By now it is obvious that the Houston Rockets’ disappointing record of 17-19 directly corresponds with their decline in defensive rating in which they have dropped from 8th best in the league to 26th.
Reasons as to why the Rockets have struggled so much on defense remain a mystery. It’s most often chalked up to effort, which in part, I agree with. As I have mentioned before, a starting lineup featuring Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Dwight Howard should not rank as low as 26th on the defensive side of the ball.
In regards to defensive effort, many fingers point toward James Harden, which is fair. While his lapses on defense are infrequent, they certainly stand out. There are no excuses for a player of Harden’s strength and athleticism to be allowing players to score as easy as he does at times.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that with the strength and footwork Harden displays on the offensive side of the ball, Harden should be a more-than-capable perimeter defender. Unfortunately, as Rockets fan know too well, he is not.
If Harden ever hopes to clutch the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy, he will have to learn to put more effort towards defense.
— NBA Meme Team (@NBAMemeTeam) November 25, 2014
In spite of his defensive struggles, Harden is still the best player on the team. If Harden was to raise his standards on defense, it is more than likely that the rest of the Rockets would do the same.
Jan 4, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) drives to the hoop against Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) and Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the fourth quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
While it is fair to cast some of the blame on Harden, it is unfair to assume he is the only problem. After all, Harden’s Rockets had the 8th best defensive rating last season. Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that the Rockets’ problems on defense extend past Harden’s effort.
To start with, the Rockets are an awful rebounding team. Their rebounding numbers haven’t declined much since last season, but it’s mostly because they lacked room to grow much worse.
They currently rank 24th in defensive rebounding and 29th in defensive rebounding percentage. Surprisingly, they rank within the top ten in offensive rebounding, but it’s most likely that that can be attributed to the high volume of threes they shoot which results in long rebounds that are easier for any offense to pull down.
While rebounding is definitely about size, it also has a lot to do with effort. Outside of Howard and Clint Capela, the Rockets big men struggle to pull down boards. Harden, who is allegedly at the root of Houston’s effort problems, pulls down the third most rebounds of anyone on the team, and the second most of any of the league’s shooting guards.
Bickerstaff on why he went with Harrell over Jones "we need to rebound" #Rockets
— Dr. Joshua Reese (@MrJoshua) January 5, 2016
Another statistic telling of the Rockets’ defensive struggles is their decline in opponent effective field goal percentage. Ranking seventh in the league in this category last season, they now rank 26th.
The only way a team can experience such a significant decline in a statistical category related to field goal percentage is if their allowing their opponents to get easier shots than they allowed the previous season.
Harden’s effort is not the only problem. The Rockets have failed to be effective as a defensive unit. They struggle to play transition defense, and often fail to make the proper defensive rotation in a half court set.
While there are more numbers that illustrate the Rockets’ defensive decline, rebounding numbers and field goal percentage demonstrate that the Rockets’ problems on defense are at least two-fold.
Sure, an increase in defensive effort by the best player on the team would help the Rockets to improve, but the Rockets’ defense faces more problems than just James Harden. Either way, as a leader of the team, Harden must set an example on the defensive end of the ball.
As to why the Rockets’ defense has declined, it’s not exactly clear. One factor that I believe likely contributed to it was the lack of emphasis put on defense during training camp.
Going into the 2014-2015 season, the Rockets made it clear to the public that because they were already potent on offense, they would spend the majority of their time focusing on defense during training camp. That strategy payed off as they went on to have the 8th best defensive rating in the league.
Coming into the current season, with the acquisition of Ty Lawson, the Rockets spent a a bulk of their time focusing on how they would integrate a ball-dominant guard into a lineup that already featured a ball-dominant guard in Harden.
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Having to continue to focus on that problem, as the Rockets struggled to start the season, it took away from time that should have been used to concentrate on how to fix their defense.
While I understand that it’s near the halfway point of the season, and the Rockets have had plenty of time to work out defensive kinks, it is often the case that what it focused on during training camp serves as a foundation for a team during the course of an up-and-down season.
As the all-star break approaches, hopefully the Rockets will find some time to pinpoint why they have seen such a drastic decline in defense from one season to the next.
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