Last season, the Rockets had a virtually unstoppable offense. They were second in the NBA in offensive rating, trailing only the historical juggernaut Golden State Warriors. They set the new NBA record for three pointers made in a season. They averaged over 115 points per contest, again second to the the Dubs in the scoring department. There’s no doubting that the Rockets could essentially score at will this past season.
But where they did struggle was on the opposite side of the court. The Rockets finished as a below-average defensive team on the year. They were ranked just 26 in scoring defense on the year, and while some of that was a function of their high-scoring offense and the torrid pace they often kept, their defensive rating was poor as well. Houston finished the year ranked 18 in defensive rating, or squarely in the bottom half of the league.
Taking the Rockets from 55-win second-tier contender all the way to the league’s clear upper echelon would require definitive improvements to their defense, and though the season will show if they’ve actually done so, at least on paper, the Rockets appear significantly more formidable on the defensive side of the court.
Their first move was to send out Patrick Beverley (love the guy, who doesn’t), who managed to snag his first ever first-team All-Defense selection this past year and was the team’s best defender. It seems counter-intuitive until you realize that the man who is replacing him, Chris Paul, is not just an all-world creator, but also one of the best defenders in the modern NBA.
Paul has made 10 NBA All-Defense teams in his 12 years in the league, including 7 first-team selections. He’s led the NBA in steals 6 different times, and his career steal average of 2.3 is actually a full steal higher than Bev’s. He may not be quite the agitator Beverley was, but he’s a better fundamental defender, and more impactful.
They followed that up by signing P.J. Tucker, who will replace Beverley as a rough and rugged guy who can get under the opponents’ skin. In addition to his toughness, he’s also one of the league’s top wing defenders, with the versatility and size (6’6”, 245 lbs) to even guard some power forwards in a small ball lineup.
Tucker finished 12th in defensive plus-minus last year for all small forwards, just a hair below renowned defenders Giannis Antetokuonmpo and LeBron James and above guys like Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala. That’s the type of defensive impact Tucker can have.
He also averages better than a steal per game for his career and he’s been a positive defender every year he’s been in the league, save his rookie season. He’s a perfect fit in Houston, with their nebulous positions, and can guard a multitude of opposition.
And just when it felt like Rockets GM Daryl Morey may be finished, with most of his attention turned toward the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony, he goes out and signs another of the league’s top defenders in Luc Mbah a Moute.
Mbah a Moute finished last season as a top 10 power forward in defensive plus-minus, and the 30-year-old has been a positive defender in every season of his NBA career. At 6’8” and 230 pounds, he has the size, agility and length to guard the three or the four and potentially even the five in small ball. Despite modest numbers of steals (just 1 per game) and blocks (.5 per game), Mbah Moute has long been, just like Tucker, a rough and rugged guy that no one loves going up against.
On top of their three additions, the Rockets return Trevor Ariza, who despite getting up there in age, is still one of the league’s best wing defenders, and they have resigned Nene, who’s another player with a long history of defensive contributions. In his 15 NBA seasons, he’s been a positive defender in 14 of them, including last year. He’ll also return his trademark toughness; no one really messes with Nene.
Morey topped everything off with an under-the-radar signing that shouldn’t be overlooked, and that’s bringing back Tarik Black, who started his career with the Rockets, as the third center behind Clint Capela and Nene.
Black’s another guy who will bring some toughness to the roster, and he finished just outside the top 20 (21st) at the center position last year in defensive plus-minus.
It’s hard to believe after losing one of the baddest (not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good!) and most beloved Rockets in Beverely, but Houston has gotten tougher, meaner and just downright better in the defensive department this offseason.
They now have a slew of versatile defenders to throw at teams like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers that will make them a much more well-rounded squad and extremely difficult to deal with in a long series. The Rockets, if fully healthy, should be able to mix and match lineups with anyone. Add in another year of development for rim protector Capela, and this Rockets team will not only be able to beat you up and down the court for threes and easy buckets behind Paul, James Harden, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, but they can also hit you in the mouth defensively.
If this team can get their defensive rating into the top 10 of the league this year — hardly a leap if this group comes together as planned — the Rockets will have a better shot at a title than any team outside of the Bay Area.