The Houston Rockets are playing some of their best basketball of the season and are enjoying a four-game winning streak, their first since February of 2020 when they won six straight. In the eleven months that have passed between these two streaks, the Rockets’ roster and the world have changed to the point that they are unrecognizable.
Back then the Rockets’ trotted out a starting lineup of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, and Danuel House. Flash forward to today, Harden, Westbrook, and Covington have all been traded, Tucker is likely headed out the door as well, and Danuel House has been limited to six games this season.
The Rockets’ current four-game win streak has seen three different starting lineups featuring new additions DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Jae’Sean Tate, Victor Oladipo, and Christian Wood. All of the fresh faces combined with their new head coach, Stephen Silas, have dramatically changed how the Rockets play as a team.
From offensive juggernaut to defensive stalwarts
When the Rockets reeled off that six-game winning streak back in the pre-pandemic world they did so without a traditional center and were powered by two All-NBA level talents in James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The Rockets averaged 124 points per game over that streak and simply blew the doors off of their opponents.
On the Rockets’ current foray into the unbeaten, they’ve averaged a much more pedestrian 111.8 points per game. While dropping off in scoring from last season, at first glance, looks to be concerning, they’ve offset it by becoming one of the best defensive teams in the league.
In one season the Rockets have gone from an offensive juggernaut to a defense-first team. Here’s how the Rockets are stifling their opponents and whether or not they can keep it up.
Next: The Roster changes
Houston Rockets: How new additions are reshaping Rockets’ basketball
The Houston Rockets of 2021 hardly resemble the Rockets of 2020. James Harden and Russell Westbrook have been replaced by Victor Oladipo and John Wall, Robert Covington was usurped for Christian Wood, and, perhaps most importantly, the Rockets added Jae’Sean Tate and David Nwaba to the roster.
Harden and Westbrook out, Oladipo and Wall in
James Harden’s defense has long been maligned but in recent seasons he posted above-average defensive numbers. From 2017-18 to 2019-20 he posted positive defensive ratings, according to FiveThirtyEight’s wins above replacement metric, and positive defensive box plus/minus.
However, his replacement, Victor Oladipo is on a completely different level on the defensive side of the ball. Oladipo hasn’t featured much but he represents a clear upgrade over Harden on defense, especially when it’s taken into account that Harden stopped trying on defense this season.
John Wall certainly doesn’t have the defensive reputation of Oladipo but he’s no slouch on that end either. Wall, in his physical prime, earned All-Defensive team honors, and as long as he’s healthy has the potential to be an above-average defender.
It doesn’t hurt that the player he replaced, Russell Westbrook, hasn’t posted positive defensive metrics since 2017-18 and has been a defensive disaster thus far in Washington. While the Rockets flipping their superstar backcourt for defensive upgrades certainly helps, the additions of David Nwaba, Jae’Sean Tate, and Christian Wood have given the team the defensive boost they need.
How the Rockets bolstered their defense through free agency
When the Rockets signed David Nwaba last year it hardly broke any headlines and for good reason. Nwaba had been cut by the Brooklyn Nets after he ruptured his Achilles tendon and wasn’t expected to return until the 2020-21 season.
Suffice it to say, it was worth the wait, as Nwaba has been an absolute terror on the defensive end. He is tenth in the NBA in defensive box plus/minus and is sixth in defensive wins above replacement according to FiveThirtyEight’s metrics.
Advanced metrics love David Nwaba but he passes the eye test as well. Here, he shuts down Damian Lillard, one of the league’s best offensive players, and deflects his pass attempt for an easy bucket for Victor Oladipo in transition.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2021/01/28/0022000287/267/c6217578-20b6-81cc-22f4-638986295cb1_1280x720.mp4
Jae’Sean Tate has emerged, in his rookie season, as a lockdown defender for the Houston Rockets. His advanced defensive metrics have been stellar all season and his defensive versatility has given Stephen Silas the option to move Tate around to create more favorable matchups for the other players on the court.
Finally, Christain Wood’s contributions on the defensive end have been overshadowed by his stellar play on the offensive side of the ball. Averaging 23.4 points a game on 53.6-percent shooting will do that but make no mistake Wood has been much better than expected anchoring the Rockets frontcourt.
Wood’s defensive rating is a minuscule 104 points per 100 possessions and his block percentage ranks 20th in the league. No one is going to mistake Wood for Rudy Gobert but one of the chief areas of concern about his game was his perceived lack of defensive ability.
Wood has been a revelation on the offensive side of the ball as he makes a push for his first All-Star appearance. However, it has been his impressive work on defense that has been the biggest shock, and most pleasant surprise, during his first season in Houston.
All things considered, the Rockets have upgraded their roster’s defensive ability at multiple levels. Defense in the NBA is only as good as your weakest link and the Rockets have built a roster that is awfully short on weak links.
Next: The Rockets impressive defensive metrics
Houston Rockets: Defensive metrics show an innovative new defense
The upgrades that the Rockets have made to their roster have helped their defense reach another level but the overall improvements they’ve made cannot go unnoticed. As it currently stands, the Rockets have the league’s third-best defensive rating per 100 possessions at 107.1 points.
The Rockets now have a championship-caliber defense and their best defensive rating, relative to league average, since the 2008-09 season. What’s interesting is how the Rockets have gone about building their elite defense.
How teams usually build great defenses
The Milwaukee Bucks have been the gold standard on the defensive end over the past few seasons. Anchored by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez the Bucks have employed a devastatingly simple approach to stifling offenses that has been emulated by teams around the league.
The Bucks would give up 3-pointers to block off the rim at all costs. The strategy is simple, prevent the easiest shots to convert and force teams to take the ones that are most difficult.
However, this strategy is most effective if you can absolutely stifle shots at the rim, because 3-pointers, by virtue of being worth more points, don’t need to be converted at nearly as high a rate as shots at the rim. For example, it’s equally as valuable to go four of ten on 3-pointers as it is to hit six of ten 2-pointers, it’s still 12 points.
How the Rockets built their elite defense
The Rockets aren’t blessed with two elite rim protectors like the Bucks are, so instead of preventing shots at the rim at all costs the team has decided to prevent shots from beyond the arc. On the season, the Rockets are giving up the second-fewest 3-point attempts in the league, and their opponent’s 3-point attempt rate is the third-lowest in the league.
The defensive ideology has been paying dividends, and even though the Rockets give up an above-average number of shots at the rim, they’ve held opponents to 64-percent shooting there when the league average is 65.7-percent. However, what has really helped the Rockets’ defense has been the fact that they give up a tremendous amount of mid-range jumpers.
11-percent of shots surrendered are classified as mid-range jumpers, the eighth-best mark in the league and 8.5-percent are classified as long-twos, which is seventh. Nearly 20-percent of the shots that the Rockets are giving up are the lowest value shots, which has helped offset the sheer volume of shots they’re conceding at the rim.
The Rockets are mixing modern defensive ideologies to form a defensive identity all their own. Instead of the in-vouge strategy where teams give up threes and deter shots at the rim, the Rockets prevent threes and allow shots in the paint.
When it is all added up the Rockets are allowing teams to shoot 50-percent on their 2-point attempts, which ranks sixth in the league and is a fraction of percent off from the Milwaukee Bucks in fifth. The early returns for the Rockets’ new defensive strategy have been fantastic but is it just an early-season blip? Or can they keep it up all season?
Next: Can the Rockets keep it up?
Houston Rockets: The Rockets new defense is for real
The Houston Rockets defense has been a surprising delight this season, but 17 games is an incredibly small sample size. There are equal chances that the Rockets are legitimately one of the best defensive teams in the league as they are simply outperforming their metrics in an unsustainable manner and are destined to regress towards the league average.
However, there are positive underlying metrics that the Rockets at the very least should maintain a top-10 defense throughout the season. When one looks at their defensive field-goal percentages, across all areas of the court, a promising trend emerges.
Defensive Field Goal Percentages per distance from the rim in feet
0-3 3-10 10-16 16-3PT 3PT
League Average: 65.7% 41.7% 42.9% 41.3% 36.5%
Rockets: 64.1% 38.5% 41.3% 36.9% 35.5%
Difference: -1.6% -3.2% -1.6% -4.4% -1%
The Rockets, at all levels of the court, are preventing shots from going in at an above-average rate. Usually, when teams outperform their underlying defensive metrics it’s because they have a run where their opponents shoot poorly from 3-point range or at the rim.
However, when a team, like the Rockets, is stopping shots all over the court it stops looking like luck and it starts looking more and more like a skill. Simply put, it has been hard to score on the Rockets this season because they make it tough to score from anywhere on the court.
The Rockets aren’t allowing any assistance
Part of what is driving these poor shooting percentages from their opponents is that the Rockets allow a very low percentage of shots to be assisted. 77.3-percent of the 3-pointers they have given up have been assisted, which is the third-lowest in the league and 5-percent better than the league average of 82.3-percent.
Likewise, on 2-pointers only 44.6-percent have been assisted on, also third lowest in the league, and stands at 5.7-percent better than league average. Assisted shots are converted at a higher rate than unassisted shots at every level of the court, which makes intuitive sense but is also backed up by the data.
The Rockets have what it takes to be an elite defense
The Rockets remade their roster this season and in the process built a defensive juggernaut. Their early season ranking, as a top-three defense, is well deserved and will likely continue.
The season might be young but the Rockets’ defensive fortitude is here to stay. When James Harden returns to the Toyota Center on March 3rd don’t expect him to light up the scoreboard because these Rockets are one of the best in the business.