Boston Celtics

Houston Rockets’ improved defense gives them championship ceiling

Over recent years, offense hasn’t been a problem for the Houston Rockets. Far from it.

Since James Harden was acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder prior to the 2012-13 campaign, Houston has only failed to crack the league’s Top 7 in offensive rating once, while ranking second last season and first this year.

The Rockets have been so good at scoring, in fact, that the last two renditions of Houston basketball have been historically effective.

The Rockets’ 2016-17 points-scored-per-100-possessions mark was the 12th-best in NBA history, according to Basketball-Reference. And this year’s? They currently boast the highest offensive rating recorded since 1973-74.

So yeah, safe to say, the whole putting-the-ball-through-the-hoop thing is squared away in Houston.

It was the less glamorous side of things that had to get sorted for the Rockets to make legitimate noise in 2017-18. And as we approach the home stretch of the season, it appears that Daryl Morey has been able to do just that – primarily due to the addition of two free-agent pieces in PJ Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

The two journeymen forwards are far from household names, but both have injected Houston with the requisite toughness and point-stopping prowess to strike fear around the Association.

Overall, the tandem’s contributions have helped drop Houston’s overall 2017-18 defensive rating all the way to 106.6 – the No. 7 mark in the NBA.

The only other time a Rockets defense in the Harden era has even finished inside the Top 10 in efficiency was 2014-15, when the Rockets were No. 8 mostly thanks to Dwight Howard manning the paint. However, not so coincidentally, the 2014-15 Rockets also had the worst offense of Harden’s tenure. (Howard giveth and Howard taketh away.) As we covered, this year’s Houston team has no such problems scoring points.

Apart from 2014-15 and 2017-18, every other Rockets defense has ranked in the double digits in points allowed per 100 possessions, falling as low as 18th last season and 21st in 2015-16.

So what’s different this year?

A lot – if not most – of the credit belongs to the team’s aforementioned combo forwards, Tucker and Mbah a Moute.

In the 785 minutes the sturdy duo has shared the floor, the Rockets have given up a ridiculous 100.4 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAWowy. If extrapolated for the season, that mark would be the league’s stingiest by a full point.

Tucker and Mbah a Moute possess the capacity to switch on the perimeter (vital in today’s pick-and-roll-heavy NBA), the ruggedness to not get dominated down low on the rare occasion a player tries to post them up and the irritating ability to frustrate opponents who are foolhardy enough to try and score on them one-on-one.

On the season, the former is surrendering just 0.79 points per possession (PPP) on isolation chances, while the latter is giving up just 0.50 PPP on similar opportunities. As a team, those individual marks have helped the Rockets rank as the fifth-toughest defense when facing one-on-one looks, per Synergy.

Put them against elite wing scorers and they can use their size (and girth in Tucker’s case) to hold their own. Try to attack them with the pick-and-roll instead and they are able to fight through screens and remain glued to ball-handlers. Even off the ball, the two find ways to make an impact by jumping passing lanes and drawing charges.

In prior seasons, too much defensive responsibility was placed solely on the shoulders of Trevor Ariza and the departed Patrick Beverley. That’s no longer a problem.

And though the rugged point guard is now a Los Angeles Clipper, Ariza hasn’t gone anywhere. That gives the Rockets three 3-and-D wings – one of the most coveted archetypes in the modern NBA – they can roll out at anytime.

Despite the fact head coach Mike D’Antoni has kept this lineup in his back pocket for now, when Ariza, Tucker and Mbah a Moute share the floor, Houston is giving up just 95.1 points per 100 possessions. The NBA’s best defense (belonging to the Boston Celtics) allows 101.4.

Rebounding may be an issue for that triad, especially if they’re deployed without Clint Capela, but against small-ball units, you could see lineups with the three defensive-minded wings on the floor together, with Tucker acting as “center.”

The three actually have been used with Capela this season, but just for a grand total of 44 minutes; in that time, they have surrendered an unfathomable 91.8 points per 100 possessions. Nevertheless, considering that lineup would mean playing without Harden or Chris Paul for stretches, it’s unlikely they get used for more than a possession or two late in a tight playoff game, when a stop is needed.

Speaking of Paul, his addition can’t exactly be ignored when discussing Houston’s much-improved point-stopping.

Besides his leadership – after all, when’s the last time we saw a clip of Harden totally loafing on defense go viral? – Paul is still a capable one-on-one defender (the word pest comes to mind) and outstanding when facing the pick-and-roll.

In 152 chances against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, the Wake Forest product has allowed merely 0.7 PPP – a mark healthy enough to place in the league’s 85th percentile. Quick feet, lightning quick hands and insane instincts aid Paul in shutting down most opposing teams’ favorite play-type.

Paul’s partner in slowing down opposing 1-5 pick-and-rolls is usually Capela. The big man has exceptional agility for a man of his size, and is one of the league’s elite defensive centers whether when protecting the paint or on the perimeter when forced to switch.

Per Synergy, Capela has given up just 0.84 PPP against rim-diving bigs (74th percentile) and 0.84 PPP against ball-handlers (53rd percentile) in the pick-and-roll.

It’s this abundance of defensive options that has allowed Houston to make the smooth transition from fun league pass team to legitimate title contender from one year to the next.

The additions of Paul, Tucker and Mbah a Moute have helped, to be sure, as has renewed energy from Harden on the point-stopping end and the maintained quality of Ariza and Capela.

Perhaps a majority of the credit, however, belongs to assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who was hired by D’Antoni in 2016 and tasked with modernizing the defense to a more selectively aggressive, switching scheme.

This is what Bzdelik had to say on the matter, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

“It has to be done properly,” Bzdelik said. “Switching can’t be a convenience. It has to be used as a weapon. It can be very effective because of the way the game is played. Our rules are, you switch to deny, you switch to force a turnover and you switch to take away a 3. When you alternate between switching and different schemes, it keeps even great players a little off-balance.”

If nothing else, the Rockets are doing a great job of keeping opposing teams uncomfortable on the offensive end.

And that renewed sense of urgency on defense has turned Houston into the biggest potential threat to the Golden State Warriors dynasty since their emergence as annual title favorites.

You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.

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