Now that they’re armed with two of basketball’s best 15 players, another devastating defensive anchor and a small army of three-point snipers, the Houston Rockets look like one of the NBA’s most dangerous teams.
But much like nearly every other team in the history of basketball, that doesn’t mean they lack a few detectable weaknesses.
Here are some of Houston’s flaws on both sides of the ball, and the various ways their opponents should look to exploit them.
Play Dwight Howard Straight Up in the Post
The Orlando Magic thought surrounding Howard with three-point shooters was smart because it allowed their franchise center extra space to operate in the post.
Howard isn’t Hakeem Olajuwon 10 feet from the rim—he isn’t terrible either, but in the realm of going one-on-one with his back to the basket, Howard’s still behind several contemporary centers including Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol—but teams that lack an exceptional post defender still worry whenever he gets the ball, resulting in some rash double-teams and open three-point shots.
As the years have passed, Howard’s post game hasn’t quite developed at the rate most foresaw. But that doesn’t mean the strategy to surround him with shooters should change.
Houston has continued the tradition, preparing itself with several lethal shooters on the perimeter, hoping defenses choose to double with its guards so those shooters can feast.
Ultimately, defenses must decide whether they want to force a contested two from Howard or watch a comfortable three be launched by an above-average shooter.
Being that Howard shot 46.6 percent on all non-dunk two-point shots last season, forcing him to beat you while keeping Houston’s three-pointers at bay might be the wiser decision.
And we haven’t even broached the free-throw dilemma. Howard is a career 57.7 percent shooter from the line who shot an abysmal 49.2 percent on 9.5 attempts per game last season. Many coaches, including Golden State’s Mark Jackson and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, will simply foul Howard whenever he's in an easy position to score.
Until Howard absolutely demands to be doubled, defenses should play him straight up.
Trap Jeremy Lin in the Pick-and-Roll
Trapping a quick point guard in open space is much easier said than done, and only a few teams have the personnel to pull it off—meaning a long, fleet-footed big man who’s as comfortable 15 feet from the basket as he is in the paint.
But the benefit that comes with doing so to Jeremy Lin is great enough for defenses to deploy it more than they normally would against any other point guard. Last season, whenever Lin was trapped coming off a screen he either picked up his dribble, over-dribbled into a tougher situation, threw a wild pass or all of the above.
Here are a few examples below.
Trapping is always risky, and most teams won’t be willing to intimidate Lin this way on a majority of his pick-and-rolls. But the ones that harass him properly should be happy with the results.
Disregard Offensive Rebounding.
The Rockets loved pushing the ball last season, and they were an absolute menace whenever they did. According to SynergySports, 17.2 percent of Houston’s offense came in transition last year, where it ranked 11th in the league, scoring 1.14 points per possession (subscription required).
(Through Howard’s last three years in Orlando, the team was 18th, 18th and 12th in pace, which averages out to them being about middle of the pack through that stretch, according to NBA.com/Stats.)
Regardless of whether the Rockets choose to continue to be one of the fastest teams in the league or decide to slow things down a bit, stopping James Harden and Chandler Parsons in transition and preventing easy looks at the rim should be an absolute priority. And that means sending all five players back on defense whenever a shot goes up.
Make Their Power Forwards Defend Pick-and-Rolls
Right now, we don’t know who Houston’s starting power forward will be on opening night. But throughout the season, the position should be a rotating door for Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, two versatile young players who’re entering just their second seasons.
Jones played only 276 minutes last season—few of them meaningful. As a result, he has basically no game-time experience defending an NBA-quality pick-and-roll. According to SynergySports, Jones was put in a pick-and-roll situation in which he guarded the roll man just nine times last year (subscription required).
The sample size is obviously tiny, but Jones looked out of his element in a variety of ways. Scheme plays a major part in dictating how exactly the roll man’s defender is supposed to balance guarding the ball-handler and the screener; Jones was often got caught in the middle.
Here he is losing track of New York Knicks forward Chris Copeland, who drains a wide open three-pointer because of Jones' mistake.
Motiejunas had more experience in these situations, but the results were equally grim. Opposing big men shot 52.4 percent when Motiejunas defended them in the pick-and-roll. This was mostly due to Motiejunas being out of position, either too slow or hesitant to contest a shot.
Teams who choose to attack Motiejunas in the pick-and-roll shouldn’t do so strictly because he might mess up. When going up against forwards who can score, it’s a great way to deliberately isolate Motiejunas and take advantage of his poor individual defense, as seen below.
Force Harden to Play Defense
In a majority of his minutes this season, James Harden will likely guard the opposing team’s worst offensive player who’s under 6’8”.
By sticking to last-resort options who’re hardly involved in their teams' offensive schemes, Harden is able to leak out in transition, sag in the lane and, most importantly, rest.
It sounds obvious (because it is), but playing defense is physically taxing. In Harden's case, for half the game it can siphon mental and physical energy from a player who's saving it for offense.
By forcing Harden to guard a more talented player, making him move his feet and stay low to the ground, the other team is stealing his energy.
How can they do this? The easiest way is by using Harden's man to set a simple high-screen for a dangerous scorer. For example, when the Rockets play the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Harden is covering Thabo Sefolosha, Scott Brooks can repeatedly have Sefolosha set a screen for Russell Westbrook near the top of the key, forcing Harden to switch and isolating him against one of the league’s most savage on-ball defensive assignments.
Overall, Houston's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. It's now contending for a title and, as stated in this article's first paragraph, possesses serious talent on both sides of the ball.
But in a few hyper-specific areas, the Rockets are a vulnerable basketball team. While they'll have 82 regular-season games to improve, over the course of a seven-game playoff series, the holes touched on in this article have the potential to expand.