Years from now, NBA fans will reminisce about the 2019-20 Houston Rockets for their unique “small-ball” system. In this team, center Robert Covington, who stands at 6’7”, is the tallest player. Covington’s talents can’t be questioned during the playoffs, after proving to be key in their seven game series against Oklahoma City. But the undersized big man was soon met with adversity once he squared off against seven-foot Anthony Davis in the Western Conference semifinals. This height mismatch would ultimately be the downfall of the Rockets, whose aspirations hinged on winning an NBA championship. What went wrong?
In a league of big men such as Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis and Rudy Gobert, just to name a few, the decision to trade for Covington raised questions as to how the Rockets would defend a taller player in the paint. Covington proved to be a reliable power forward at the Minnesota Timberwolves, for which the Rockets exchanged their starting center Clint Capela in a four-team trade. The decision to shorten their offense, especially with only a 37-year-old Tyson Chandler on the bench, was a huge decision not only for the present — but the future of the franchise.
Coach Mike D’Antoni had a plan. He turned to his dynamic duo of James Harden and newly acquired Russell Westbrook to carry the offense in an attempt to outscore their opposition. Only, this strategy would fall short — no pun intended. The Houston Rockets lineup would consist of smaller, more dextrous players who could shoot jump shots, instead of contending for physical baskets in the paint.
When the Houston Rockets secured the fourth seed of the Western Conference on Aug. 14, they matched up against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the former team of these two MVPs. The OKC side consisted of seasoned veteran Chris Paul and a pool of talented young players such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schröder and game 7 sensation Luguentz Dort.
The absence of Russell Westbrook, who suffered a quad injury, was non-existent for the first couple of games. The Rockets took a commanding 2-0 lead in the series due to clutch offense from James Harden, who had 37 points and 21 respectively.
However, the series turned on its head once OKC claimed a Game 3 overtime win, followed by an overwhelming Game 4 landslide. Russell Westbrook made his way back to the court for the tie-breaker, but wasn’t his usual self. Westbrook, who at the time was averaging 27 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists throughout the regular season, only scored 7 points.
This underperformance would prove to be crucial in Houston’s Game 6 loss. With 40 seconds remaining, Westbrook shot from the freethrow line. He airballed, but Harden scooped the ball back into play. In a tie-game, Westbrook commited a turnover and fouled OKC to cement the game. The heartbreaking loss, alongside a 17-point performance, meant Westbrook would have to step it up in Game 7.
In this game, with merely three seconds remaining, Westbrook’s match-saving pick-pocket on Steven Adams would prove crucial as it closed the series. Westbrook would redeem himself, but would have to perform better against the first seeded Los Angeles Lakers next.
Despite a Game 1 win, the Houston Rockets lost in five games by an Anthony Davis-led Lakers team. The inclusion of MVP-candidate LeBron James, a player known for his transition play and dominance in the paint, proved to be vital in Games 3 and 5. James, at 6’8”, would bulldoze through the small-ball lineup of Harden, Westbrook, Gordon and Covington to score 36 and 29 points in those games respectively.
Russell Westbrook’s performance, or lack thereof, in Game 2, proved costly on the defensive end. When an offensive foul on Rajon Rondo was overturned against Westbrook, the Rockets point-guard accumulated five fouls and became a liability against LeBron James on defense.
While Westbrook had 30 points and 25 in Games 3 and 4 respectively, his 10-point performance in Game 5 would be the boost the Lakers needed to close the series, and ultimately, Houston’s last believable title chance.
With Harden once again failing to make the NBA finals, and the lack of cap-space available for trades, the Houston Rockets are stuck in a purgatory of trading their aging superstars, or trying to win now. After Mike D’Antoni’s contract expired on Sep. 13, he mutually left the Rockets, who have now appointed Stephen Silas as their new head coach. He will have to reinvent their attack if they want to contend for a championship during the 2020-21 NBA season, consisting of Kevin Durant’s return and the reemergence of long-time rivals, the Golden State Warriors.