The Houston Rockets defense has gone from a joke to one of the best in the NBA

PJ Tucker #17 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
PJ Tucker #17 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Houston Rockets’ defense, to say the least, was one of the league’s worst to start the season. However, they have turned it all around in recent weeks.

Earlier this year, the Houston Rockets gave up 158 points to the Washington Wizards, which was masked because of the franchise record 159 points they scored themselves. Houston also gave up 46 points against the Miami Heat in the first quarter. Games like this were becoming the norm in October and early November but something seemed to click for the Rockets after that Heat loss.

The Houston Rockets at one point were the worst team in the league in opposing 3-point percentage and defensive rating. After the loss to the Heat, the 3-3 Rockets had a net defensive rating of 116.2 — ranking second-worst in the entire NBA. Also, after that Heat game, Houston’s opponents were shooting 43.3 percent from deep.

However, during the Rockets’ eight-game winning streak, they have the second-best defensive rating and the best opponent 3-point percentage at 27.3.

Another improved stat has been Houston’s opponent’s effective field goal percentage. During the winning streak, they are number one again at 46.6 percent. This shows that everyone is on the same page on switches and helping the helper on defense. Earlier in the season, there were miscommunications on pick and rolls, players were not hustling back on fast breaks and shooters were wide open on shots from downtown.

The Rockets have always prioritized running the opposing team off the 3-point line. Elston Turner, the team’s new defensive coordinator for the Rockets, gave an insight into Houston’s defensive strategy, courtesy of the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen

What teams try to accomplish, (switching) usually takes the 3-point shot out of the game. You have a body on a body. Now, the offense has to go to plan B; do you (isolate) the big or post up a small? We’re making teams do something else if they run a play to get a shooter a 3-point shot.”

Individual players stepping up

For years, the running joke surrounding Harden is that he doesn’t play defense. It goes back to the infamous YouTube clip of  James Harden’s lack of defensive awareness. In past years, Harden has had instances where he floats on defense and loses track of his assignment. Earlier in the year, he even had a few games where he reverted back to old habits. During the winning streak, this has changed. Harden is engaged on switches and getting back on defense to help slow down fast breaks.

During the eight-game winning streak, Harden has a defensive rating of 94.8, which is better than Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and even P.J. Tucker. Harden’s post defense has always been elite and now he is being more consistent on the perimeter.

Clint Capela is the key to the Rockets’ defense going forward. He is the team’s best rim protector and best overall defensive presence in the paint. During the first six games, Capela was only playing 26.3 minutes a game. That number has shot up to 34.9 minutes a game since. Capela’s court presence has made the Rockets an elite defense in the last eight games. With the aging (but still effective) Tyson Chandler and an improved but still learning Isaiah Hartenstein, the Rockets have become deep at the center position.

Also, Capela’s defensive rating during the win streak is 95.7 and his defensive rebounding percentage is 30.7, which is second in the league over the past eight games.

P.J. Tucker is the most consistent defensive player on the team and everyone knows the energy he brings on that end of the floor. Russell Westbrook has been very aggressive on the defensive end,  playing the passing lanes and being disruptive to opposing point guards. Danuel House is a good one on one defender and an improved defensive rebounder.

Is this defensive improvement sustainable?

Eight games do not make a season and the Houston Rockets did struggle mightily to begin the 2019-20 season, but some of these defensive trends can become the norm. Capela’s early season shoulder injury was more of a factor than people realize. Capela’s rebounding was down early in the season and he wasn’t able to control the paint like he has in recent games.

The overall communication on defense is much better. There are fewer missed assignments and Houston’s improved offense has allowed them to play a lot more defense in half court sets. Also, the Eric Gordon injury has been a blessing in disguise. During his time on the court, Gordon had one of the worst defensive ratings in the league at 113.6. With the time off, hopefully he can regain the defensive energy he had in the playoffs earlier this year.

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If the Rockets can sustain this level of play on defense, they will be near the top of the standings all year.