Can the Rockets’ starters solve their defensive problems?

Houston Rockets v Denver Nuggets
Houston Rockets v Denver Nuggets / Matthew Stockman/GettyImages
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Where the Rockets’ defense needs to improve

The Rockets’ improved offensive rating this season has come via the offensive glass. Their 30% offensive rebound rate is second in the NBA, but their offensive rebound dominance has not translated to the other side of the court. The Rockets only secure 74.5% of their defensive rebounds(24th), and the Rockets starters are even worse at 72.6%. 

The Rockets starters simply need to rebound better. The unit rarely gets out in transition, so there is literally no excuse for them to be this poor on the boards. Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Sengun give an honest effort, but Sengun is undersized in terms of length for a center, and Smith is undersized in terms of weight. The Rockets’ guards need to be better at boxing out and collecting boards to help a limited frontcourt. 

Where the five-man unit of Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, Eric Gordon, Jabari Smith Jr., and Alperen Sengun is weakest, is at the rim. The group allows 29.59% of opponent shot attempts at the rim and allows them to convert at a 72% clip. When the rim is under siege, the first person to look at is the center. 

Alperen Sengun is neither a rim deterrent nor a rim protector, but placing the blame on him alone would also be wrong. When Sengun is on the court, opponents actually get to the rim and convert at a lower frequency than when he is on. Oddly, there is no one smoking gun for the unit’s poor rim defense. In fact, with each on the court, opponent rim field goal percentage is lower than when they’re off. 

The obvious truth

What this suggests, to me at least, is that this is a horrible defensive unit because it’s poorly constructed. The best pure defender is likely Jabari Smith Jr., a 19-year-old rookie, Sengun might one day become a good defender (a big if), but he will never be an eraser, and Green, Porter, and Gordon are subpar perimeter defenders. 

If you were building a defense around Sengun, you would surround him with length and strong perimeter defenders to make up for his deficiencies. On the flip side, if you were building a defense around the Rockets’ three guards, you would plop a giant rim protector in the middle to erase their mistakes. 

In elegantly reductive terms, the Rockets’ starting lineup is a three-guard lineup with no rim protector. Lineups like that can work, but they require elite perimeter defenders and have to make a killing by generating turnovers and forcing inefficient shots. In conclusion, while the Rockets’ starting lineup is unlikely to continue to be historically awful, it should remain one of the worst defensive units in the league. 

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