The Houston Rockets went to an all small-ball all the time configuration at the trade deadline ostensibly to get past the Los Angeles Lakers. Will it work?
My skeptical fascination with the Houston Rockets opting to go all-small all the time has been well documented here at Hoops Habit. Any time you’re doing something nobody else is doing, it’s interesting, but sometimes there’s a valid reason nobody else is doing it.
For example, after just a dozen games or so the Rockets were showing obvious and severe indications of fatigue from the battering they were taking from bigger teams. It doesn’t take a… propulsion scientist to tell you that was pretty much inevitable.
As we’ve discussed many times before, one of the biggest teams in the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers, is also one of the biggest threats to the Rockets in the playoffs. If the New York Knicks can almost double them on the boards and beat them, what will an engaged and motivated LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard do to them with a 6’5″ P.J. Tucker playing center?
We can only speculate, for the most part. Using NBA 2K is fun but not entirely reliable as a true authority. However, as time goes on more intensive simulations (that are available to the public) become available, and we would be remiss not to use these to solve questions like this: Can the plucky small-ball Houston Rockets beat the mighty Lakers?
Simulating the Houston Rockets versus the Los Angeles Lakers
For the purposes of this simulation we will turn to What If Sports. Unlike 2K which only has pre-selected teams available and thus limits the potential depth of your simulations, What If allows you to match up any two teams from any era.
In this case, we don’t need any kind of massive era versus era simulation, because both teams exist in the current day. That certainly simplifies things.
There are some minor issues with the available rosters. For example, both Robert Covington and Clint Capela, the man who was traded for Covington, are on the Rockets’ roster. Considering the right players are there, though, it’s an easy fix.
What If gives you the ability to modify rotations, and modify I did, using the minutes and rotations from the last Rockets game before the NBA suspended its season in mid-March.
The starting lineup for the Rockets will consist of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Danuel House, Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker. On the other side, the Lakers will start Avery Bradley, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee.
We’re going to conduct this exercise in two parts. The first one will be to establish whether the Rockets can, on average, handle themselves on the boards and on the scoreboard against a much bigger team like the Lakers. We’ll run 10 simulations (with both teams being the home team for five games each ) and produce average scores for both teams, average rebounds and a rebounding percentage.
In part two, we’re going to conduct a best of seven series. We will use the Lakers’ better record to determine home-court advantage, not the outcome of our 10 simulations. By the end of this exercise, we should definitely be able to say if (at least in the eyes of What If Sports) the Rockets can hang with the Lakers.
Part one was devastatingly unkind to the Rockets. While we’re not officially tracking wins and losses, we did keep an eye on them and the Lakers went 8-2 and won all five of their home games as well as three of the five games in Houston.
The Lakers outscored the Rockets by an average of 108.8 to 97.4, a true romp. The Rockets’ two wins came by a total of eight points, while the Laker had six wins by double digits including a 111-73 win in game 10.
As for the rebounding issue, it’s no surprise. The Lakers outrebounded the Rockets by a massive 59 to 48.1 margin and the Rockets had a corresponding rebounding percentage of just 44.9 percent.
On to the playoffs
Well, we can at least thank the Los Angeles Lakers for leaving no doubt when it comes to this exercise. The Lakers brutalized the Rockets in a vicious four-game sweep even more emphatic than the 10-game warmup.
The Lakers outscored the Rockets by an average of 122 to 100.3, including a decisive fourth-game 132-83 blowout on Houston’s home court. As for the rebounds, the Lakers outboarded the Rockets 57.8 to 47.3 and the Rockets had a corresponding 45 percent rebounding percentage.
If we total this up (and why not revel in a true bloodletting like this), the Lakers went 12-2 in 14 total games. They outscored the Rockets 112.6 to 98.2 and outrebounded them 58.7 to 47.9.
While there’s no assurance that the Houston Rockets would have fared any better with traditional bigs on the roster like Clint Capela or even Isaiah Hartenstein, from a simulation perspective at least, it looks like they need to go back to the drawing board to beat the Los Angeles Lakers.