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.
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