Somewhere along the line, the Houston Rockets fell out of love with the traditional big man.
Clint Capela was a fan favorite in Space City for several years. His emergence as a more valuable archetype to run alongside James Harden’s pick-and-roll mastery revolutionized the organization. Dwight Howard wanted post touches: it conflicted with Harden’s abilities. Capela didn’t care to touch the ball until he was already grabbing it out of thin air.
Of course, for as much as Capela complimented Harden, he clashed with Russell Westbrook. Mike D’Antoni’s system required at least four floor spacers, and Clint’s interior defense wasn’t thought to be valuable enough to be chosen over the former MVP.
The rest is history: the Rockets shipped Capela out of town in exchange for half a season of Robert Covington. It was the beginning of the end of the Harden era.
Enough history. The year is 2022. Exit Mike D’Antoni, enter Stephen Silas. If you thought MDA was fanatical about floor-spacing, wait until you meet this guy. His system relies on five floor-spacers.
Could that keep the Rockets from drafting Jalen Duren?
Jalen Duren could fix a big Rockets problem
Jalen Duren is not a floor-spacer. He’s shooting 0.0 percent on 0.1 three-point attempts per game for Memphis this season. He must have missed a full-court heave at the buzzer at some point in the year.
A focus on what Duren is makes him a more enticing prospect.
This is not to say that Duren is a can’t-miss selection. If his ceiling is some kind of hybrid of Dwight Howard and Bam Adebayo, his floor might be Nerlens Noel.
His physical profile engenders confidence that he’ll be a serviceable NBA player. Currently listed at 6’11” and 250 pounds, Duren has an impressive wingspan and huge hands. Those traits ensure that he'll succeed as a rim protector/rim runner archetype.
There may be more to his game. Duren has flashed impressive passing chops for Memphis, even if the stats don’t show it (1.2 assists to 2.2 turnovers per game). He’s also got a midrange jumper that hints at the possibility of three-point shooting down the line (although it does not assure it).
Again, the focus here should be on what he is. Duren should be an elite rebounder and rim protector at the NBA level. It’s the latter quality that should attract the Rockets.
After all, this Rockets team allows the second-most points in the paint per game in the entire NBA in 2021-22 (51.3). Duren’s ability to deter and outright stop field goal attempts in the restricted area would be invaluable to this team.
As a prospect, Duren sits at the precipice between fit and need for the Rockets. Could Coach Silas adjust his system to marry those two principles?
Could the Rockets embrace four-out spacing?
A review of the NBA’s best offenses suggests that they should consider it. As it stands, the top three attacks in the NBA belong to the Utah Jazz, the Atlanta Hawks, and the Phoenix Suns. Each of those teams starts a non-shooting, rim-running center in the middle (one, of course, being none other than Clint Capela).
There is value in featuring a vertical threat in the middle. Rockets fans know this all too well. A pick-and-roll that sees the rest of the offense spread along the outside provides more varied spacing than having everyone but the ballhandler on the perimeter. Drawing two defenders away from the three-point line makes it harder for defenses to scramble to check the remaining perimeter players.
That’s not a knock on Silas’ system. Having a big man who can space the floor provides its own, separate advantages. That holds particularly true with an elite ballhandler who can withstand the extra defenders that will populate the perimeter with nobody in the dunker’s spot.
Still, the point stands. The top three offenses in the National Basketball Association currently feature a vertical threat in the dunker’s spot.
Rebuilding Rockets need to keep an open mind
Stephen Silas’ leadership methods have been questioned this season. His basketball IQ has not. The Rockets attempt the most field goals at the rim in the entire league this season. Their shot profile is pristine. They simply lack experienced players to convert those field goals.
Surely, Silas could modify his system to incorporate a vertical lob threat. His ability as a tactician is unquestionable. He must be able to work with a time-tested convention. The Rockets are the worst team in the Western Conference. They’re in no position to be married to a system.
This team needs a rim protector. Finding one who also spaces the floor is a difficult endeavor. Unless the Rockets are banking on eventually landing one of Myles Turner, Kristaps Porzingis, or Mo Bamba (or drafting Chet Holmgren), Silas may be forced to compromise his five-out principles.
Ultimately, the team may never be forced to make this decision. If the Rockets draft within the top four, Duren won’t even have the best player available argument. The Rockets will inevitably be charting another course.
On the other hand, if this team is drafting in the fifth through seventh position, they ought to give Duren a look. He is going top 10 in most mock drafts, and he’d provide the rim protection they desperately need.
Who knows: he may even be a vital cog in a top three offense someday.