The center of innovation: The Rockets’ big gamble of ditching the center position is paying off … for now

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

1. Rockets getting it done

Most chess grandmasters know their first move within seconds. They’ve seen everything, and their minds flip through those folders effortlessly. Get rid of timers, however, and that huge advantage loses its importance, allowing a new talent pool to be introduced to the game while eliminating another.

Sometimes those changes happen organically. Sometimes they are the results of gimmicks and rule changes. For basketball, consider what the invention of the 3-point line and the elimination of hand-checking have done for smaller players.

Robert Covington has blossomed with the Rockets. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

The organizations that have pushed the game forward engage in that kind of self-assessment naturally. On Feb. 4, 2020, the Houston Rockets were the eighth-worst rebounding team in the league, and they allowed more shots at the rim than all but four teams, none of whom has championship aspirations. That’s despite Clint Capela, a shot-blocking rebounder, eating $18 million in cap space every year. As the trade deadline approached, the Rockets could have searched for reinforcements, but instead, they decided they were never going to be a good rebounding team. Capela, Gerald Green and Nene (a backup center) were moved in a massive four-team deal that largely shifted the big man’s salary for Robert Covington and Jordan Bell.

Capela’s salary may have played a role beyond strict on-court resource management. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta insists he is willing to spend, but the team’s spending track record with him in tow has reversed. Rockets GM Daryl Morey, tasked with coming up with a good idea for a disappointing team with a tightening budget, got rid of an entire position. Tyson Chandler, who hasn’t played since the trade, is now the Rockets’ only traditional center.

(Yahoo Sports illustration)

It really shouldn’t have taken this long to happen. The Warriors’ Death Lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thomson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala — long considered the best in basketball, even before they upgraded Harrison Barnes for Kevin Durant — employed no traditional centers, won a championship and ripped off the best regular-season run of all time in 2015-16. But even in the edge-pushing modern NBA, inertia rules and desperation moves.

The Rockets eliminated the importance they placed on the center position’s strengths — rebounding and rim protection — and literally opened the floor for more drives and threes. Russell Westbrook is optimized, becoming the only space-sucker and driving twice more per game, while James Harden is driving three less times. The Rockets as a whole are shooting two more threes per game, to the tune of 117 points per 100 possessions.

At the same time, they have found other ways to plug holes. New things lead to more new things. They put players in uncomfortable positions where they either adapt or fail. That’s where Covington, the centerpiece of the trade, has emerged. He has long been one of the league’s best defenders, and the same instincts that made him one of the league leaders in steals might have allowed him to find his calling as a shot-blocker. Covington has blocked at least three shots in each game during the Rockets’ current five-game winning streak. Before the trade, he hadn’t blocked three shots per game since November. Covington has had to defend the post more, and he’s excellent at swiping down on shots right as they’re about to go up. Without a rim protector, the onus to recover on ball-handlers falls on him, too, forcing him to chase down layup attempts at the rim. With Covington on the floor, the Rockets only allow 103.7 points per possession. When he sits, they allow 115.7 points per 100 possessions. The value of three-and-D wings has been escalating year over year, especially if they can retrace big men without mimicking their worst traits.

Ultimately, the Rockets’ five-out style took them from a bad place to a better one. Whether they win a championship will have a lot more to do with their talent, but they are giving themselves a chance by optimizing it. They might not be the team that vindicates centerless basketball, but if not, somebody else might.

2. Speaking of the Rockets …

Should the Boston Celtics dabble with a centerless lineup?  They didn’t shore up their frontcourt depth during the trade deadline, and they’re log-jammed at the wing slot. Playing without a center would allow Boston to put its five best players on the court: Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward. They’d lose size down low, of course, but replace it with size on the perimeter while being able to switch almost every matchup. There’s no need to make a dramatic change, but they haven’t dabbled with this lineup at all this season, which feels like a wasted opportunity, even for a team that’s playing above expectations. The Rockets were desperate, but it shouldn’t just be the desperate teams that take advantage of innovations.

On that note, a change like this might just prove necessary if Jayson Tatum keeps shooting the lights out. The Celtics have only lost twice in February, with Tatum averaging 30.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and three assists per game on a sizzling 50 percent clip from three. Against the Los Angeles Lakers last Sunday, when Tatum held the ball, defenders sagged off Smart and Daniel Theis — Boston’s starting center — to impede his route to the rim and force him to either give up the ball or settle for long twos.

The positional revolution has less to do with positions than it does with limitations. In a dynamic league, centers have gone by the wayside because they’re less likely to be able to shoot or handle the ball. Contenders can only afford to have one space-sucker on the floor. Houston has Westbrook. The Celtics have Smart or Theis, but Tatum, Brown and Walker are going to drive into a crowded paint come playoff time if Smart and Theis are on the floor at the same time.

If the future of the NBA is a series of 6-foot-8 wings sharing the floor, the Celtics might as well be the first team to find out.

Mike Conley hasn't been great this season. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

3. The other end of risk

Last offseason, the Utah Jazz gave up three rotation players and multiple draft picks to seemingly upgrade Ricky Rubio to Mike Conley at point guard. At the time, the trade was universally praised. Conley has long been one of the NBA’s most underrated players, a little bit of flash away from being a multiple-time All-Star.

But now, Rubio is thriving in Phoenix — albeit on a lottery team — while Conley is having his worst season in years. On Wednesday, he was dropped and undropped as a starter in a matter of hours, before the Jazz lost their fourth straight game.

Conley has dealt with injuries this season. That, considering his history and age (32) could have been predicted, but the fact that he has fit so poorly, even when healthy, has come as a surprise. He has spent his career being the epitome of a low-maintenance star, thriving on the small-market Grizzlies while shooting the lights out, managing games and playing lockdown defense. Nothing about his on-court game suggests he is complicated, but the Jazz are five points better per 100 possessions when Conley sits.

And yet it’s hard to fault Utah for making a move. Rubio is a good point guard whose shooting limitations put a ceiling on any team he runs. If the Jazz wanted to contend for championships, they had to cut him loose. Utah’s struggle is proof of the fact that the climb from good to great is steep and slippery. One wrong move can throw a wrench into a season, but there really is no choice but to keep making moves. Trying to win big in the NBA means learning to live with risks. 

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