One of the main goals of the Houston Rockets this season was not only maintaining their status as an elite offensive team, but also becoming one of the best defensive squads in the league. We’ve heard the players talk about it. We’ve heard head coach Mike D’Antoni talk about it. They wanted to be a top-five team as defenders.
GM Daryl Morey went out and got D’Antoni the proper personnel in order to make this goal into a reality. He traded for one of the best defensive point guards of his era in Chris Paul, and he signed hard-nosed, rugged wing defenders P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to free agent contracts to complement their mainstay three-and-D guy, Trevor Ariza.
After a huge 124-109 victory over the cross-state rival San Antonio Spurs on December 15, the Rockets were cruising along with a 23-4 record and were ever so close to their goal. They were still one of the league’s best on the offensive end, and they were seventh in overall defensive rating at 102.2. The team goal of a top-five defense was just 0.4 defensive rating points away.
But since the San Antonio game, something has happened to that almost-elite defense: they’ve fallen apart.
In the five Houston games since that win over the Spurs, the Rockets’ defensive rating is a rock-bottom 114.2, or 28th in the league over the time span. It’s been particularly terrible during the three-game losing streak. After holding the Jazz to just 99 points in a win on December 18, in the three games since (all losses) the Rockets have a league-worst and eye-opening defensive rating of 119.6. They’re also giving up a whopping 120 points per game over that stretch.
Overall on the season, they’re barely still clinging to top-ten defensive status, as they’re currently tied for the tenth spot with the Utah Jazz with a rating of 104.1. The next several teams are all within just a few tenths of a rating point. Continue to slip, and we could really see them plummet. They are now just as close to the 20th-ranked team (the Clippers at 106.5) as they are to the fifth-ranked team (Trail Blazers at 101.7).
Injuries have played a major part in this recent falter. Mbah a Moute has been out since December 13 with a shoulder injury. He’s expected to miss at least another week or two. Paul has missed two games of the Rockets’ three-game losing streak with an adductor strain. He’s already been declared out for the back-to-back set on Thursday and Friday. And though the injury isn’t thought to be serious, his absence, especially defensively, has been glaring.
Houston was also without their best rim protector for a few games, with center Clint Capela missing the losses against the Lakers and Clippers. The Rockets’ defense was a little better with him back on the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Christmas Day, but still not good enough.
In addition, some of the guys who have been healthy are really struggling. Ryan Anderson is -39 during the three-game losing streak. Capela fill-in Tarik Black is a -12 over the same stretch. P.J. Tucker, who admittedly has had to carry so much of the defensive load with Mbah a Moute out, is -19 over the losing streak.
The losses have been a perfect storm combination of multiple injuries to key players combined with major slumps by several of the guys still healthy. The struggles haven’t necessarily been atypical of the normal ups and downs you often see in a long, 82-game season, but three main rotation pieces (all defenders) missing time has really exacerbated the slumps.
After their top nine guys in the rotation, the Rockets are also noticeably thin. Wing Troy Williams has also been hurt and out of action, while it’s obvious D’Antoni has little interest in going any deeper into his rotation. We have seen a little of Briante Weber in recent days, and while he has flashed some skill as a defender, overall his impact has been minimal.
Despite the recent struggles, it’s important to remember that the Rockets still sport the NBA’s second-best record at 25-7. And as cliche’ as the saying is, we all know the season is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important for the Rockets to be healthy and playing well in May and June.
That being said, I wouldn’t be opposed to Daryl Morey trying to pick up an additional rotation piece as we move into the new year and towards the trade deadline in February. Paul’s always been a guy susceptible to nagging injuries, and as he’s pushing closer to his 33rd birthday, there might be one or two more for him to deal with yet this season. I’d love to see another capable point guard on the new year’s resolution list. You can also never have too many wing defenders, especially with the Spurs and the Golden State Warriors as the prime in-conference competition.
In the meantime, the Rockets are going to need to do their best to fight through this rough patch of injuries and slumping ancillary players. Just be aware it very easily could get a little worse before it gets better. With a tough back-to-back on the horizon against the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, followed by a rematch with the same Lakers squad they just lost to, we may not have seen the end of the losing until the team again gets fully healthy.