What's Wrong with the Houston Rockets' Trash Defense?

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistDecember 10, 2018

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) tries to steal the ball from San Antonio Spurs' Patty Mills during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 12, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

James Harden is celebrated for being an offensive juggernaut, and the Houston Rockets superstar is the leading scorer in the NBA at 30 points per game. But the league's reigning MVP is also shaping an alternate identity: professional thief.

The Beard is fourth on the list in steals, averaging a career-high 2.1 per outing, behind only defensive stalwarts Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Robert Covington.

His ability to swipe the ball, especially out of the post, is on display on a nightly basis, including during Houston's 126-124 win over the Detroit Pistons last month. He finished with 43 points, seven rebounds, nine assists and four steals. Four games later, he recorded a season-high six steals against the Dallas Mavericks.

"James had some big steals, especially guarding the post, having to guard Blake [Griffin] and [Andre] Drummond," Chris Paul told reporters after the game. "James is a really good post defender, and I think a lot of people forget that. And that's why at times we put him on bigs."

The 6'5", 220-pound Harden isn't the only Rocket with sticky fingers.

CP3 is right there with him, rounding out the top five in thefts.

Together, the star-studded backcourt is disrupting opponents' offenses to the tune of 4.2 takeaways and 6.4 deflections per night. Those are impressive stats, but is their ability to strip the ball, force bad passes and induce hurried kick-outs helping the Rockets' collective team defense?

The short answer is no.

Paul's defensive aggressiveness has aided Harden's improvement as a defender, but their combined efforts haven't translated to a boost in Houston's defensive performance. The duo's stats are like potato chips—all flavor, no sustenance.

The Rockets (11-14) are 14th in the Western Conference after three straight losses, including a 118-91 drubbing from the Utah Jazz on Thursday and a 107-104 setback to the Mavericks on Saturday thanks to a number of mental breakdowns defensively.

With its best defensive stoppers Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute gone via free agency, Houston no longer has the personnel to help cover the perimeter or the lane.

Around this time last year, the Rockets were on a roll, with their wing defenders deftly shooting the gap, playing effective weak-side defense, going under screens and stopping the roller in the pick-and-roll. That made the club seventh in defensive efficiency at 103.6, eighth in rebound percentage at 51.4 percent and third in steals at 9.4 per contest.

This year, Houston has fallen 19 spots to become the fifth-worst defense at 112.2 points per 100 possessions. The team has plummeted to 24th in rebound percentage at 48.2 and is the second-worst defensive rebounding club at 68.8 percent.

Utah exposed Houston's glaring deficiencies, scoring 70 points in the paint, a true indication the Rockets are letting opponents get too many easy baskets.

"They were driving and kicking and being more active," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "They were more athletic, getting to the rim. They just beat us in every which way they could."

They were also exposed by Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic, who went off for 11 straight points late in the fourth quarter to seal the win.

Houston is still committed to switching everything, but the Rockets don't have the depth beyond Harden, Paul, Clint Capela and PJ Tucker to keep teams from finding mismatches. That uncomfortable truth hit the Rockets in the face from the outset, when the New Orleans Pelicans blew them out in the season opener.

They gave up 131 points, more than they allowed in any regulation game in 2017-18. That trend carried over, as they let the Los Angeles Clippers score 133, the Washington Wizards score 135 (OT) and the Dallas Mavericks score 128.

"We gotta be better, and that's on me and James. Both of us take responsibility for that," Paul told reporters. "We gotta play better defense. Our defense isn't consistent right now, and rebounding has been a big issue for us. Coach has been on us about that, and we just gotta be better at it or it's going to be a long season."

There were high expectations coming into the year because Houston made the jump last season to an elite-level team. But now that they've already lost 14 games, three fewer than they lost all of last year, they are coming unglued.

They are listless, they've lost their edge and, more importantly, they've lost their identity.

Guard Eric Gordon told The Athletic's Kelly Iko: 

"I'm just not having fun, man. I'm just not. This sucks. Even the times where I have good games. We're just not using some guys the right way. Are we gonna make the right sacrifices? Do we have the right attitude?

"Last year was the best year I've ever had being a part of a team. We just never had a bad moment. If we ever had a bad game as a team, you knew the next game we would blow somebody out. It didn't matter who it was."

Gordon went on to lament that the Rockets aren't "sharing the ball, getting up and down and attacking" anymore, and the proof is in the numbers. Houston is 29th in pace at 97.16. Only the Memphis Grizzlies play slower.

With less ball movement and continuously shrinking floor space, the Rockets offense isn't as potent, and that carries over defensively. Guys aren't playing with the same spirit that made them dangerous enough to challenge the Golden State Warriors last season.

To be fair, Houston has battled injuries (Nene, Brandon Knight, Gerald Green) and stars have missed games (Harden was out for three, Paul out for five). The Rockets have a cadre of young players in Gary Clark, Danuel House, Isaiah Hartenstein and Marquese Chriss trying to find their way, but that doesn't let them off the hook. While it may be too early to write the Rockets off, general manager Daryl Morey is on the clock.

He needs to make a radical move that addresses the team's dearth of versatile defenders. Does that mean bringing Ariza back?

Maybe.

If the Rockets' former prototypical three-and-D guy isn't the answer, they'll need his doppelganger.

If Morey makes the right deal for a wing who can defend, switch at a high level and knock down open threes as if the basket were an ocean, he'll get a mulligan for the failed Carmelo Anthony experiment. But he better get something done fast, because Harden and Paul need help now.

      

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.

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