Wing Defenders the Houston Rockets Should Chase This Offseason
The Houston Rockets are young and new to each other. They've got a lot of flaws to mend over internally before they can truly compete for a championship next year.
But no shortcoming stands taller than their limited abilities to defend the perimeter. Damian Lillard's heartbreaking shot was just one play—but it was also representative of a sight that frustrated fans in Clutch City all season.
The issues extend to all of the Rockets' perimeter defenders. Chandler Parsons has better defensive tools than Harden, but suffers from the same lack of concentration, particularly off the ball. Jeremy Lin has shown flashes, but still gets smushed by screens too easily and is too slow to contain the quick ball-handlers of the league. Patrick Beverley has all the tools and the willingness to stick his nose in there, but he's treating too many possessions like one-on-one matchups, often to the detriment of the help defense behind him.
Who can Houston go after this summer that would make more than a drop in the bucket for them defensively? Are there any game-changing wing defenders in sight?
Where better to turn for offensive help than one of Tom Thibodeau’s favorite defensive players? The Chicago Bulls’ wingman was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers this season, and is now a free agent. Deng is a selfless, ceaselessly hard-working glue player—and that’s just what the Rockets need. It doesn't hurt that his 1.78 defensive real plus-minus is higher than any perimeter defender in Houston last year.
His endurance is a looming question mark, as many are skeptical to sign a veteran who’s spent so many seasons grinding away under taskmasters like Thibodeau and Scott Skiles. But if Deng can prove he’s still spry and ready to contribute, he’s exactly what Houston should be looking for.
What does Thabo Sefolosha have left? This is the key question here, as a peak Sefolosha would have obviously been a prime free-agency target for these Rockets.
But the 30-year-old Switzerland native—who was the best defensive option on LeBron James for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals—has clearly lost a step. He's still a better wing defender than anyone the Rockets have on their roster now, but for how much longer?
If Sefolosha can somehow prove he's capable of guarding nearly as well as he did in his best days, the Rockets should negotiate with him.
A one-time Rocket, Trevor Ariza reminded the world what he's capable of over a contract season in 2013-14.
With the Washington Wizards, Ariza was a crucial part of the defensive string that made the Chicago Bulls look like a D-League team in the first round of the playoffs. Ariza and his fellow Wizards defenders were fluid in their defensive rotations and alert, never allowing the Bulls their first option—Chicago was lucky if it got its fourth plan to work on a given possession.
Ariza's also a veteran with championship experience as a wing with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he could be a crucial locker room presence for the ever-so-young Rockets.
Houston would love to have Ariza, so long as he's not asking for too big of a paycheck. After the postseason he had, though, he might be gunning for something in excess of the $10 million per year he's arguably worth.
Here's a long shot. Eric Bledsoe is a restricted free agent, but Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough indicated to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com that the team is likely to match any offer sheet sent his way.
But Rockets GM Daryl Morey knows there's always a conversation to be had. Most people around the league didn't even realize James Harden was available until after the Rockets bartered a deal with Oklahoma City to get him.
Bledsoe is perhaps the most disruptive perimeter defender in the game. His 3.97 defensive real plus-minus is a staggering figure that led all NBA point guards in 2013-14, with only bigs ahead of him in the category overall.
Bledsoe hounds opposing guards relentlessly. He's undersized, but he more than makes up for it with his uncanny intuition. He's also one of the fastest players in the league and would thrive as a transition player in Houston's open-court system.
Bledsoe's skills are achievable if Houston can move some other pieces—namely, the contracts of Lin or Omer Asik. It might also take the bargain contract of Parsons to grease the wheels of a deal. In any event, the Rockets don't have the cap space to throw a big offer at the guard outright and will need to get tricky if they want him. They should, because he's a perfect fit.
Andrei Kirilenko's lack of minutes in the Brooklyn Nets' postseason run had many scratching their heads. Averaging just 14.4 minutes per game in the playoffs, Kirilenko has a player option for next season, per Basketball-Reference, that he's able to opt out of if he is overly dissatisfied with his role in Brooklyn.
Since Kirilenko makes less than $4 million per year with Brooklyn, he is clearly within the Rockets' price range.
"I can guard, definitely, 1 to 5," Kirilenko told The Brooklyn Game's Devin Kharpertian. "If you take a look like, if you want me to play center and guard Shaq, it's not that I'm going to guard him all game. But for the short period of time, like let's say it's a quick switch, I'm pretty sure for like five, six seconds I would be able to hold him."
He's already 33 years old, so he can't be counted on for too much longer. But if Kirilenko wants to fight for a title like the Rockets do, his defensive utility belt could be a terrific fit for the next two seasons.
Advanced statistics courtesy of ESPN.