The Karl Anthony Towns, Rudy Goberts, and Joel Embiids of the world could rest easy now as centers are not entirely extinct in the NBA.
If there’s anything the Lakers’ 4-1 win against the Houston Rockets in their semifinal round of the Western Conference proved is that small ball is still not viable, especially in the playoffs.
The gimmicky Don Nelson creation may have seemingly worked for coach Mike D’Antoni in the regular season (they did finish fourth in the Western Conference), but come the postseason when opposing coaches have an entire series to counteract the Rockets’ pace-and-space schemes, there’s just no way small ball can overcome teams with skilled big men.
You can say James Harden and company got lucky escaping the Oklahoma City in the first round as unlike Anthony Davis, the Thunder’s starting center is Steven Adams. The 7’0” Kiwi is more of a traditional big man, bruising with heavy feet and not really adept to chasing the Rockets’ trigger-happy forwards from 3-point territory.
Davis, meanwhile, is a guard trapped in a center’s body. He actually started his basketball life as a point guard in high school before an 8-inch growth spurt made his height closer now to his officially listed height of 6’11”. He avoids playing center like the plague, but had to due to JaVale McGee’s unfavorable matchups in the series against the Rockets.
Houston’s small ball lineup was also a bit flawed. The Rockets made a big splash during the offseason when they swapped all-star guard Chris Paul for former MVP Russel Westbrook. While CP3 isn’t exactly known to light it up from the land of plenty, he’s still a far more effective floor spacer than Brodie. It would’ve worked for lesser teams with Westbrook serving as Houston’s de facto center on offense, but coach Frank Vogel’s Lakers is an entirely different beast.
Against the Lakers, the 2017 regular season MVP just couldn’t bully Davis and 6’8” LeBron James inside the paint, which meant LA’s perimeter guys stayed home on Harden, P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore, and the rest of Houston’s platoons of shooters, ultimately throwing a wrench in D’Antoni’s small ball basketball philosophy.
The gentleman’s sweep is a bitter pill to swallow for Houston general manager and analytics guy Daryl Morey, who went all in on D’Antoni’s small ball system by jettisoning starting center Clint Capela before this season’s NBA All-Star Game. The donut team barely scraped by the Thunder in the first round then were completely eviscerated by the Lakers in the second. As the old adage goes, height is still might in basketball and no amount of analytics would negate that fact. Former Memphis coach David Fizdale’s infamous “Take that for data!” comment may be true after all.
As a result of their season ending abruptly, Houston might see an exodus of not only players but even D’Antoni himself, who is in the last year of his contract. The NBA’s premier mad scientist will not be short on suitors as the“:07 Seconds or Less” coach is already being rumored going to multiple coaching vacancies with the Indiana Pacers job his most likely destination.
The ill-fitting pair of old OKC teammates, The Beard and Brodie, may also be headed toward a divorce. However, that’s easier said than done as Westbrook’s contract is un-tradeable even before the pre-COVID-19 landscape of the NBA. There’s no way Clutch City will part with Harden. The Rockets could still trade Brodie in a salary dump if it attaches draft picks in the deal, but wait Houston’s future had already been mortgaged in the Chris Paul trade (first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and the right to swap first-rounders in 2021 and 2025).
For a team with championship aspirations ever since acquiring LeBron (and even so after trading for AD), the Lakers hurdling the Lilliputian Rockets is not really a cause to celebrate, as there are bigger fish to fry for LA. Now they await the outcome of the series between the Paper Clips and upstart Denver Nuggets. Game 6 is today and I’m crossing my fingers that The Joker and company will pull off the win. That would setup a Game 7, the sweetest words in sports.
The Nuggets already overcame a 1-3 series deficit (first round against the Utah Jazz and my kababayan Jordan Clarkson) and who’s to say they can’t do it again against The Claw and the rest of the Clippers. While I never really liked Kawhi Leonard, I still hope that the Clippers emerge victorious against the Nuggets so basketball fans can finally be treated to a Battle of LA, 2020 edition.