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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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NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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