The Houston Rockets were on a hot streak for a while—they were the best team in basketball in January and February, a span that included a nine-game winning streak. But their recent three-game skid has provided plenty of reasons to back off from the championship hype they’d been getting.
This somewhat microwaved heavyweight squad has a ways to go before we consider them in the same breath as the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs—likely the Los Angeles Clippers, too—contenders who've already earned our respect. Barring some major surprises, it looks like Houston is still a year away from being the cream of the Western Conference Playoff bracket.
It all starts, as these conversations typically do, with defense. The Rockets have been more effective stoppers than they often get credit for, as their per-possession defensive statistics yield much better results than the classically analyzed per-game figures.
The Rockets’ fast, up-down style means there are far more possessions in their games than in most others; thus, there’s some noted inflation in their defensive metrics, leading to numbers which don’t tell whether the team can strap down and get stops when they need to.
The Rockets' defensive rating, a more illustrative measurement, is 12th in the league, while their points allowed per game puts them down at 17th.
The Rockets’ defense is a bit better than middling, for the most part. But savvy, intense teams with playoff experience have been able to reveal some of their more serious flaws in recent games. The team is over-reliant on Dwight Howard’s rim protection, for starters.
This is somewhat owing to Howard’s front-court partner, Terrence Jones—a massively gifted player who has excelled offensively in his second season (his first one with significant playing time) but who has simply not seen enough NBA minutes to develop firm defensive concepts. Jones needs more time to adjust to playoff-level scrums in the paint.
The Rockets’ perimeter defense is just as worrisome. James Harden’s well-documented lack of motivation is one thing, but Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin haven’t exactly looked miles better against shrewder teams like the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and the Thunder—the murderer’s row responsible for the Rockets’ worst losing streak of the season.
It’s hard to contain Kevin Durant, but against the Rockets on March 11, KD barely even looked like he was working. He was given way too much space to operate on the perimeter by Parsons and other defenders, and Houston was consistently a step behind whenever Durant got a ball screen. He went off for 42 points on 12-for-22 shooting, including a 5-for-8 mark behind the arc.
In subsequent losses to the Bulls and Heat, Mike Dunleavy and 38-year-old Ray Allen—not exactly the MVP-level performers that Durant is—put the stake in Houston’s heart with a couple of unchecked shooting spurts.
This is all a way of saying that the Rockets will be exploited even more for this weakness in a seven-game series, especially against a wily team like the Spurs, who thrive on hitting you where it hurts, perfecting your defense’s redirection and the exact ball movement permutations needed to consistently get open threes in the half-court.
As it stands, Patrick Beverley is the team's best perimeter stopper—and at 6'1" Beverley is not a whole lot taller than the average Bleacher Report reader. He can't be counted on for much more than agitating similarly sized point guards like Chris Paul and Damian Lillard, and creating the occasional turnover. The Rockets are largely without an answer for the hot shooting hand.
But probably most concerning of all is Dwight Howard’s performance of late. Despite a strong overall season played a bit under the radar, Howard has shrunk from the moment in the team’s skid. Joakim Noah manhandled him in Chicago, frustrating Howard to the tune of seven turnovers, and in Oklahoma City he was beasted out of the lane by rookie Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka.
Without Dwight performing at a near-MVP level, the Rockets aren't going to get past the second round in the Western Conference. Simply getting to that round might show enough growth for a team in the first year of its assemblage—and Rockets fans should be excited about the future.
But their time is not now.