BROOKLYN — The general consensus is that the Houston Rockets made a great deal in acquiring Thomas Robinson from the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday. Robinson, selected with the No. 5 pick just eight months ago, has the potential to be one of the best rebounders in the league some day. He’s an active athlete who will only benefit from escaping the dysfunction of Sacramento.
But in making the trade and a subsequent deal with the Phoenix Suns, the Rockets traded both their starting power forward, Patrick Patterson, and his back-up, Marcus Morris. And they either compromised an offensive system that ranks in the top five in efficiency or a defense that has been just good enough to keep them on the right side of the .500 mark.
Robinson may one day start at the four for Houston, but he’s a very different player than both Patterson and Morris. And it’s unclear how he fits into how the Rockets have been playing all season.
Houston is the ultimate pace-and-space team. They play the fastest tempo in the league and they keep the floor spread, allowing James Harden and Jeremy Lin to attack the basket off of pick and rolls. Patterson and Morris played their part as stretch bigs.
At the time of the trade, 13 of the Rockets’ 15 most-used lineups included either Patterson or Morris, who attempted about 60 percent of their shots from outside the paint and accounted for about two 3-pointers per game.
Kevin McHale admitted to having seen very little of his new rookie, but he knows that Robinson isn’t that kind of player.
“We’re going to have space a little bit different,” he said Friday.
For now, the Rockets are making due with Carlos Delfino playing the four, alongside Chandler Parsons at the three. It’s a lineup they’ve used before, but only once (previous to the trades) had it played more than nine minutes together.
General manager Daryl Morey believes that his team can survive, and even thrive, with the Parsons/Delfino tandem at forward.
“It’s sustainable,” Morey told reporters on Thursday. “If you look across the league, when teams play small, they play well. Your offense goes up. Your defense goes down, but your offense goes up more than your defense goes down. So a lot of teams are playing small. We’ve got the personnel to do it. We’ve got the style that fits. I absolutely think it’s a sustainable way to play against almost any opponent.”
McHale doesn’t seem to be completely on board with that sentiment, saying that the Rockets can play Delfino at the four “situationally.” The bottom line is that the two trades took two guys out of McHale’s rotation and replaced them with a question mark.
But so far, so good. After Friday’s 106-96 win in Brooklyn, the Rockets are 2-0 with their new starting lineup, with wins over the Thunder and Nets. They’ve been outrebounded in each game, but have shot 31-for-63 (49 percent) from beyond the arc.
Over the course of the season, the Rockets’ new lineup has been excellent offensively, scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions in 133 minutes together. It’s yet to be really hurt on the glass and held its own defensively.
Really, it’s just taking the pace-and-space style to a new level. Less size, more shooting. Delfino has played 79 minutes over the last two games after averaging just 25 per game before the trades. He knows that he can only try his best to keep power forwards like Reggie Evans off the boards, and that the Rockets can take advantage of the same matchup offensively.
“When we go small, we play against big people and we try to create space,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s not just me getting my shots or having the ball, but [it’s] rotations. They don’t rotate off me and they have more space in the paint.”
That’s exactly what happened in the first half on Friday. The Nets stayed at home on Delfino on the weak side, and the Rockets got a handful of dunks and layups off their pick and roll. Harden was the star against OKC on Wednesday, but his team managed to beat Brooklyn on Friday despite a relatively quiet night (22 points and only five trips to the line) from their All-Star.
Time will tell if the small lineup can hold up over time and keep the Lakers at bay in the playoff chase, and if Robinson has a place in McHale’s rotation this season. Certainly, 49 percent from 3-point range isn’t sustainable, but Houston does have an easier schedule than L.A. going forward.
One additional note: While the Sacramento trade makes complete sense, the trade that sent Morris to Phoenix for the Suns’ second-round pick was a little more curious. Morris wasn’t playing big minutes every night, but he obviously would have helped replace Patterson’s production if the Rockets had just made the one deal.
Morey said that he likes having high second-round picks and one has to wonder if the Rockets have already fallen in love with a player they project will be available when that Suns selection comes up. Right now, it’s set to be the No. 35 pick in the draft.
Houston got Parsons with the No. 38 pick two years ago.