The Houston Rockets have established themselves as one of the top teams in the NBA, and the real difference is their dramatically improved defense.
The Houston Rockets are one of those teams that, for whatever reason, force fans to have an opinion about them; James Harden, Mike D’Antoni, and Daryl Morey are all beloved in some circles and shunned in others, but all three elicit very specific images in the minds of NBA fans. You’ll be forgiven, though, if few of those images involve defense.
Before last season, the offensively-inclined D’Antoni and Harden collaborated to create one of the best offenses in the league while having a rather indifferent view on defense. That value system has changed this season, however, and defense has become a priority in Houston.
All of the transactions Morey made this summer to fortify the roster focused as much on the defense as they did the offense. Chris Paul is still a dominant two-way star, and the signings of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute gave D’Antoni more defensive versatility on the wing than he’s ever had before.
Losing Lou Williams and the procession of assets given to the Clippers in exchange for Paul would have decimated the depth of most teams, but the Rockets found more than capable replacements. Changing their culture from offense-first, defense-maybe to one that values both sides of the ball hasn’t come overnight, but flipping that switch has turned Houston into a legitimate NBA title contender.
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The idea that the Rockets are a solid defensive team is pretty remarkable considering where their reputation was just a few seasons ago. Houston has the 12th-best defensive rating in the league this season of 107.3, which is almost two points per 100 possessions better than last year’s mark of 109.0. Those two points don’t seem like a lot, but it’s the difference between the 18th-ranked defense last season and them knocking on the door of the top-10 this year.
While being a top-10 defense is a pretty arbitrary achievement, it does hold some historical significance. Since 2002, no team has won a title without having a top-10 defense, and Houston being 0.2 pts/100 possessions outside that group gives legitimacy to their title aspirations.
Based on their defensive rating alone, it is clear that the changes Houston made this summer have been a success. Paul gives them a defensive leader on the court 32 minutes a night, and the combination of Tucker and Mbah a Moute sure up the second unit. The latter two along with Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, and, to an extent, James Harden give Houston as much quality wing depth as any team in the league.
The versatility of those players allows Houston to be extremely aggressive in their defensive switches. With so many like-sized players out on the wing, offenses struggle to force mismatches off switches. In the clip below, Harden, Gordon, Ariza, and Ryan Anderson all seamlessly switch their assignments which forces Miami to work harder and eventually Hassan Whiteside sets a moving screen.
Even when Houston plays a more traditional center like Clint Capela, Nené, or Tarik Black, they usually aren’t at a disadvantage. All three players are very capable of switching onto guards and holding their own defensively.
Having your six-foot point guard switched onto a center and your center on their point guard would be a disaster in most situations, but Houston is very good at limiting the damage. In this instance, Capela’s 9’2” standing reach makes J.J. Barea’s entry pass extremely difficult, and Paul’s lightning-quick hands negate Dwight Powell’s size and strength advantage down low.
The improvement of Houston’s defense is apparent to anyone who has watched them this season and their statistics back that up, with one notable exception.
Last season opponents shot 46.7 percent from the field against the Rockets, but this season that number has actually risen to 47.1 percent. When a team makes a defensive jump it’s often because they force offenses to take harder shots which results in a lower field goal percentage. The Rockets have improved in a different way. Houston’s jump has been as a result of forcing opponents to make more mistakes, while simultaneously limiting their own.
Houston forces a turnover on 13.7 percent of possessions which is the 10th-highest rate in the league. More importantly, Houston creates the fourth-most steals with 8.9 per game. Forcing such a high percentage of live-ball turnovers is so valuable because it either creates fast-break opportunities for Houston’s offense or it forces the opposition to foul.
Just as importantly, Houston does a very good job at limiting those easy shots for their opponents. The Rockets are allowing 1.5 fewer fast break points and 1.3 fewer points in the paint per game than they did last season. Houston was dead-last in paint points allowed last season, so their improvement to 28th this year is a step in the right direction and not insignificant.
Quite possibly the best aspect of Houston’s defense, though, has been their defensive rebounding. The Rockets allow the fewest offensive rebounds in the league and 2.9 fewer than they did last season. With so few opportunities allowed, Houston is limiting opponents to 2.4 fewer second-chance points a night, jumping from 26th last year all the way up to sixth this season.
When you watch the Rockets, the increased collective defensive intelligence is abundantly clear. The additions of Paul, Tucker, and Mbah a Moute have helped everyone improve defensively, and even the little things like knowing who and when to foul has been dramatically improved. Opponents shoot the fourth-worst percentage at the line against the Rockets, and their FTA/FGA is just .183, the 10th lowest in the league.
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In crunch time, increased depth and versatility is a huge asset for D’Antoni. Harden and Paul will be in at the end of every game, but depending on matchups and who’s hot, D’Antoni can pick and choose from a very deep pool of players.
We’ve seen historic offensive seasons from Harden and the Rockets before, and we’ve also seen how they’ve hit limitations in the playoffs. While Houston doesn’t have quite the top-end talent of Golden State, adding Paul and wing depth to the core already intact gives the Rockets the best counter to the Warriors’ death lineup in the league.
Houston has established themselves as the primary Western Conference threat to Golden State’s supremacy; if they’re going to knock off the defending champs, however, it will be off the back of their defense.
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