Since his trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, Dwight Howard's reputation as the league's best defender has slipped. This year in Houston, we're simply not hearing much about his defensive impact. But defense is a function of both interior and perimeter play, and the Rockets don't feature much of the latter.
The result has been a worse version of Dwight Howard.
Earlier this year, a video of James Harden playing atrocious defense circulated, adding anecdotal evidence to the notion that Houston is all offense and no defense.
But is that actually the case? It's really a matter of confirmation bias: According to NBA.com, Houston's 102.1 defensive rating places them 10th in the league.
The real truth is that Howard's ability to anchor the defense at the rim has somewhat hidden the poor perimeter defense. Yet the reverse is also true: Houston's inability to keep ball-handlers in front has taken away from Dwight Howard's ability to protect the basket.
Great rim protectors are at their strongest when serving a secondary defensive role. It's certainly true that they're often able to clean up the mess in one-on-one roles at the rim. But extended one-on-one opportunities against any big man will lead to kick-outs for threes or fouls against the big. In short, it's not a sustainable defensive strategy.
For Howard, the fouls have become a problem since he left the Orlando Magic. This season, he's committing 5.0 fouls per 48 minutes, according to ESPN.com. That number was 5.1 last year with the Lakers, but only 3.7 in his final season in Orlando.
The main difference between the Orlando years and the Howard since has been defensive strategy, and not personnel. In fact, a case can be easily made that the trio of Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu—the perimeter core of those contending Orlando teams—was worse than Jeremy Lin/Patrick Beverley, James Harden and Chandler Parsons.
But having coached Dwight and the same core group of players for a number of years, former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy understood that his personnel, outside of Howard, was not particularly inclined defensively.
So he adapted. Instead of requiring his defenders to keep men in front completely, he had them funnel ball-handlers to one side—thereby permitting some perimeter penetration, but not forcing Howard to protect the rim on his own.
This allowed Howard to operate from the weak side, blocking shots and intimidating ball-handlers from attacking all the way to the rim.
Notice how Nelson closes out during a game from the 2011-2012 season when Howard was with Orlando. After initially packing the paint by planting himself on the elbow, he scrambles back to his man, the Charlotte Bobcats' D.J. Augustin, on the high side. This means he's literally above him on the court, forcing Augustin baseline.
Nelson is a bit overzealous on his closeout and allows Augustin a bit too clear of a lane to the basket. But according to Orlando's scheme, this is fine. Guiding him baseline cuts off his relief options, meaning a basket attack is his only option. That's where Howard can step in from the weak side, simultaneously closing out any dump off pass to a cutting big and guarding the rim.
The result is an easy swat.
This is what allowed Orlando to survive on the defensive end in spite of its personnel. Houston is playing more of a straight up scheme, requiring its perimeter players to simply stop the man in front of them. While this is noble, it has its downside: Most of their players are incapable, and therefore getting blown by completely.
Whereas Nelson was only partially beaten, take a look at how Chandler Parsons gives up complete rim pressure against the Washington Wizards' Bradley Beal.
At the start of the play, Parsons was straight up: neither guiding him middle or baseline. All it takes is a quick jab to trick Parsons into thinking that Beal is going to use the coming pick before exploding baseline.
In spite of Parsons' screw up, Dwight Howard makes up a ton of ground and blocks Beal's shot. This is why he's such a great defender; his foot speed, timing and athleticism are unmatched on the defensive end.
For a defense to function in the long-term, however, this type of play isn't viable. By putting Howard in a compromising position, he's likely to make a mistake of some kind—which, really, isn't totally his fault.
Take this play, when Harden and Terrence Jones allow Washington's Nene Hilario to slip the pick-and-roll and receive the pass in space. Howard rotates as he should and goes vertical to challenge Nene's shot.
Howard is whistled for the foul despite what appears to be solid vertically. But whether or not this is a foul is ultimately irrelevant; it's impossible for Howard to play picture perfect defensive on every possession, and these types of possessions only increase his fouling likelihood. Fouls on big men are almost always a function of rim pressure.
The arguably worse result is simply a layup at the basket, which happens here for the Minnesota Timberwolves' Chase Budinger.
The Timberwolves run what's known as a "Pistol," in which the point guard, Ricky Rubio, dribble handoffs the ball to Budinger, who then immediately comes off an on-ball screen from big man Ronny Turiaf.
Francisco Garcia, Budinger's defender on the play, improperly trails around the screen. Instead of going underneath—Howard is in a drop and clearly trying to give Garcia room to get through—he locks and trails from above. This allows Budinger to easily curl and attack Howard at the free-throw line.
Howard is uncomfortable guarding in this area of the floor, and Budinger is able to slip by with a quick hesitation move.
The Houston Rockets have the capability to be a top defensive team in the league. Defense is often a matter of mental makeup and effort, and right now the team lacks the necessary level of intensity on that end of the floor.
If their perimeter players keep putting Howard in compromising positions, he will continue to foul and not be able to intimidate at the rim. Players are no longer afraid of going at him because they know it's a relatively easy path to get there. Once in a while they'll get blocked, but they know they can neutralize his impact by getting him in foul trouble.
Houston will be in the mix come playoff time. But if they want to be serious championship contenders, their perimeter defense needs to improve drastically.