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Analyzing the Houston Rockets’ defensive changes

N.B. Lindberg
Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz
Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz / Chris Gardner/GettyImages
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Where the Rockets’ have improved on defense

Here we’re going to look at basketball reference’s defensive four factors to see how the Rockets’ defense has improved. The metrics are FT/FGA (the number of free throws per field goal attempts, almost always a decimal), turnover percentage, defensive rebound percentage, and effective field goal percentage. 

The area where the Rockets have made the largest strides is in their opponent's free throw to field goal attempt ratio (FT/FGA). Last season, the Rockets had the 26th-worst FT/FGA at .206, the league average was .192. This season, they’ve vaulted to 4th with a FT/FGA of .179, even though the league average has increased to .210. The Rockets have improved their FT/FGA by an astounding 22.1% compared to the league average. 

A turnaround of this magnitude is unlikely to last, but it’s also unlikely to be a complete mirage. The Rockets aren’t sending teams to the line as much, and those marginal edges can add up. 

The next area where the Rockets have shown improvement is on the defensive boards, but you’ll be forgiven if you missed it. The Rockets’ defensive rebounding percentage has improved from 74.4% last season to 73.8% this season. That’s not a typo. The Rockets are grabbing fewer defensive boards, but they’ve still improved on that end. 

NBA offenses are quietly undergoing a stylistic change by attacking the offensive glass. Last season, the league average offensive rebounding rate was 23.2%, but that figure has ballooned to 24.7% this season. A 1.5% bump seems small, but it represents a 6.5% season-over-season jump. 

The Rockets went from 3.1% worse than the league average to 2% this season. Grabbing defensive boards is still clearly a weakness, but an improvement is an improvement. However, there is one underlying metric that could torpedo these marginal gains. The Rockets’ boxout percentage has actually dropped from 82.9% last season to 71.7% this season. If they’re able to get more consistent about boxing out, they should be able to keep and even improve on their marginal defensive rebounding gains. 

The final defensive four factor the Rockets have shown improvement in is opponent turnover percentage (TOV%). The Rockets are forcing turnovers on 12.8% of their opponent's possessions, compared to 12.3% last season. This was the one area the Rockets weren’t abysmal in last season, finishing 12th in TOV%. Even with the improvement have actually moved back a spot in the league rankings to 13th. 

The league has seen an uptick in TOV% this season, going from 12.3% last season to 12.8%. The Rockets have essentially held steady thus far when it comes to forcing turnovers compared to the league average. This figure could improve as the season continues, as the Rockets’ top three players in steal percentage, Usman Garuba, Tari Eason, and Jae’Sean Tate, are 10th, 6th, and 11th in minutes played. 

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