Houston’s Nene Problem

Famous for, among other things, keeping his rotations very short, Mike D’Antoni has mostly trotted out a two-man center lineup—whenever Clint Capela isn’t out there, Nene has manned the paint for the Rockets. Houston has experimented with a few minutes of P.J. Tucker as a small-ball center, but Nene got the lion’s share of the backup center minutes against both Minnesota and Utah. In the Western Conference Finals against Golden State, small-ball makes a lot more sense, especially given that the Warriors will likely start and play their best small-ball lineup significant minutes together. As a result, Nene might find himself squeezed out of the rotation, or only playing a five-minute stretch in the first half before the Rockets go small in the second half when Capela has to come out.

Nene played just one of the three games against the Warriors in the regular season and finished that game a +8 in 16 minutes, but there is significant reason to worry about whether he can keep up on the perimeter in Houston’s switching scheme. Golden State got a lot of great looks that directly stemmed from mistakes he made or from Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant taking advantage of his slower feet further away from the basket. Houston has been the switchiest team in the league, per Patrick Miller’s Defensive Versatility metric, but Nene ranked as the least-versatile player on the Rockets. Houston has sometimes changed up their switching to be more traditional when Nene entered the game, but for the most part stayed constant in their scheme against the Warriors when the two teams met in mid-January. So much has changed about these two teams since their three regular season matchups, but how often and in what capacity they attacked Nene could prove instructive to how they’ll continue to do so when he does see the floor in this series.

It started on the first possession Nene saw the floor: Curry and Zaza Pachulia (another plodding center who may not/probably won’t see the floor in this series) ran a pick-and-roll directed at Nene and Curry blows by him to the basket. Eric Gordon comes over to help and forces the miss from Curry, but the drive itself is the focus: Nene had no chance of staying in front of Curry on the drive:

After he was unable to box out Pachulia and had to foul him on the offensive rebound, the Warriors went after Nene again, this time using his instinct to drop back into the paint against him:

On the out-of-bounds play, Durant inbounds to Pachulia, but as soon as Pachulia gives up the ball, Nene drops back into the paint to help elsewhere. Pachulia sets a quick down screen on James Harden for Curry to come toward the top of the key and Nene’s too low to properly contest. For the most part, the Warriors went at him with pick-and-roll to generate a switch, but they weren’t averse to taking advantage of him in off-ball screens as well.

Curry had issues finishing plays against Nene, but the shots he was getting were all quality looks at the basket from good areas. He missed three of his four three-point attempts when guarded by Nene on the switch in pick-and-roll and converted neither of his open layups at the rim, which certainly has to be at the low end of his expected potential outcomes in those situations. Nene wasn’t getting good contests on Curry beyond the arc; he just missed a couple of shots that we’re used to seeing go in for the league’s best shooter:

Obviously, the results of four shots in a January game has to be taken with a grain of salt when thinking about a playoff series in May, but the process behind those shots is still important to consider. The Warriors went out of their way to attack Nene, even doing so on a few possessions when they could have chosen Ryan Anderson to torment, which says a lot about how they viewed the Brazilian big man’s defensive acumen.

While he’s consistently played the backup center role against Minnesota and Utah, two teams that prefer to play big even on their bench units, Houston may struggle to find a place for Nene in a series against Golden State, especially as the Warriors stretch out those Draymond-Green-at-the-5 lineups in the second half of close games. His minutes will mostly line up with Kevon Looney’s, which make sense from an individual matchup perspective, but his presence on the court either provides an easy target for Curry and Durant to attack or gets Houston out of their switching scheme altogether, which has been the hallmark of their defense all season and could be prone to defensive miscues if they’re changing back and forth between schemes. In a perfect world, they would have prepared with different schemes all season to be ready for anything Golden State threw at them, but the Rockets have been steadfast in their switching and while it’s gotten them this far, it might hurt their depth against the Warriors, who live to attack personnel shortcomings in an opposing defense.