The Houston Rockets need to be better defenders, and they know it. Superstar and team leader James Harden has begun to lead the charge toward improvement after a year spent getting humiliated by Internet video montages of his lax coverage.
Harden has focused on his defense with Team USA this summer. This, from Bobby Gonzalez of Sheridan Hoops, is especially telling:
I spoke to several members of the USAB staff, and behind the scenes they were amazed at how good James Harden has become as an overall player since his last tour with Team USA two years ago. The fact that he came in and was focused on being a lockdown defender blew them away… But now I am being told Harden is getting it done on [defense], which has always been the major complaint about his game.
Harden looks almost like a different player this summer. While his offensive production is still made up of the same herky-jerky trickery and repeat trips to the free-throw line, Harden has also been a dependable perimeter stopper for the Americans. It’s clear that despite his irrational claim to ESPN’s Scoop Jackson of being the best all-around player in basketball, Harden has heard the haters and gained awareness of his weaknesses.
And thankfully for Harden and Rockets fans, he also got some help this summer. Trevor Ariza arriving as Chandler Parsons’ replacement at small forward means one of last season’s stingiest wing defenders joins the team’s ranks.
Ariza’s 1.03 defensive real plus-minus easily surpasses Parsons’ 0.59 mark. He’s a shrewder, more seasoned player and has experience as a defensive specialist not just with last year’s Washington Wizards, but also as an NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ariza and a steelier Harden could go a long way in reducing Dwight Howard’s exorbitant recovery defense responsibilities in 2014-15, but perhaps a paradigm shift in Houston would take them even further. Coach Kevin McHale and general manager Daryl Morey have encouraged an analytics-friendly, fast-breaking style over the past few Rockets campaigns, but it’s not exactly clear that such an approach behooves their roster at this point.
A more methodical, measured Rockets attack could be the greatest agent of positive change for Houston. Howard is at his best as the anchor of a set half-court defense, and slower paces always favor such arrangements. Scaling back their feverish 100.6 possessions-per-game speed (easily the highest among playoff teams in 2013-14) would also help younger, lesser defenders like Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas find their spots.
Morey and his front office flirted with the idea of hiring Lionel Hollins as McHale’s top assistant this June. Although Hollins ended up inking with the Brooklyn Nets as their new head coach, the Rockets’ pursuit of him was, possibly, a signal that the team is looking to change its ways. The defensive-minded Hollins, whose Memphis Grizzlies teams were always among the league’s slowest, surely would have taken Houston’s X’s and O’s in a different direction.
Maybe chasing Hollins was, alternately, a gesture simply made to let McHale and his troops know what they need to work on.
Some were surprised that McHale kept his job after a sour first-round postseason exit, despite holding home-court advantage over the Portland Trail Blazers. Houston has given McHale more time to get his defense in order, but it’s clear that he has goals to meet if he wants to stay on for too much longer.
The Rockets' defense, respectable in the aggregate last year with defensive efficiency that ranked twelfth, had its shortcomings late in games. When their open-court preference was taken from them in the fourth quarter, they frequently fell short against advanced half-court tactics. More seasoned teams could wait out their perimeter turnover hunting and find an open man.
McHale needs to work on that—especially if he wants to keep his job. And the same goes for the rest of the roster. Morey is a GM who’s unafraid to make big moves, and if he senses this core is flawed, he probably won’t hold on to it out of sentiment.
Just like he let locker room leader Parsons walk this summer, Morey would likely ship off other Rockets without flinching if he didn’t see them as relevant to the team’s title hopes. Because defense, inarguably, is essential in pursuing that goal.
Advanced statistics courtesy of ESPN.