Size isn’t everything in basketball. We’ve seen players like Hasheem Thabeet, Eddy Tavares, Slavko Vraneš, Sim Bhullar, Ha Seung-Jin, Aleksandar Radojević among others make it to the NBA because of their physical traits but they barely get any playing time at all.
However, a – rare – combination of size, athleticism, talent, and basketball IQ could beat even the most talented teams in the world, and it looks like that’s what the Denver Nuggets are trying to do, judging by their past couple of scrimmage games.
The Nuggets have featured 3 seven-footers on their starting lineup and, even though they’re not going to go with that starting 5 in the playoffs, they have shown some nice chemistry together and could be on the floor at the same time more often than not.
If you compare them with the Houston Rockets, a team that pretty much gave up on the traditional big man, it seems like they could get them in a lot of trouble. So, for the sake of the argument, let’s break down the game everybody wants to watch: Giant Denver Nuggets vs. Small Houston Rockets:
Point Guard: Nikola Jokic (7’0”) vs. Russell Westbrook (6’3”)
There’s absolutely no doubt that Nikola Jokic – especially that slim version – can play the point guard full time on any team on earth. He’s already one of the best playmakers in the world and has a nice shooting range for a big man. He’s also gotten faster and, let’s face it, he’s never going to be an elite defender at any spot on the court.
Russell Westbrook, on the other side, has always made up for his lack of size with the top-notch hustle and an unprecedented athleticism. He’s not going to back down from a challenge and won’t mind giving up a few inches, especially when he takes off in the open court. This one’s a clash of styles, for sure.
Shooting Guard: Jerami Grant (6’8”) vs. James Harden (6’5”)
Jerami Grant isn’t your average scoring shooting guard although he’s added some range to his game. He’s crafty, smart, and has proven to be able of holding his own vs. faster players. He can guard one through five thanks to his length and instincts, and he’s also a great finisher below the rim.
James Harden, on the other hand, is one of the greatest scorers of all time already. He’s become a solid defender in the world and can run the offense at a high level, so he’s pretty much the whole package in that regard. Harden doesn’t mind giving up some size, as he’s a master at creating space or drawing contact. He’s unguardable.
Small Forward: Bol Bol (7’2”) vs. Eric Gordon (6’3”)
Bol Bol is the ultimate unicorn. He can block shots like his father Bol Bol and then pull up from beyond the arc on the very next possession. He’s got a 7’8” wingspan that allows him to alter countless shots even as a help defender. He can match up with every guy you throw at him, although the durability and lack of muscle are a huge concern.
The Houston Rockets are incredibly small at the small forward spot with Eric Gordon as their starting three. He’s a great shooter and an above the average playmaker and ball-handler for his position. Still, there’s just no way he can do anything at all to even challenge Bol Bol’s shot. This one is as lopsided as they come.
Power Forward: Paul Millsap (6’7”) vs. Robert Covington (6’7”)
Not so long ago, Paul Millsap was considered the best power forward in the Eastern Conference. His game has taken a dip at Denver but he’s still a crafty veteran that knows how to use his strength and footwork to get to his sweet spots, and he’s also proven to be a capable threat from beyond the arc.
The Rockets finally match up perfectly here, this time thanks to Robert Covington. Covington has a 7’2” wingspan and knows how to use his length to guard one through five at a high level. He’s one of the best 3-and-D players in the league and an elite shot-blocker for a guy his size. He may be this team’s x-factor.
Center: Mason Plumlee (6’11’) vs. P.J. Tucker (6’5”)
Mason Plumlee isn’t a superstar but he’s the kind of big man that can be quite productive in the right environment. He sets picks, is a solid rim-runner, corrects shots, and is an efficient finisher that’s not going to hurt your team when he’s on the court. Especially if he’s bigger than the guy guarding him.
The Houston Rockets went all-in with the small-ball by throwing P.J. Tucker at center. He’s incredibly undersize for that position but makes up for it with top-tier grittiness, instincts, and athleticism. He’s actually done a pretty decent job keeping some centers in check but he may struggle vs. elite big men.
Ok, for starters, let’s assume both teams are at their peak, meaning the Denver Nuggets had more time to work on their giant lineup and decided to go all-in on their size.
The Houston Rockets have established their run-and-gun offense and have matched up nicely vs. bigger teams. They can score at a high clip, push the pace, have five shooters at all times on the court, and three of them are able of creating their own shot.
The Rockets are clearly more skilled with Harden and Westbrook in the backcourt. Not many defenses on earth can contain them, and adding more size may not be the answer to it. Also, they have a clear edge in terms of three-point shooting.
That being said, the Denver Nuggets’ giant lineup has something not many teams have had in basketball history. Nikola Jokic and Bol Bol can combine for 15-16 assists per game with ease. Their big-to-big game has already shown an impressive rapport. They’re both great cutters and crafty passers.
The Nuggets also hold the edge in the defensive end of the court. Jokic is their worst defender but has enough size to at least contest shots. He’s also got quick hands to pile up steals. The rest of the lineup has enough size to be deadly on switches and throw multiple looks at anything the Rockets throw at them.
Denver can contest shots and trap them all over the court. They could slow down the pace of the game and prevent the Rockets from running by applying full-court pressure, even if Harden and Westbrook excel at operating in tight space and drawing contact.
And if we talk about scoring in the paint, there’s just no way on earth that Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker will be able to keep Jokic, Bol, and Millsap in check all day long. They’re all willing and solid playmakers and the Rockets just don’t have enough size to double or triple-team them on full-motion offense, so we have to give the Nuggets the edge here.
Final Score: Giant Denver Nuggets vs. Small Houston Rockets 110-100
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