What the Houston Rockets need to learn from the NBA Finals: defense wins championships

2022 NBA Finals - Game Two
2022 NBA Finals - Game Two / Ezra Shaw/GettyImages

The Houston Rockets have spent the past two seasons being the worst team in the NBA. In 2020-21, they led the league in losses, and unwilling to give up their throne, they did so again in 2021-22. While their first season atop the bottom was a calamity triggered by an exodus of star players and a weekly stream of injuries usually reserved for network television medical dramas, this past season’s G-League cos-play was by design. 

The driving force for the Rockets’ descent has been defensive ineptitude. In 2020-21, they finished with the 27th ranked defense of 114.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. That bottom four defense, however, is obscured by a strong start to the season. It may feel like an eternity ago, but on February 4, 2021, the Rockets beat the Memphis Grizzlies by 12 points and finished the night with an 11-10 record. 

At that time, the playoffs looked like a possibility, and it was all due to defense. Over the first 21 games of the season, the Rockets posted a 106.8 defensive rating, which, if it had held for the whole season, would have been the number one ranked defense. Then the final 51 games happened. 

The Rockets went 6-45 over the final 51 games of the season, and while their offense was poor, it was their defense that led the charge. They bled their way to a 119.3 defensive rating, allowed an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 57.3%, forced turnovers (Tov%) on 11.9% of possessions, snagged the defensive rebound (DRB%) 77% of the time, and posted a free throw to field goal attempt rate (FT/FGA) of .202. 

From that moment on, the Rockets have had arguably the worst defense in the league. They finished second from the bottom in 2021-22, but that took the Portland Trail Blazers shamelessly tanking over the final weeks of the season. 

Defense Wins Championships

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the teams to make it to the NBA Finals over the past two seasons have employed excellent defenses. Last season’s two finalists, the Bucks and the Suns finished with the tenth and ninth-best defensive ratings. While neither was at the top during the regular season, they both turned it on in the playoffs. 

The Bucks led the 2020-21 playoffs in defensive rating, and the Suns, who finished fourth, led the Western Conference, and in the Finals, the team with the better defense ended up lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. 

This season, the teams with the best regular-season defensive ratings, the Boston Celtics (106.9 DRtg) and Golden State Warriors (106.9 DRtg), are now matched up in the Finals. The Celtics just took a 2-1 series lead on Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, depending on your timezone, and their defense has been the better of the two in these playoffs. 

Why Defense is King

As the leaguewide offensive efficiency has improved, defense has gotten a bad rep. In a historical context, today’s defenses look abysmal, but championships are all relative to the present. The teams that win titles usually have both excellent offenses and defenses, but it feels like an excellent defense when paired with an acceptable offense, is a better harbinger of success than the inverse. 

To borrow a concept from baseball, the winning team usually is the one with the biggest inning. Using similar logic, basketball games are won by the team with the biggest run. Defense helps prevent teams from going on large runs and helps spur them through forced turnovers and stops. In basketball, you can turn defense into exceptional offense, as transition opportunities are some of the most efficient offensive possessions, but there isn’t a way to turn offense into great defense. 

The best defensive teams are at an advantage because they’re able to turn their strength on one end of the court into strength on the other. They also are more prepared to prevent large scoring runs from their opponents, and better suited to creating their own. Defense wins championships because defense feeds offense better than offense feeds defense, which has to be a concern for Rockets fans. 

The Rockets Haven't Committed to Defense, Yet

The post-James Harden era in Houston has been all about stacking the asset deck to build a championship-level team. The team brought on Stephen Silas over his offensive vision, drafted Jalen Green over Evan Mobley, swung assets to grab Alperen Sengun, and trotted out Christian Wood as their starting center in the first season of their reboot. After one season into the process, the organization has firmly committed to the offensive end of the game. 

The decision to go this route isn’t a deathblow to their chances of ever building a championship team, but at some point, they will have to go all-in on defense, whether it’s through the hiring of a defensive-minded coach or bringing in defensive stalwarts through the draft, trade, or free agency. 

When the Rockets won their only two championships, they had Hakeem Olajuwon anchoring their defense. When they pushed the greatest team of the 21st century to seven, they had the league’s 5th ranked defense. There’s plenty of time to build a great defense, but until the franchise commits to it as a core identity, they may find themselves just short of their goals.     

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