Defense wins championships, so at the moment that championship will continue to elude the Houston Rockets.
Head coach Kevin McHale's roster is one of the most talented in the NBA. If you just look at the names and statistics, it's hard to make sense of the fact that this team lost in the first round after six games against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Rockets were supposed to be a contender, re-energized by the acquisition of Dwight Howard. Howard was supposed to help address defensive deficiencies in particular. Instead, they ranked 23rd on the season in points allowed.
The Rockets were actually the seventh-best team in terms of opponent field-goal percentage, a sign that not all is broken. Some of the inflation in Houston's numbers (offensively and defensively) is due to the extremely high tempo at which the team plays. The Rockets are bound to give up some points.
But they were clearly giving up too many points against Portland, allowing at least 112 points in each of the four contests between the two teams. Houston never held the Trail Blazers below 98 points.
The Rockets faced problems against LaMarcus Aldridge especially. The 28-year-old big man scored 46 points in Game 1 and 43 points in Game 2. For the series he averaged 29.8 points per game. Whether shooting over Terrence Jones or going around Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, Aldridge got whatever he wanted.
Sometimes better offense beats good defense.
In this instance, part of the problem may have been team defense. Houston just seemed fundamentally unable to cover Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard all at once. Shooters Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum spread the floor and made that task even taller.
Houston's roster could be subject to improvement, but its schemes are taking the blame for this particular problem. The organization has already parted ways with assistant coach Dean Cooper as a result, per Fran Blinebury of NBA.com:
Anybody missing a scapegoat? Rockets bringing back head coach Kevin McHale, have fired assistant Dean Cooper, citing problems with defense.— Fran Blinebury (@franblinebury) May 11, 2014
From an external viewpoint, it's hard to say just how much was Cooper's fault.
The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen described Cooper as "one of the few members of the Rockets organization dating back to years working under Rudy Tomjanovich." Feigen wrote:
Cooper began with the Rockets in 1999 as a video coordinator, eventually becoming an assistant coach on Tomjanovich’s staff. When Jeff Van Gundy succeeded Tomjanovich, Cooper moved to the front office as a scout eventually becoming the director of scouting and vice president for player personnel.
Cooper then came to Houston's bench with McHale prior to the 2011-12 season.
The move would seem to indicate that the franchise still has faith in McHale himself. The head coach certainly knows how to preach defense, but he may need more help when it comes to actually implementing that defensive philosophy.
McHale praised Joakim Noah as Defensive Player of the Year before the Chicago Bull actually won the award, an intriguing sound bite given that the Rockets have a defensively dominant center of their own in Howard.
Whether that was a subtle message to Houston's big man, there's little doubt that Houston's defensive faults can't all be pinned on Dean Cooper. Does that mean he's a scapegoat? It's unclear.
But it would be fair to say he was part of a larger problem.
The other part of the problem is that the Rockets are young. This roster is still in its formative stages, and that shows up most in little things like defensive communication and chemistry. Rotations aren't what they should be. Transition defense isn't as crisp as it could be. Things slip through the cracks.
And it leads to buckets.
The solution may not necessarily be injecting new personnel into the rotation so much as improving the current rotation's play. The Rockets actually have some pretty good defenders, even beyond Howard. Point guard Patrick Beverley is one of the best emerging perimeter defenders in the business. Small forward Chandler Parsons is long and athletic.
Houston even has the luxury of bringing a guy like Asik off the bench—or inserting him into the starting lineup to help slow down guys like Aldridge.
You'd certainly like to see superstar James Harden set more of a tone on the defensive end. His first priority will remain scoring, but it can't be his only priority. As one of the team's principal leaders, the example Harden sets matters.
We shouldn't be treated to 11-minute videos of failed defensive effort:
Harden himself admitted he has room for defensive growth, according to Feigen:
Harden said he need to improve defensively, citing his inconsistent 'focus.'
'I have to emerge,' Harden said. 'I have to grow and take another step. It’s a matter of will and focusing on that end as well. Focus is a major part of the game. Talent-wise, I’m there, but just focusing on the majority of the game (needs to improve).'
It's part of what separates Harden from an elite class of MVP candidates headlined by LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Harden frequently gets caught ball-watching, allowing his man to cut to the basket for easy shots. When not actually guarding the ball, Harden has a tendency to drift and lose track of his man.
In transition situations, Harden is sometimes lazy getting back. Even in half-court sets his lateral quickness and ability to stay in front of his man look suspect.
The league's best offenses are too good not to capitalize on that.
Who's to blame for Houston's defensive problems?
The Rockets aren't about to part ways with Harden, so their next-best bet is to try to light a fire under him. Sending an assistant coach packing may be one way to do that. Harden has to understand that Houston's championship hopes rest on his ability to do things on both ends of the floor. He has to become a legitimate two-way player.
The other unknown variable is what becomes of the power forward position. Terrence Jones had a breakout sophomore campaign, but the 22-year-old is undersized against some power forwards. Keeping Asik in the starting lineup makes for a better defensive lineup but creates issues spacing the floor.
If there's one thing a trade might solve, it's finding a bigger guy to defend the 4-spot.
Otherwise, what you see now is mostly likely what you'll get come opening night in 2014. The Rockets will have to find most of their solutions from within. Perhaps some new coaching blood will help, but Harden's right: This depends on focus. Defense has less to do with IQ and more to do with effort.
That effort could be the difference between this team remaining in the second tier and actually contending.