The Houston Rockets made the decision earlier this month to go all-in on small ball, trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington and fully embracing a five-out approach to the game. They doubled down on Monday after the All-Star Game by reportedly agreeing to deals with Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll, filling their final two roster spots with two more forwards.
The result is a fascinating experiment that will test the limits of what they can do defensively with frantic rotations and blitzing on the perimeter and leaning on their incredibly strong forwards to handle much taller players down low. The results have been mixed so far, but it appears the ceiling for the team has been raised, even as the floor is lowered.
Even with the changes, some things remain the same, like how the offense hinges on the play of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. So far, it’s Westbrook who is thriving in the new system, while Harden is still trying to figure out exactly how to bring what he’s done in recent years up to the new pace Houston is playing with. In a GQ profile on the two Rockets backcourt stars, Harden offered an explanation of why he thinks the Iso-heavy offense they run is more akin to offenses run by some championship teams of the past than many may believe. (NOTE: This interview was done in December, which means he is not speaking of the current situation.)
What do you think of the criticism that your style of play limits your team’s productivity?
Harden: So you look at Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan…they ISO’d, right? Tim Duncan and Shaq were big men, so they ISO’d in the post. It’s the same thing as ISO’ing on the wing. The object is to draw a double team, create an opportunity for your teammates, and get them an open shot. Well, my ISO’s at the top of the floor. And now we get double teams, triple teams. And all different types of defenses to be able to try to guard us. Well, it’s the same thing. We’re at the top of the floor for the ISO, and I get a double team and I swing it, we get an open shot. When Tim Duncan posted up, they double-teamed him, he kicked it out, swing, open three to his teammate. “Oh, that’s good offense.” Well, it’s the same thing.
There is absolutely something to Harden’s defense of his offense, and this season, he’s been a very willing passer when the double comes, often before he even starts and offensive attack. The attention Harden commands on the perimeter is rare, as the doubling he sees has usually been reserved for those in the post because it’s there where rotations are a bit easier.
The question now is how does he adapt to this new pace and system that does seem to lend itself to a more egalitarian approach than we’ve seen from Houston in recent years. As such, Westbrook has dominated thus far, taking full advantage of the space now afforded to him to operate in. Harden has similar space, but given his more plodding, calculated approach, he’s yet to seem fully dialed in on how to most effectively attack it and create those opportunities he spoke of above.
Harden has time to figure those things out, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t. As he grows more comfortable with his new surroundings and without a lethal pick-and-roll/lob partner, it’ll be interesting to see how Houston’s offense looks, because with the space he has around him there’s no reason his iso-attacks can’t be even more dangerous and command even more help and attention to open up shots on the perimeter for the bevy of shooters around him.