James Harden, Russell Westbrook & The Rockets Small-Ball Experiment


Mike D’Antoni was at the helm amid the Phoenix Suns’ notable runs during the 2000s. His “seven seconds or less” offensive strategy is both genius and revolutionary. He led the Suns to four 50-win seasons and flirted with the NBA finals during a few of those campaigns. The league has even continued to move towards his philosophies over the last decade – with teams like Golden State further popularizing “small ball.” But in many eyes, D’Antoni is still a punchline. His teams have been criticized for their lack of defense and execution in the playoffs. The two-time coach of the year has never been shy about rolling the dice and with ownership reportedly beginning to sour on his style, it’s now or never. So it’s no wonder with two of the league’s most dynamic guards at his disposal, D’Antoni is finally going all in. Something he wishes he had done while in Phoenix. In an interview with his former point guard Steve Nash, D’Antoni saidEvery voice said you cannot do that, you cannot win. The reason we didn’t win [is] we didn’t go far enoughWe would have been Golden State before Golden State.” The statement is a reflection of his tremendous confidence and stubbornness, which in the end will either be praised or lambasted.

In concurrent seasons, the aforementioned James Harden and Russell Westbrook hoisted the MVP trophy. Each had unbelievable years from a statistical standpoint but like D’Antoni both also failed to reach the NBA Finals. Harden is considered by many to be the most lethal offensive weapon since Kobe Bryant, putting up video-game scoring performances routinely and Russell Westbrook notched a triple-double for three consecutive seasons. Despite their individual successes, the two are maybe unfairly mentioned a tier down from players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. Coincidently, their resumes lack only one thing – the same thing their coach’s resume lacks – A title. Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Russell Westbrook – all three have pantheon credentials without the championship cache to go along with it. For the Rockets, going all in on small-ball may be the last chance for this group to cement their NBA legacies.

James Harden

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On February 4th, 2020 the Rockets acquired Timberwolves’ Robert Covington and traded center Clint Capela to the Hawks. This was part of a four-team, 12-player deal. Shipping Capela meant that Houston’s plan would be to start 6’5″ P.J. Tucker at the center. Basically meaning, in a bold move, they would play without one. So what’s the plan? The Rockets are daring teams to outmuscle them down low. D’Antoni is betting it all on his MVP backcourt – surrounding them with 3-point shooters and keeping the ball in their hands a vast majority of the time. Riding the paint of Capela and other bigs means opening up more space for Westbrook to create. Now, with room to operate, Brodie has been on a tear – posting 29 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds on 53 percent shooting in the last 10 games. Another thing small-ball allows the Rockets to do is get more out of Westbrook, therefore making sure Harden is rested come the postseason.  

On February 7th, when the Rockets went into the Staples Center, James Harden was out at center court for the opening tip and Houston didn’t have anyone over 6’6″ in their starting lineup. All the shooting threats on the court pulled Lakers’ Anthony Davis away from the basket, allowing Westbrook to go berzerk. The guard finished with 41 points. Even though the Lakers bigs, namely, Anthony Davis took advantage of the Rockets size scoring 32 points and grabbing 13 rebounds – it was late-game 3-point shooting that tilted the scale for Houston. After the win D’Antoni told ESPN“Every time you try something different, these guys have got to believe in it,” D’Antoni said. “And this helps a lot, because if you come in here and get spanked and they’re all little, it’s like,`Oh, maybe we can’t do this.’ So they’re fired up to keep trying. It’s just one game, but the confidence is good.”

Almost a month into the experiment, on March 6th, during a nationally televised game the rims weren’t kind to Houston and the outcome reflected that. The Clippers took full advantage of the Rockets’ smaller lineup and forced them off the arc making it tough for Houston to do anything offensively. Los Angeles made the formula to neutralize small-ball clear. Play elite perimeter defense while still remaining solid down low. Great closeouts and recovery. Being able to challenge the 3-point line without being so cavalier that the defense is compromised on the backend. Houston shot 7-for-42 from 3-point range. If the Rockets small-ball experiment is to work then they must hit shots otherwise they will get pounded on the glass. 

Russell Westbrook

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Despite his scoring brilliance, Harden is not without critics. During his 30-point scoring streak, last season Kobe Bryant told ESPN, “I’m not a fan of that [Harden’s style] in terms of winning championships, I don’t think that style is ever going to win championships.” He did add that what Harden’s feat was “remarkable.” Now that Harden has Westbrook maybe they will be able to co-exist when the moment comes and share the stage. 

Standing pat, the Rockets may certainly bow out in the first round but small-ball at least gives them a chance to make a run. Simply put, the ceiling is higher playing this risky style. James Harden and Russell Westbrook at their best are as good as any tandem in the NBA or maybe any tandem ever. One thing they don’t lack is confidence in the experiment. Harden told media after their big win over the Lakers, “We’re not smaller — obviously height-wise [we are]. But heart. Each individual got big hearts. We can compete with anybody.”

The bottom line, if Houston is nailing from deep the system is un-guardable and the best-case scenario is a title. If they go cold early in a series it might be another first-round exit and one less chance for D’Antoni, Westbrook, and Harden to capture that elusive career solidifier. 

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