Size Doesn't Always Matter: Rockets Getting By With Unorthodox Frontcourt

Monday March 14, 2011 10:26 AM

Adjusting On The Fly

Rockets' unorthodox frontcourt rotation could be key to stretch run success

West Medlin

HOUSTON - Wherever you’re going, there’s usually more than one way to reach your destination. In the NBA, where teams are on a never-ending search for the best path to victory, the GPS to the win column offers plenty of alternate routes. Some clubs play fast, while others prefer a more plodding pace. There are those that overwhelm with size while others utilize small-ball to great effect. It’s all about a coaching staff’s ability to make the most of the talent on hand.

With that in mind, Rockets’ Head Coach Rick Adelman and his staff have done an admirable job adjusting on the fly during a season that has brought with it a fair share of roadblocks. Amid another year marked by a season-ending injury to the team’s centerpiece, Yao Ming, Houston has once more had to navigate the NBA schedule with some fairly unconventional lineups. But by shrewdly figuring out how to best use a frontcourt rotation of Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes, and Brad Miller, Adelman and company have shown that the road less traveled can sometimes still lead to success.

The game of today’s prototypical big man is marked by power and explosive athleticism. Players like Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudemire and Blake Griffin amaze with their ability to produce poster-worthy dunks on a nightly basis. It appears the current trend is to have your big men fast, athletic, and finish above-the-rim.

It should be noted, however, that not all trends need be followed – pogs and hammer pants immediately come to mind. And while the Rockets would certainly love to have a superstar big man on its roster, Houston’s current frontcourt provides an important reminder that a layup counts just as much as a windmill dunk.

By nearly any measure, this big man rotation is unique. The Rockets’ best post-defender is 6-6; their best post-scorer prefers a scoop to a dunk; and you’re more likely to see their backup center passing an alley-oop instead of finishing it.

“There is some uniqueness to it,” says Rockets assistant coach Jack Sikma, while describing the Scola/Hayes/Miller trio. “Brad Miller’s skills as a passer and a facilitator, as a big, are unique. Luis’ scoop shot, just his angles, his lower body strength which affords him the ability to hold his position. His pivoting is actually probably as good as anybody in the league. He very rarely gets called for a travel. And then of course Chuck is a post-defender at 6-6.”

This season, the Rockets have bucked the high-flying trend and shown an ability to win games with a frontcourt trio that prefers jumpers to jumping.

“We are the least dunking frontcourt I’ve ever been on,” Miller says. “It’s not like I contribute much to that, but I do have more dunks than Chuck this year. He’s got one questionable one, and I’ve got two solid ones.

“Scola’s only got like three, so six dunks between the three of us isn’t a whole lot. But we do a lot of other things.”

You’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment if you’re hoping to see a Rockets frontcourt player jumping over a car at next year’s dunk contest. Luckily, these guys weren’t signed for their car-jumping ability. It’s the “other things” Miller mentioned that make them valuable.

“We’re very much unconventional . . . but we make up [for it] in so many other areas besides athleticism. We find a way to get it done,” Hayes says. “If you’re not a dunker, then try to get the foul call. Concentrate on finishing at the rim instead of above the rim. Instead of blocking shots, we’re more likely to take a charge. And if we can alter a shot – great.

“We might not be the most exciting above the rim but who cares? If you can find a way to win, you can win.”

Hayes’ defense on the rim-rattling Stoudemire in Houston’s two wins over the Knicks earlier this season exemplifies how this group contributes in understated yet hugely important ways. With the second unit, Miller’s ability to draw his man away from the paint with his outside shooting has helped clear the way for players like Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic to drive the lane. And Scola’s scoop in the post has been a staple of Houston’s offense for the entire season.

“Our bigs aren’t dependent on a power game. It comes down to being effective,” explains Sikma. “They have savvy. It’s understanding the game and the nuances of it and being able to make that part of your game.”

While Patrick Patterson and Jordan Hill have shown the power and athleticism that one might expect from today’s power forwards and centers, the Scola/Hayes/Miller trio is providing them with a lesson on the importance of substance over style.

“This league is based on athleticism and lets you get away with a lot. But knowledge of the game is so underrated. To just know how to play the game - you don’t have to be the fastest, jump the highest,” Miller says. “Kevin Love is averaging 16 rebounds [per game] and 13 are below the rim if not 14. [Knowing the game] really helps you out a lot.”

So the next time you see Miller hit a backdoor cutter or Hayes draw an and-1 on a contested layup in traffic; take a moment to appreciate it. After all, they could be playing in hammer pants.

Got a question for Send it to Jason Friedman. And for up to the second news and injury updates follow the Rockets and Jason on Twitter.

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