While a lack of offensive cohesion and strategy has many putting Mike D’Antoni in the hot seat, a declining defense is why the Houston Rockets are in a rut.
The Houston Rockets have not been an elite defensive team since 2017 and with their lack of size in the frontcourt and playing small-ball lineups, their rebounding has become a major problem. The Rockets currently have 6-5 P.J. Tucker playing at times over 36 minutes a game. Ben McLemore and Danuel House are the two small forwards but neither is an above-average rebounder.
Other than Clint Capela, the Rockets only have only two other players who are over 6-ft-10 in Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein, neither of which are getting many minutes. The team’s offense needs to improve but defense and rebounding are the biggest issues with the team right now.
Defense is the real key for the Houston Rockets
During the Rockets’ eight-game winning streak earlier in the year, they were a top-three defense. Two years ago when they won 65 games and were a hamstring injury away from a trip to the NBA Finals, they were a top-five defense all year. The Rockets’ offense is always a topic of discussion but their defense is the difference between them being an elite title contender and just a good team.
During the current five-game span where they are 1-4, they are giving up over 116 points a game and are not getting stops in the fourth quarter. Offense will come and go, especially being a team that takes over 40 3-pointers a game, but a strong defense is crucial to stemming the tide when those shots aren’t falling.
On the season, the Rockets are a middle of the pack defense — which is fine if they want to be decent to a good team but to compete with teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks of the world, they need to have a top 10 defense at the very least.
The Rockets lack size on the wings and size up front. When facing a team with length at point guard all the way to backup center, they are getting exposed fairly quickly when they’re not making shots. For the Rockets to move up in the standings instead of down, they will have to add a defensive wing and frontcourt player who has size and athleticism.
Rebounding and paint protection are the team’s biggest issues
Just like on defense, the Rockets’ lack of size causes issues with rebounding and protecting the paint. In the last five games, the Rockets are 27th in rebounds given up to opponents. Considering they rely so heavily on outside shots, pairing that with not controlling the boards is a recipe for trouble on the defensive end.
On the season, the Rockets are 24th in points in the paint allowed. Again the team’s lack of size and lack of communication here is a huge problem. Just last night, there were several miscommunications that led to wide-open dunks and layups for the Lakers.
Since the Rockets like to switch often, Capela is sometimes caught out at the 3-point line and that leaves a Tucker or McLemore, both 6-5, to try to box out seven-footers. This is the biggest reason the Houston Rockets gave up 15 offensive rebounds to the Lakers. When Capela is not in the game or switched onto guards near the perimeter, teams have zero fear of taking the ball to the basket.
For some reason, D’Antoni seems to have lost confidence in Isaiah Hartenstein so a lot of times Tucker is the backup center. Since Houston no longer has stretch players like Trevor Ariza on the roster, there are times where they simply must have multiple big men who can protect the paint.
The season is not over and this rough patch can easily be just a blip on the radar. The Rockets looked unstoppable just a few games ago when they beat the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers. That said, there are certainly some areas that they have to improve ASAP.
The Rockets’ offense will continue to be up and down for most of the season but with James Harden and Russell Westbrook, they should be able to continue to be top five in that category. Team defense and rebounding are what will determine if the Rockets continue to spiral or become an elite team, and that will take some major changes, sooner rather than later.