Prior to, and in the middle of, the 2019-20 season, the Houston Rockets made a pair of trades that were seen as questionable at best, and downright delusional at worst. First, they dealt Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook in large part, it seemed, because James Harden didn’t like playing with Paul and instead wanted to share the Houston backcourt with his old running mate.
At the time, you could’ve argued that Paul was a flat-out better player than Westbrook at this stage and that the Rockets lost the trade even before you factored in the two first-round picks and two pick-swap options they also sent to OKC for the right to pay Westbrook $171 million over the next four seasons.
Indeed, Paul has been phenomenal for the Thunder this season, but Westbrook has arguably been even better for Houston. He’s having perhaps the best season of his career. He turned a corner as the calendar turned to January, started cutting down on his 3-point attempts while returning to his basket-attacking strengths. But it’s hard to attack the basket with a big man clogging the lane.
It paved the way for Rockets GM Daryl Morey to pull the trigger on the second trade, sending Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks as part of a four-team deal that brought them, Robert Covington. Getting rid of Capela wasn’t necessarily a desperate
move, even if he had appeared to be a core part of Houston’s championship formula just a few years earlier. It was the signal the Capela trade sent to the rest of the league that could have been perceived as desperate.
The Rockets weren’t just going small.
They were going super-duper small.
With 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker starting at center.
Of course, teams go small all the time now. The Warriors became the Warriors when they anchored their “Death Lineup” with 6-foot-6 Draymond Green at the center and proceeded to run teams into their graves. But these were always seen as temporary lineups, short-burst strategies to be primarily deployed to close games. Fighting above your weight class for an entire game is exhausting, and the matchup trick you’re trying to pull on opponents is, at once, a matchup trick you’re pulling on yourself.
It begged the question: Were the Rockets doing this because they truly felt it made them a championship contender, or because they were trying to salvage the Westbrook trade they perhaps shouldn’t have made in the first place? There’s no doubt the change unlocked the best version of Westbrook. With Capela out of the way and Covington further spacing the floor, he has made over 56 percent of his 2-point shots, and 38 percent of his far less frequent 3-point shots, since Feb. 6, per NBA.com.
The results for the Rockets as a whole have painted a more muddled picture. They beat the Lakers on the same night the trade went down, with Covington suiting up just hours after the deal was completed, and proceeded to win seven of their first eight super-small-ball games in which Westbrook played.
They also went into the suspension having lost four of their last five, and since the trade, they are outside the top 10 in the offensive, defensive and net rating, and they are last in defensive rebounding percentage, per NBA.com. We’ve seen them look great, almost unstoppable offensively, and we’ve seen them look borderline helpless when their energy isn’t through the roof and teams have fully exploited their weaknesses.
With the playoffs coming up, which version of the Rockets do we trust? We’ve only seen them together for 14 games, and by the time play resumes, that will have been over four months ago. It makes the Rockets the ultimate wild card, a team that can beat anyone or loses to anyone as the postseason landscape sets to take on the most unpredictable shift in league history.
The reason the NBA playoffs are typically the most predictable of the major sports’ postseasons is large because of the seven-game, East-West format, and the relatively constant variables. But this season, the typically simple, classic postseason cocktail has all kinds of random ingredients being thrown in, and there’s no telling how it’s going to come out. No home-court advantage. No fans. Teams and players arriving in Orlando in varying
degrees of condition and rhythm.
The last two NBA postseasons that played out under truly unique circumstances were the lockout-shortened 1999 season and the Michael Jordan-less 1995 season. Those two factors made those two seasons feel substantially more up for grabs and thus less predictable, and indeed some wacky results ensued. In 1999, the No. 8-seeded Knicks made it the Finals, the only time that has ever happened. In 1995, the Rockets won the title as a No. 6 seed, again, the only time that has ever happened.
Currently, this season’s Rockets are … a No. 6 seed.
That could change in Orlando, where each of the 22 teams invited will play eight “seeding” games to conclude the regular season before the start of the playoffs. It’s not official, but based on how the remaining schedules will be broken down, the eight Rockets opponents will be the Lakers, Blazers, Kings, Bucks, Mavericks, Pacers, Sixers and Raptors.
That’s a tough haul, though the Lakers and Bucks, and perhaps the Raptors by the end, won’t be playing for much besides getting their players in shape and rhythm. However, it shakes out, if the Rockets get through the first round, they will almost certainly match up with the Clippers or the Lakers, depending on whether Houston rises to the No. 4 or 5 seed or stays at No. 6. If they fall to No. 7 — not likely, as they have a three-game lead on the Mavericks — they could theoretically draw the Clippers in the first round.
However it shakes out, the Rockets will likely have to go through the Clippers and Lakers just to get out of the West, and then perhaps the historically dominant Bucks in the Finals, if they’re going to make the type of Cinderella run usually reserved for the one-and-done NCAA Tournament.
Vegas, for its part, doesn’t see this as a terribly unlikely result. Even though they’re currently the No. 6 seed, William Hill Sportsbook has positioned the Rockets with the third-best odds to win the West at +750, and the fourth-best odds to win the whole thing
at +1600, tied with the Celtics and trailing only the Lakers (+240), Bucks (+260) and Clippers (+320).
The Rockets do match up pretty well with the Clippers on paper, particularly as Houston’s pick-and-roll and matchup-hunting isolation ways could threaten Doc Rivers’ ability to play Lou Williams, and perhaps even Montrezl Harrell, at the end of games. That said, how far the Rockets go will ultimately come down to how dominant James Harden is and how well Westbrook shoots the ball.
Harden is perhaps a bit more volatile than LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, but he’s a superstar, and as such his having to be great is no different than LeBron or Kawhi or Giannis having to be great for their teams to win. It’s not even worth talking about, really. Westbrook, the No. 2, is the swing player, like Anthony Davis for the Lakers and Paul George for the Clippers and Khris Middleton for the Bucks. In many ways, as Westbrook goes, so go the Rockets.
It’s been that way his entire career, even when he was playing with Kevin Durant. Consider: Westbrook has shot 50 percent or better in 21 career playoff games, and his teams are 15-6 in those games. He has shot 45 percent or better 33 times, and his teams are 25-8 in those games. He has shot 40 percent or better 52 times, and his teams are 37-15 in those games.
It’s when Westbrook dips below 40 percent that problems arise. That’s happened 46 times in his career, and his teams are 14-32 in those games. That’s enough of a sample size to draw a pretty clear line: If Westbrook shoots well, with volume, preferably somewhere north of 45 percent from the field with discretionary 3-point attempts, the Rockets are going to be dangerous. If he doesn’t, they could be out in the first round.
That this happens to be the best shooting season of Westbrook’s career — 47 percent from the field, 52 percent on two-pointers — leads to increased hope for Houston’s Cinderella dreams. Given the strange circumstances surrounding these playoffs, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them.