The Houston Rockets have been more than solid during the 2013-14 season, but they still have one fatal flaw.
Wait, what? Defense is a problem for the team boasting the services of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, as well as an improving perimeter stopper like Chandler Parsons?
Preventing the other team from scoring gaudy point totals was supposed to be one of the primary strengths of this team, but that hasn't happened quite yet. Instead, the Rockets have relied on putting up ridiculous scores of their own in their quest to rise up to the top of the Western Conference.
That's not a sustainable strategy. After all, the maxim goes, "Defense wins championships."
There have been a lot of problems on the less-glamorous end of the court, but D12's defensive decline is the biggest problem of all. Let's break it down.
Overall Defensive Woes
Allowing 104.5 points per game is not a recipe for success, especially for a team that was supposed to be built around 48 minutes of rim protection from the D12-Omer Asik combination.
Thus far, only the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets are allowing more points each contest, although things do get much better when you adjust for pace. According to Basketball-Reference, the Rockets have the No. 12 defense in the NBA, allowing 104.4 points per 100 possessions.
It is indeed better than the straight-up points per game, but it's still not exactly something that Dwight, Asik, Chandler Parsons and everyone else can hang their hats on. Far from it.
While the Rockets have held their opponents to a solid effective field-goal percentage while minimizing the fouls they commit, they aren't cleaning up the defense glass or causing the other team to commit turnovers. Those extra opportunities are quite detrimental for a team that already plays at a fast pace and surrenders lots of possessions.
So who's to blame?
Part of the problem rests on the perimeter.
The Rockets aren't allowing too many three-pointers to be drilled against them because it's too easy for the opposing backcourt to penetrate deep into the Houston defense. James Harden—he of the particularly egregious "highlight" video—is largely at fault.
And that right there is emblematic of the entire defensive struggle.
Kevin McHale asks his team to run a lot. Up the floor, back down the floor, in half-court sets. Everywhere. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave too much energy for defense, and the result is a rather heavy-footed squad.
Thus far in the 2013-14 campaign, Parsons has run more than any other player in the NBA (32.9 miles), according to NBA.com's SportVU stats. And he's one of three Rockets in the top 25 for distance traveled, joining Jeremy Lin (27.9 miles) and Howard (27.3 miles).
Enes Kanter and Spencer Hawes are the only centers who have logged more mileage than D12, and they both play for teams that require a lot of movement as well. Neither of them are elite defenders, either.
Then again, Howard may not be at this point in his career.
Although he's putting up solid team numbers, he's normally been able to act as a tabula rasa, wiping the slate clean for any backcourt member unable to play defense. But not this year.
Very Porous at the Rim
First, let's turn to Synergy Sports (subscription required) to see how Howard's defensive numbers have changed.
Hint: It's not going to be pretty.
Told you it wasn't pretty.
While his isolation defense has just been sublime (albeit over the course of only 11 possessions), the rest has lagged well behind. What's happened to his elite ability to stop men when rolling to the basket? Why is he suddenly being tortured in the post?
Allowing 0.88 points per possession on the whole, Howard has been outplayed defensively by 152 qualified players across the NBA. That's not the D12 Houston thought it was getting when inking him to a max deal.
Things don't look much better when we turn to NBA.com's statistical databases and look at the SportVU data on his rim protection.
During the early portion of the 2013-14 campaign, no player has faced more shots at the rim than Howard (11.5 per game). In fact, Marcin Gortat, Miles Plumlee, Spencer Hawes, Robin Lopez and Roy Hibbert are the only other players in double digits.
But that's fine. It's not a reflection on Howard's skills—well, not all the time, as you'll see in a bit—because he's just cleaning up the garbage left behind by his teammates.
What's more troubling is how porous he's been once offensive players have gotten close to the basket. Let's take a look at the numbers for those six aforementioned players:
|Player||FGA per game at rim||FG% against at rim|
Raise your hand if you expected Howard to finish in the penultimate position for opponent's field-goal percentage. And if they're up, put your hands down, because you're all lying.
Howard is supposed to be an elite defender. Even when struggling, he's expected to protect the rim more effectively than guys like Spencer Hawes and Miles Plumlee.
In fact, if you look only at players facing at least five shots per game at the rim (to negate the presence of guards boosted by small sample size), D12 comes in at No. 29 in opponent's field-goal percentage. Take a gander at the list of notable names ahead of him:
The list goes on and on, but those are a few of the ones you wouldn't expect.
Part of the reason is that Howard just hasn't been able to display the same kind of lateral quickness he has in the past; he's too tired from all the other activity.
That's particularly evident when he's guarding athletic roll men, like Blake Griffin in the play you can see below. And that's why I said it's sometimes his fault when opponents get attempts at the rim. He isn't able to keep his own man away from the restricted area every time.
This is immediately looking like the type of play that D12 thrived against with the Los Angeles Lakers, even with his diminished level of health. Last year, he allowed 0.76 points per possession when covering roll men, and it was a number that left him ranked 31st in the NBA.
In 2013-14, that has risen to 0.93.
Giving up an additional 0.17 points per possession is a big deal.
As Chris Paul dashes into the lane, Griffin pops out and receives the pass from his point guard.
And now Howard is in pursuit. During his prime defensive days, this would be no problem. He understands perfectly how to balance aggression and caution when closing out on a burgeoning mid-range shooter.
But not anymore.
After a quick pump-fake, Griffin puts the ball on the floor and drives to his left, where he's quickly swallowed up by Howard.
Again, let's talk about the past. Even last year, this would be a possession-ending moment. Howard wouldn't let Griffin create any space, and he'd anticipate any move that the power forward could make in an attempt to free himself around the rim.
This is the 2013-14 season, though. That's no longer the case.
With a spin move and a nudge of the shoulder, Griffin is able to establish much deeper positioning in the paint.
As Griffin elevates for the easy close-range jump-hook, Howard can't even get off his feet to contest the shot. When have you seen that before?
Will Dwight Howard turn around his defensive play?
It's all about energy, and the Houston system is sapping almost all of his reserves. It's not a recipe for success, and yet McHale needs to find some way to make it work, especially if he ends up trading Asik away.
A lot has prevented the Rockets from lifting off and elevating into the cream of the Western Conference, and Howard's defensive decline is a major part of the problems.
Until he becomes the Defensive Player of the Year candidate that he's been in the past, the team will fail to maximize the immense load of talent it has at its disposal.