The immediate reaction by basketball analysts to last week’s four-team trade between the Warriors, Timberwolves, Rockets and Hawks was filled with skepticism and uncertainty towards the Rockets’ move. The team had essentially traded starting center Clint Capela for small forward Robert Covington, leaving the Rockets without a viable starting center.
On the surface, this trade seems like a puzzling decision, especially given the quality of centers the Rockets could play in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, such as Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic. The Rockets have instead chosen to double down on their emphasis on three-point shooting and hope this strategy of increasing their pace can offset their lack of size, much to the intrigue of the league. So far this season, however, the Rockets have been underwhelming following the addition of two-time NBA MVP Russell Westbrook and are currently the fifth seed in the West. Considering their struggles and the skillset Covington brings as a strong defender and shooter, investing in skill over size is ultimately a chance worth taking.
Coming into the season, the primary concern for the Rockets centered around how two ball-dominant former MVPs, James Harden and Westbrook, would coexist after multiple seasons as leaders of their past teams. While initial results were somewhat rocky, both players have had stretches this season that have matched the level of play each showed in their MVP seasons. Notably, Westbrook reduced his volume of three-point shots, an aspect of his game that was highly criticized given his lack of efficiency from deep, especially compared to Harden and P.J. Tucker. Consequently, Westbrook’s improved play has created a situation in which maximizing spacing and freeing up the paint will be beneficial for the Rockets. Therefore, it makes sense why they believe a player like Capela, who primarily plays at or around the basket offensively, could be expendable for a premier shooter in Covington.
This strategy is sound, as Covington’s presence on the perimeter should free up driving lanes for both Harden and Westbrook while giving them an extra shooter to pass to when defenses tightly cover them. In addition, Covington, a former first-team all-NBA defender, will be crucial in guarding wings such as Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Luka Doncic in potential playoff series.
Despite several positives, the trade is not without risks for the Rockets. First, the Rockets gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire Covington, sacrificing potential for a future acquisition of a star player in favor of Covington. The Rockets are also vulnerable defensively with the loss of Capela as Tucker is now the most likely candidate to guard their opponents’ tallest players. Tucker, standing at 6’5”, finds himself at quite the height disadvantage against formidable opponents such as the Lakers, whose front line consists of multiple players at 6’10”.
Capela was a strong defensive presence, and his absence could leave the Rockets more vulnerable in the paint. Capela was also the leading rebounder on the team, and, so far in the three games the Rockets have played without him, they have been outrebounded significantly. Having one of the best rebounding guards of all-time in Westbrook, however, should help mitigate this issue.
Despite the risks, the Rockets needed to make a substantial move to give them a chance to compete with the Lakers and Clippers, the two presumed favorites in the playoffs. The Rockets have not lived up to preseason expectations and currently will not have home-court advantage in the first round of playoffs.
The status quo seemed unlikely to be a formula for postseason success for the Rockets. General Manager Daryl Morey likely realized the team’s need for change and considered this trade a potential opportunity to give the team a shot against the dominant Lakers and Clippers. Notably, in Covington’s first game, the Rockets were able to notch an impressive win in Los Angeles against the top-seeded Lakers. Whether or not the Rockets’ small-ball experiment works in the playoffs, it is a smart calculated risk and, if it does work, it could perhaps spark a new style that other teams will try to emulate.