To be a great switching team, all five guys have to be on one page, and the Houston Rockets’ defensive captain P.J. Tucker has made this point several times.
The Houston Rockets have been a switch-heavy team for several years now. It was a scheme that came out of necessity against the Golden State Warriors, who were a constant roadblock to the Rockets’ championship efforts.
With the Warriors and other NBA teams deploying multiple screens on a single play, the Rockets’ switching defense always kept a man in front of a shooter. In 2017-18, the strategy pushed Mike D’Antoni’s defense into the top 5 in the NBA and a franchise-record 65 regular season wins.
But last year and for most of this year, their switching defense didn’t produce the results needed to be a top defense. Injuries have been a factor, but one of the main issues was the lack of communication on defense.
No Communication Will Spell Trouble for the Houston Rockets
When you have a defense heavily reliant on switching, communication is the biggest key. This is especially true after the Rockets’ latest trade that sent Clint Capela to the Hawks and left the Rockets with no true center in their rotation.
In this play, you can see how Harden not communicating with his teammates causes a ripple effect on their defense.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/02/26/0021900870/236/381b1a79-e231-b985-7e75-3fb9a310885f_1280x720.mp4
Here, when one player misses his assignment and there’s no traditional shot blocker on the court, it is an easy dunk for the Grizzlies. Playing a traditional man-on-man defense where you go under or over a pick doesn’t take the same level of communication because you are generally sticking to your own man.
When you switch as much as the Rockets, you have to make sure you are alerting your teammate of an upcoming pick so they can anticipate an upcoming switch.
For example, if Eric Gordon doesn’t call out a pick at the top of the key for Robert Covington, that split second can allow Gordon’s man to get to the basket because Covington did not see the screen coming. This is the difference between being a top-five defense and the middle-of-the-pack defense the Rockets have been for almost two seasons.
Tucker has Voiced Concerns on Lack of Communication
P.J. Tucker is the Houston Rockets’ anchor and defensive captain. Tucker isn’t asked to score 20 points per game or be one of the main options on offense, but he’s invaluable on the defensive end. Tucker has always been the loudest voice on the court when it comes to communication.
PJ Tucker mic'd up at training camp ?
— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) August 16, 2019
As seen in this clip, Tucker is always communicating on defense. That’s why Tucker makes it a point to bring this up as much as possible. This was Tucker back in March right before the season was halted, as written by Ben DuBose of RocketsWire:
“Our energy, communication, and just the effort that we’re putting out,” Tucker said in listing some of Houston’s points of emphasis. “I’m not saying we’re not playing hard, but we’re just not playing smart.”
This was after the Rockets’ loss to the Orlando Magic that made it four losses in a run. In March, the Rockets had their second-worst team defensive rating of the year. In those five games, they were constantly beaten to the basket and missed defensive assignments. With their lack of size, attention to detail on defense is even more important.
All is Not Lost
The Rockets struggled in the five games right before the pause of the season in March. With the second training camp happening before the resumption of the season, the team will have much-needed practice time to become one cohesive unit on defense.
Practice time and familiarity with one another are the two main ingredients to improve a lacking defense. The Rockets will now have time to implement their new starting five and work on getting their defensive numbers back up where they belong.