Everyone knows the Houston Rockets can score. Fewer people know that their defense has been consistently above average for a while now.
It’s been a huge part of the Rockets’ success in 2014—they’ve been 32-14 since Jan. 1, after a slower start spent integrating Dwight Howard into their system.
The Rockets currently boast a 102.9 defensive efficiency rating, making them 12th in the NBA. The metric rates lineups with more deference to how they perform on a possession-to-possession basis, thus removing much of the illusion causing many to see Houston’s walls as porous.
With their aggressive open-court system, the Rockets create a higher-scoring version of basketball that is bound to increase their opponents’ points-per-game as it also elevates their own.
The Rockets drop all the way down to 23rd in the league when we look at points allowed per game instead. But you’d be wiser to invest in the defensive efficiency measure, and to consider the particularities of Houston’s surprisingly effective stopping abilities.
Just like the Rockets place a premium value on three-point scoring, they also hone in on the more valuable shot as defenders. Especially the corner three, easily the most valuable shot in basketball (aside from an open layup, arguably) as it’s a closer distance from the rim than any other three-ball, and a crucial floor-spacing pole for teams who can consistently hit it.
Even though Dwight Howard lives largely in the paint, his defensive impact has been so huge that it helps Houston to defend this shot much better. From Red94’s Michael Pina:
With Howard on the floor, opponents are shooting 32.9% from the corner. When he sits that number jumps to 36.4%—still 10th best in the league, but that’s obviously not the same as first.
He forces offenses to do things they don’t want to do, and allows his teammates to play with less hesitation and more aggressiveness. They can/should also be able to stay at home on the perimeter more often, even in situations where doing so is already obvious.
Herein lies a neat quirk to Houston’s attack: extreme player-to-player specialization. Much of the criticism of Houston’s defense lies with criticism of James Harden as a defender—and surely he’s been a bad one this season, clocking a minus-2.44 defensive real-plus minus.
But Howard is almost as much of a one-way player. His offensive real plus-minus is also below zero, at minus-0.88. His dRPM, however, is a staggering 4.97, good for fourth in the league. Protecting the rim is the No. 1 way Howard helps his team, and clearly the Rockets are quite good on both ends giving their stars some lopsided offense-defense priorities. Harden’s a striker, and Howard’s a goalie.
Patrick Beverley, too, has been instrumental to his team as a largely one-way force. Beverley’s ball-hounding has created a lot of perimeter relief for Harden and other offensively over-taxed peers like Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin. Beverley, when asked by Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling about his ball pressure:
You have to think no one really likes pressure, and that's just not in basketball; that's in everyday life. It's more comfortable when things are just OK. Being the point guard, I know what I don't like and I know what's comfortable for me. I know when I'm bringing the ball up the court, many times no one is pressuring me, the guy is sagging back and that gives me a confidence that, 'OK, I can run my offense free, I don't have to worry about the pressure.' But if someone is all over me and forcing me to use my handle and pressuring me and reaching in and slapping the ball, I know I don't like that. So I just use reverse psychology. I try to do everything that I don't like to other people, and it's been working out for me.
The Rockets' above-average defense owes a ton to Beverley's emergence, and to Howard as well. But perhaps no factor looms larger in their turnaround than their unique take on role-playing. Unhesitant to drive up their players' usage rates on one side of the floor or the other, the Rockets' play continues to imagine basketball in new light.
As the playoffs approach, we'll see just how well their singular style holds up under pressure.