The 2020 NBA Trade Deadline has come and gone and Daryl Morey and the front office did not stand still.
The Rockets traded Clint Capela, Nene, Gerald Green and a first-round pick in a large four-team deal to acquire Robert Covington and Jordan Bell, then sent Bell to Memphis for forward Bruno Caboclo.
Why This Was Necessary
We’ve seen 50 games of the James Harden–Russell Westbrook pairing and the results of the trade are in:
This is the least-efficient offense of the D’Antoni Rockets era and, with the exception of the “Melo Rockets”, this is the least-efficient defense of the D’Antoni Rockets era.
Not exactly the kind of impact you would expect when you give up a crucial piece/Hall of Famer, two future first-round picks and two future first-round pick swaps.
By now, it should be clear that simply plugging and playing Westbrook into the template of past Rocketball success, a model that didn’t require structural change, won’t work and is never going to work. This team as constructed was not a legitimate contender. It was obvious with every home loss. It was a good team but not a great one and it was not going to win an NBA title.
While it’s safe to say the Rockets drastically overpaid in the Westbrook trade, it doesn’t mean it’s a failure yet. One title would validate it all. The problem is that was not going to happen for the Rockets as they were — they have to make changes if they’re going to get back to the contender status they earned the past three seasons.
This trade gives them a chance.
The Rockets are taking a radical but smart approach to getting the skills of Harden and the strengths of Westbrook to mesh.
Capela was a key cog in the machine during the Chris Paul years. He was vital as a screener, pick-and-roll lob threat and rim protector. He improved a great deal as a switching defender. If defenders stayed home on the shooters, Harden or Paul would isolate, break down their man and force Clint’s defender to commit, creating alleyoop opportunities often. The Rockets were 42-3 in the 2017-18 regular season when Capela, Harden and Paul all played and Capela’s role in that can’t be overstated.
With Westbrook’s inability to shoot threes, this system broke down — or at least wasn’t as well-oiled. Teams were doubling Harden more frequently, inviting Westbrook to do something from long range. Westbrook has only one scoring play that he hits at an above-average clip — shots in the restricted area. He could thrive in space with easy lanes to the hoop, but with two non-shooters on the floor, that space was limited.
So while many fans were yelling, “Don’t blame Westbrook! He got you 35!” they weren’t understanding how this all worked. To Russ’ credit, he is playing fine by his standards and has adjusted by abandoning his ineffective three-point shot and attacking the basket, but the overall impact is still felt. Clint filled his role well for years, but the Rockets are now married to Russ and they have to make this work.
By removing Clint, Westbrook can now be the lone Rocket on the floor with limited range. Yes, you lose the lob threat and that’s big. You lose defense and rebounding and that’s even bigger. These are things the Rockets are going to have bust their ass to make up because they’re going to be undersized every night.
But they have an identity now, a method to how they play that can maximize the skillset of their two star guards when both are on the floor. That’s what’s been missing. With four shooters around Westbrook, the likes of Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis can’t just loiter around the paint. The spacing that Westbrook needs to thrive on drives should be there and if they collapse protecting the rim, he’s a terrific passer and should find the shooters.
In other words, this might just fit now.
“It just presented itself,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni on making the deal. “Clint got hurt. We have Russ, who is a unique talent, and I think we need to play to his talents. I think James is comfortable either way. It does help him, I think, in the long run.”
That’s why I haven’t even discussed Covington’s skillset until now because it’s important to understand why the Rockets viewed this as the right move. Acquiring a center for this team is much easier to do than it is to find a two-way wing like Covington. This gives the Rockets a true Trevor Ariza replacement, a strong defensive wing with a 7-foot-2 wingspan that can slide to four in smallball lineups. PJ Tucker is no longer alone as the team’s defensive anchor. Covington gives you another player that could attempt to slow down a Lebron or a Kawhi.
He’s a good three-point shooter (35.8% career) but not an incredible one. In Houston’s lineup, there’s a legit reason to be optimistic that he could inch closer to 40%.
A lineup of Russ, Harden, Eric Gordon, Covington and Tucker is arguably the NBA’s most unique lineup. I expect the offensive rating to head towards being the best in the league once again. Defense? That’s the big question. Can the Rockets rebound and defend? If so, they’re a contender. If not, they’re a fun gimmick.
Caboclo is very intriguing. He’s 6-foot-9 with tremendous length, sporting a ridiculous 7-foot-6 wingspan. He’s energetic and can defend. I expect him to work his way into possibly getting some time at center, especially when Harden is running the show and Westbrook is on the bench. He has also shown the ability to hit from deep, connecting on 36.9% from three last year with the Grizzlies. That hasn’t been the case this season, but the ability is there and I think it will be a big key to working his way to minutes.
He’s dealing with a bone bruise in his knee and is still some time away from a return, but he’s an option for a four-five that D’Antoni can turn to.
Rockets Continue To Overpay
Trading Capela for Covington? I agree with this move. I feel it improves the Rockets today and gives them a chance that they didn’t have before the deal. But tossing in yet another first-round pick for the opportunity to unload Nene’s and Green’s expiring contracts? Really?
It should absolutely alarm you the degree to which Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has given away valuable pieces to get what he wants. The Rockets have created FIVE first-round draft pick debts (three first-rounders and two first-round swaps) that extend out the next six and a half years, not to mention cleaning out the entire cupboard of second-round picks. The Rockets right now are basically that one college kid that opens and maxes out as many credit cards as the system will allow and likes the idea of making the minimum payment each month.
Wouldn’t the Rockets have just been better off using a fraction of these future assets along with, say, Brandon Knight’s contract, to acquire Covington outright and put him alongside Paul and Capela? I mean, what do I know.
The fact that Daryl Morey’s voice, when it comes to personnel and trades, does not appear to be the loudest in the room terrifies me right now. The Rockets better win a title out of this experiment because I can assure you, there will be some lean years in the near future.
The Rockets are so deeply in debt that the 2020 first-round pick isn’t that big of a deal — it’s at least the one draft pick they’ve traded where they can get an accurate feel for where it will be. It’s just a shame that the Rockets couldn’t execute this trade without it, then use it to acquire another piece in a separate deal.
The team has two open roster spots and will aggressively enter the buyout market seeking a forward or center that gives them some size. Tristan Thompson would make a lot of sense, if the Cavs do pursue a buyout. They still need more help.
But the Smallball Revolution is here and the Rockets, as they did with the Threeball Revolution, are leading the charge. While everybody is laughing at Houston’s inability to match up with the size of the likes of the Lakers and Bucks, and it may prove justified, the Rockets are looking at it in a different way:
Can those teams match up with our shooting and speed?