Last season, the Houston Rockets weren’t a bad defensive team, but they could have been much better. With the right health, changes in personnel and emphasis, they could join the league's elite.
The Rockets were better than you might expect at stopping their opponents. They gave up the eighth-most points, but that’s partly because of their rapid pace. They were 13th-best in defensive rating, slightly above average.
Even that, though, doesn't tell the whole story. Patrick Beverley, their starting point guard, was in and out of the lineup with injuries last season, and the Rockets were a different team when he was there.
Looking at the blocks of games with and without Beverley shows how much difference the second-team all-defensive point guard made for the Rockets.
On average, the Rockets’ defensive rating was 101.7 in games Beverley played and 105.1 without him. If he’d played the full season and the team maintained the same rate, the Rockets would have finished seventh in defensive rating.
The Rockets were already close to being an elite defensive team with Beverley, but there are still two major steps that can/would help them be even better.
Replacing Chandler Parsons with Trevor Ariza
The first of those steps was bringing an elite wing defender on board. The move was generally regarded as a failure on general manager Daryl Morey’s part, but it’s actually going to be a big help on the less glorious end of the court.
Chandler Parsons is gone to Dallas via free agency. He isn’t a bad defender, but he’s not a good one either. Sometimes, in our rush to claim everyone as great or awful, underrated or overrated, we lose sight of the fact that some players are just mediocre, and that’s precisely what Parsons is.
Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), he gave up .88 points per play (PPP), ranking 190th in the league, about average. By comparison, new arrival Trevor Ariza gave up .84 PPP (104th). Ariza was exceptional against the pick-and-roll, giving up the league’s 22nd fewest, .66 PPP, when the primary defender on the ball-handler.
An average defender next to a great defender can be glossed over, but one next to a poor defender like James Harden doesn’t work out so well. Based on data from HoopsStats.com, opposing small forwards averaged 18.9 points against the Rockets, and shooting guards notched 23.5. That total of 42.4 points comes out to the fifth-most points combined in the league.
Meanwhile, Ariza anchored the Wizards' perimeter defense, which gave up the fourth-fewest points to wings.
Between Beverley on one side and Ariza on the other, James Harden’s deficiencies can be better hidden. Ariza might not score as much Parsons did, but he should keep the other team from scoring more, and that is realistically the greater need in Houston.
Another bigger problem is coaching or lack thereof. We can cite Harden’s lack of defensive effort or the consistency with which the Rockets fail in anything resembling help defense, but the bottom line is it all falls back on coaching.
One wonders how much time is spent practicing defense or if head coach Kevin McHale even cares if it isn't being played. Consider this mind-boggling figure from Richard Li of Red94.
Out of 160 players who have played at least 50 games and at least 25 minutes per game, James Harden ranks 159th in distance traveled per 48 minutes at 2.9 miles, just barely ahead of the less-than-spry Paul Pierce. In comparison, his backcourt teammate, the energetic Pat Beverley, ranks 8th at 3.5 miles.
If Harden put the same effort into defense he does on offense, he would probably run closer to 5.8 miles per game.
He is the most lopsided player in the NBA, often nonchalant as to what his job is even supposed to be. His offensive brilliance keeps him on the court, but sitting him down might get him to think about putting forth a little effort.
We could spend an entire article torching his pronounced lack of effort, but one has to wonder how it’s permitted to continue. At some point a coach needs to be the coach. The effort—or lack thereof—is on McHale as much as Harden.
There is also the lack of Houston’s execution to consider.
On the positive side, the Rockets did a lot of things on defense really well. Per Synergy Sports, they were sixth-best at guarding the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, and that had a lot to do with Beverley. They were third in post-up plays, and that is a credit to Dwight Howard. They were fifth in guarding the spot-up, and that wasn't dependent on any one player.
In situations where man defense can work, the Rockets did fairly well because they have bona fide stoppers. But in today's NBA, one-on-one defense doesn't always work.
In those situations, the Rockets didn't fare nearly as well. They struggled defending shooters coming off screens in various ways.
They were 19th in the league against the roll man in the pick-and-roll, giving up 1.03 PPP. They were 27th at shots off screens with .99 PPP. And they were 27th in hands off, yielding 1.0 PPP.
All of that shows a habitual flaw in team defense.
Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls is generally regarded as the best defensive coach in the league, and his system is accurately described as “five men on a string,” with the whole team playing as a single unit. McHale’s defense would be better described as five discombobulated beads floating independently about.
Rarely do you see players rotate effectively, switch or help. When there is “help,” sometimes it’s almost comical in its effect.
Let’s look at a couple of screen caps to illustrate.
First, here’s a play against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 6 of the playoffs. Everything is going fine in the first cap. Well, almost everything. Parsons is looking like he doesn’t quite know where to be. Nicolas Batum, his man, has the ball and is trapped by Howard and Harden. He’s not even privy to the existence of Wesley Matthews.
Within half a second, everything goes haywire. Batum stops and steps back. Harden inexplicably drops into the middle of the lane. Parsons almost falls down trying to go in every direction at the same time. And Batum passes the ball back to the ridiculously open Matthews behind the three-point line.
Omer Asik, Beverley and Howard see what’s coming, but none of them are in position to do something about it. Parsons is too late, and Harden doesn’t care. Matthews buries the shot. When you give a 40 percent three-point shooter enough time to eat a 12-inch sub, he’s generally going to make it.
Here’s another case of a complete defensive breakdown. Dirk Nowitzki sets a pick on Patrick Beverley to free up Jose Calderon.
Then comedy ensues. Beverley, as he should, fights over the pick and sticks with Calderon. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he notices Jones is there with him rather than sticking with Dirk Nowitzki. So he pulls up and tries to figure out what’s going on.
While he and Jones are trying to sort things out, Calderon goes ahead and passes it back to Nowitzki. Oh well. At least it’s not like that 7-foot German dude can shoot or any…nevermind.
These types of breakdowns—particularly in the late season or even the postseason—are inexcusable, and they are on the coach more than the players.
There’s an expression: “If one person fails, it’s the student’s fault; if everyone fails, it’s the teacher’s fault.” The Houston Rockets, as a team, failed to play adequate team defense, and that’s on McHale.
The teams who have elite defenses don't just depend on great defensive players. They practice it. They reinforce it. They extol it.
It’s questionable how much of that virtue is getting reinforced by McHale.
And the price of that is watching the season go down the drain because one defender doesn’t know where he’s supposed to be on the play that eliminates the team from the postseason.
Last season, Morey tweeted that the biggest weakness of the Rockets defense was not having a top-10 defense. I concur.
That’s a worthy goal and one that would put the Rockets into the title picture. Some of the moves the Rockets have made can put Houston in position to do that. Beverley, Ariza and Howard can cement a top-tier defense. However, without the emphasis from the coaching staff, all that talent can go to waste.
The biggest and most fundamental change is McHale has to commit to getting the Rockets—all of them—to commit on both ends of the court. And he has to teach them how to play together, not scattered.