-6, not exactly a ringing endorsement for their shift. But such a broad, all-encompassing change to their playstyle is hard to nail on the fly. This break could be incredibly good for Houston's cohesion, plan of attack and buy-in for the system. With the offseason likely shortened, player movement and seismic roster or stylistic changes will be unlikely, giving us a potential twelve-month window to rightfully examine how this roll of the dice works out.
It's hard to separate the success of these Rockets and pinpoint whether offense or defense is the main factor. Both are points of innovation, and both are so intricately connected. The Rockets' defense is about league-average, but arguably what they're doing here is even bolder than on offense. D'Antoni isn't worried about trying something new and setting the path for himself. Hopefully, these Rockets can reward his risk-taking and innovation.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).