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Breaking Down the Rockets’ Surprising Defense

The Rockets’ success this year is due just as much to their improved defense as their high-flying offense, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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The Houston Rockets sit at a remarkable 30-9, the league’s biggest success story relative to consensus preseason expectations. They’ve won eight straight games and 19 of their last 21 since the beginning of December, including wins over the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, and have outscored their opponents by an NBA-best 245 points in that time.

New head coach Mike D’Antoni naturally deserves healthy praise, and indeed has been mentioned among leading Coach of the Year candidates as the season approaches its halfway point. He has Houston on pace to beat last year’s regular season win total by a whopping 22 victories – over a 50 percent leap for a team that already made the playoffs last season.

We think of offense when we think of D’Antoni, and well we should. The man has been as synonymous with the word as any other individual in league history, and was the primary force in ushering in what most of the game’s elite offenses use as their basic blueprint in modern times. His teams are famous for powerhouse offenses and, shall we say, a bit less attention to detail on the other end of the floor.

When you see the Rockets in the league’s top three for per-possession offensive efficiency, then, you assume all is normal. The Rockets are running teams off the floor with a relentless and high-paced attack, and winning in spite of a generally porous defense.

Except as it turns out, only the first part of that statement is true.

The Rockets sit 16th in the NBA for defensive efficiency at this moment, almost exactly league average. Over that same time period since the beginning of December, they’re fourth in the league on defense, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Warriors.

It’s fair to note they’ve played a relatively weak schedule in terms of offensive opponents during that stretch, but it’s just as fair to use numbers from basketball-reference.com to judge their season-long defense while factoring in opponent quality: They’re 18th in the league on the year for adjusted defensive rating, right in the same range that their overall figure would suggest.

Despite popular perception, this actually isn’t wildly out of the ordinary for a D’Antoni squad. Just one of his five vaunted Suns teams finished in the league’s bottom 10 on defense, mostly grouping in right around this same league average range. His Knicks teams were a bit worse, each finishing in that bottom third, but personnel issues go a long way to explaining that and, obviously, his notoriously disappointing Lakers teams a few years ago.

It’s through this same personnel lens, though, that we see what’s truly remarkable about D’Antoni’s accomplishment so far this year.

GM Daryl Morey’s offseason looked exactly like one geared toward an all-offense, limited-defense approach with D’Antoni set to come aboard. Whatever his other faults, Dwight Howard had propped up much of the Rockets’ defense during his time in Houston. However, Howard left and was replaced by backup Clint Capela and several signings who seemed to move things in the wrong direction defensively.

Morey poached both Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon from New Orleans in free agency, along with an underappreciated signing in Nene Hilario from Washington. The former two had spent virtually their entire careers as liabilities defensively, Anderson and his cone-like tendencies in particular. The latter had a solid track record on both ends in the league, but he’d also be turning 34 before the start of the season with 25,000 miles on his odometer.

Combine these with a few notably defensively deficient pieces in James Harden and Corey Brewer, then mix that up with D’Antoni’s perception as an offense-only coach, and you get a pretty clear set of expectations.

The Rockets have exceeded those expectations defensively, and mostly through a strange method: They’re almost painfully average. We’re not just talking their overall defensive metrics, which rate right near dead center among the league’s teams; nearly every single major indicator of team defense has the Rockets somewhere at or near the NBA’s middle.

Per-possession opponent three-point attempts, a statistic that typically does more to predict three-point “defense” than actual percentage allowed? The Rockets are 14th. Opponent field-goal percentage? They’re 16th. They’re 15th in turnovers forced, and 10th in per-possession free-throws allowed (all these stats are prior to completion of Monday night’s games).

They allow the 15th-highest percentage on contested shots at the rim, per SportVU data, and they sit 17th in both defensive rebounding percentage and opponent second-chance points allowed. It’s legitimately tough to find a more nondescript, average defensive team.

And for this roster? That’s a win.

For a guy like D’Antoni who supposedly spends so little time on defense, the Rockets have been pretty damn organized on that end. They know they aren’t dealing with the most stacked up defensive roster, so they’re leaning on the right crutches to prop them up.

The strongest of those crutches start on the perimeter. Patrick Beverley has long been the perfect complement to Harden, a scary intense defender who doesn’t need the ball on offense and takes the burden of the opponent’s best guard away from Houston’s superstar. Beverley is having his most efficient offensive year since his rookie season, allowing D’Antoni to push his minutes back over 30 a night. Over two-thirds of those have come alongside Harden. Beverley currently sits behind only the point god himself, Chris Paul, for Defensive Real Plus-Minus this year among 1-men.

Houston’s other starting perimeter player has been even more glued to Harden, and with clear and good reason. Trevor Ariza has played a stunning 96 percent of his minutes alongside The Beard, currently clocking a top-20 league-wide RPM rating and playing some of the best ball of his career on both ends. Both Ariza and Beverley know they have few responsibilities outside shooting and secondary playmaking offensively, and this knowledge has simultaneously streamlined their offensive efficiency and allowed them to channel energy for the other end.

Then there’s the bench, which has wildly outperformed all expectations. Houston is beating teams while Harden sits for the first time in years. The Rockets are strangling opponents defensively, perhaps not a shock on the surface, but pretty surprising when you see who’s on the floor.

The bench mob of Beverley, Corey Brewer, Sam Dekker, Gordon and Nene has suffocated opponents to the tune of 88.3 points allowed per-100-possessions, over 10 points better than the league-leading Spurs’ defense. Two of those guys are known defensive liabilities, one is functionally a rookie, and another is 34 years old and well past his best years.

The Rockets are getting solid minutes out of Montrezl Harrell, thrust into a bigger role with Capela injured in mid-December. They’ve survived Capela’s absence without as much as a blip, though the soft schedule certainly plays a role. They’re getting great stuff and some thoroughly unexpected dunking prowess from Dekker.

(As an aside, give Morey major credit – in Harrell, Dekker and Capela, he’s got three guys picked at 18 or later since the 2014 Draft all playing real rotation minutes for a near-title contender. That’s to go along with his swindling of the Thunder for Harden in the first place and a couple of pretty smart-looking signings this offseason, among other smart moves.)

Now it’s time to see if this can sustain for the full year. The slate of offensive opponents will get tougher, and teams will adjust the scouting report and try to attack the weak points the Rockets have been covering so well.

The offense was supposed to be at least this good, though, and D’Antoni and his staff deserve real credit for quietly getting things done on the other end of the court. Could a return from Capela and even more continuity, supplemented by a pretty clear dose of adrenaline from that high-flying offense, be enough to push the Rockets near the league’s top 10 defensively by April? This is a true title contender if so, and it’s easier than ever to imagine right now.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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