After acquiring James Harden just days before opening night last season, the Houston Rockets quickly forged an offensive identity based on pushing the ball, taking threes and attacking the basket.
It’s a strategy that carried them all the way to the playoffs in a hyper-competitive Western Conference. But any time a team chooses to play offense at a lightning pace, defense tends to suffer.
If it weren’t for Omer Asik, who played like a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate throughout the year, the Rockets would’ve been one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Instead, they barely clung to “average,” holding teams to 103.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 16th according to NBA.com/Stats (registration required).
Having a 16th-ranked defense isn’t good enough to contend for a title, but an even bigger problem was the dramatic collapse Houston saw whenever Asik went to the bench. The Rockets played like one of the five worst defenses in the league whenever he sat, and the hole he left stood as a major problem in need of attention heading into the summer if they were ever to make serious commotion in the future.
All Houston did to solve the problem was sign Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who, when healthy, is good enough to transform the league’s worst defenses into respectable units. He's "Hall of Fame" effective on that end.
Howard’s mere presence makes teammates in front of him feel like they’re better than Tony Allen, aggressively attacking passing lanes and hounding ball-handlers without fear that a blow-by will result in a layup thanks to the intimidating monster at their back.
Time will tell how often Asik and Howard share the floor, but it’s safe to bet at least one will be on the court at all times next season. If Howard returns to his superstar form, what’s that mean? Houston might have a top-five defense in 2014.
Howard’s only season with the Los Angeles Lakers is rightfully considered a down year, but that’s only because his expectations were sky high. When he sat last season, the Lakers allowed 107.8 points per 100 possessions, which was third worst in the league.
When he played, at less than 100 percent health, the Lakers allowed 101.7 points per 100 possessions. That barely squeezes them into the top 10, mirroring Asik’s impact on the Rockets.
Both big men are elite rebounders—Howard led the league in rebounds per game while Asik led the league in total rebounds—and both provide effective intimidation in the paint and at the rim.
According to NBA.com/Stats, whenever Howard sat on the bench last season, 37.3 percent of all field goals attempted by the opposition came in the restricted area. When he played, that number dropped to 31.7 percent (the same exact amount of mid-range jumpers).The numbers here are nearly identical for Asik.
The Rockets have two of the league’s 10 best defenders on their team right now. Both happen to play the same position, and both are more than qualified to offer 35 extremely effective minutes night in and night out. Since there are only 48 minutes in a game, and a very real fear that their skill sets would overlap in grotesque fashion on offense (neither can put the ball in the basket when standing more than five feet away from the rim), it’s Asik whose minutes will go down.
But fewer minutes for Asik in all likelihood means he’ll offer even more tenacity and energy in limited time, a role he excelled in backing up Joakim Noah with the Chicago Bulls.
It might seem obvious, but opposing centers won't have much fun against the Rockets next season. Asik is an ox with quick feet, and Howard was a brick wall defending in the post last year (in a down year, remember). According to SynergySports, Howard hardly ever committed a foul, and he allowed opponents to score just 29.9 percent of the time from post-up situations.
Here he is against Blake Griffin last year: one of the fastest, strongest, most efficient post scorers in the world.
Asik provides similar defense in the post, but he's also extremely useful defending the pick-and-roll (as is Howard, again, when healthy). Here he is in the playoffs last season, stifling two drives by Kevin Durant and forcing the Thunder to settle on a pair of mid-range jumpers that both misfire. Notice how Asik also manages to contest the shots.
With the Rockets still lacking any wing defenders of notable use, especially away from the ball, Howard and Asik will be forced to serve as sturdy coat racks for the entire season. But with a combined 12 fouls to play with, and the likely change to a more methodical offensive style (which should improve the energy and focus of Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and others) Houston's defense should very well be one of the league's most formidable in 2014.