HOUSTON — When the Knicks drafted Mitchell Robinson two years ago, then-coach David Fizdale compared him to Clint Capela. He talked about his raw abilities, his size and his length, and he added, “Hopefully we can build on that and give him a defined role like a Capela type of guy.”
And while Robinson is reaching that potential, becoming one of the best shot-blockers in the NBA as a rookie and continuing to add to his game, there is a strange shift in the league’s thinking. As evidenced in the Houston Rockets’ 123-112 dismantling of the Knicks on Monday night, a case is being made for life without a traditional big man.
Robinson arrived in Houston on Monday to face the Rockets, but Capela is gone, having been traded ahead of the deadline earlier this month as the Rockets decided that the concept of a traditional big man is obsolete.
They are not alone. The Pistons gave away Andre Drummond for Brandon Knight, John Henson and a second-round pick at the trade deadline to unload his contract.
“I don’t know why they would do it, but they did it,” Robinson said when asked if he was surprised to see the Rockets trade Capela and opt for a lineup that includes 6-5 P.J. Tucker at center. “That’s their business. I’m with the Knicks, not the Rockets.
“I don’t think [it is a trend]. I think it just happens. [Houston] just doesn’t have bigs. Everyone else has one. That’s just how they like to play with all the guards.”
Houston has built a team around high-scoring guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook, stocking the roster with mid-sized wings who can play multiple positions.
“Height, we’d like everybody to be 7 feet, but we don’t have that luxury,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Sunday. “We need skill players on the perimeter that help Russell and James maximize what they do, and what they do is a lot. If we can maximize it, we got as good a shot as anybody to win it.”
“If we’re talking about the Rockets, there’s nobody that knows their strengths and weaknesses better than they do, and they know what they’re trying to do,” Knicks interim coach Mike Miller said. “They made the moves that they thought helped them the most, short term, long term. That’s what they’ve done. They’ve been very effective with what they’re doing.”
On Monday, Westbrook sat out with what the Rockets called a sore thumb. Westbrook, Harden and Tucker had just returned from the Kobe Bryant memorial service in Los Angeles, and the trio got to the Toyota Center just over an hour before game time.
It certainly didn’t hamper Harden, who scored 31 of his 37 points in the first half. Ben McLemore added 17 points for Houston (37-20).
“As strange as it sounds, we gave up too many easy baskets,” Miller said. “You have a team that can attack you in so many different ways. You have to make them earn everything. I think they got too many easy ones early.”
RJ Barrett led the Knicks (17-40) with 21 points and Julius Randle added 17 points and 12 rebounds. Robinson had 10 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots in 26 minutes.
Robinson has been one of the few bright lights in the Knicks’ rebuild, a second-round pick in 2018 who never played a college game and has begun to show the potential that prompted the Knicks to take a chance on him. He has added muscle to his once-spindly frame, jumping 10 pounds since the start of the season. He said it is five pounds of muscle.
Although he continues to come off the bench behind Taj Gibson, Robinson is averaging 22.5 minutes per game and leading the NBA in field-goal percentage at .731. But the Knicks have praised him not just for the shots he makes but for the threat he is on both ends of the court, creating opportunities offensively for others and scaring off shots on the other end.
“He’s very important,” Miller said. “One thing, too, that we look at and I’ve [heard] people, even commentators on NBA games, talk about, he’s a high-energy guy. That’s a skill. He can play at high energy now. He’s matured and grown more, extended those minutes where he is impacting the game at a high level.”