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Diagnosing what ills the Rockets’ defense

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Through five games, the Rockets’ defense has been a trainwreck. Here’s why.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

While it’s not quite time to panic yet, some hand-wringing over the Rockets’ shaky start is certainly justified. Through five games, they sit in the bottom third of the league for both offensive and defensive rating, with injuries seemingly piling up by the day.

Considering the Rockets’ have yet to finish two games with both their star guards on the court, and that the team ranks 28th or worse in both field goal percentage at the rim and field goal percentage on wide open shots, it’s fair to say they’re primed for a natural improvement on the offensive end.

The defense, however, has been an unmitigated disaster.

Per Synergy Sports, the Rockets are the worst half-court defensive team in the league to this point. At 61.2 points in the paint per night— last in the NBA and 13 more than last season— the paint has been a takeoff ramp. Seemingly every possession ends in a blow-by to the rim or a mismatched post-up that results in a dunk, free throw, or cutting lay-up.

Fortunately, Rockets Head Coach Mike D’Antoni is acutely aware of his team’s struggles on that end of the floor and reportedly made some corrections to the scheme over the weekend that should better fit his vastly remodeled team.

Unfortunately, there are a plethora of reasons the team has struggled, so a few tweaks may not do the trick. Let’s look at the most prominent issues:

Personnel

While James Ennis’ has serviceably replaced Trevor Ariza’s defensive contributions when healthy, Carmelo Anthony’s substitution for Ryan Anderson has been a lot harder on the eyes (Anderson had -0.8 defensive plus-minus last year, Melo is currently at -3.8). Whether it be in the post or on the perimeter, teams have repeatedly targeted Anthony in switching situations and found great success.

Overall, the Rockets’ defensive rating has been 11 points worse with Anthony on the floor. And while injuries have forced him into a larger role than the Rockets had initially anticipated, his poor fit in their switch-heavy scheme has become undeniable as isolating against him is an effective late-clock release-valve for any offense. Any change D’Antoni makes will surely require hiding Anthony to some extent.

While none of the other additions have been as egregious as Anthony, none look like stoppers by any stretch. Michael Carter-Williams has struggled in the post and off-ball, Isaiah Hartenstein is a sacrificial lamb defending on the perimeter, and Gary Clark, while promising, is very clearly a rookie to keen observers.

All in all, the Rockets feature five players that weren’t there last season, and the injury bug has forced plenty of them into extended minutes. Time in the system will certainly help, but last years sixth-place finish in defensive rating is unrealistic if the rotation stays as is.

Communication

As is natural, with new faces comes a learning curve. Unfortunately, that curve appears too steep for the new Rockets so far, as they have consistently forgotten rotations on defense. Until they become better acquainted with the system, the only remedy is to have better communication as a team. P.J. Tucker and Chris Paul can’t be the only ones calling out coverages.

Even the notoriously offensive-minded Gerald Green has spoken out about the Rockets’ struggles in this regard:

Currently, the team is giving up an absurd 1.6 points per possession (PPP) when opposing players cut to score— good for a convincing worst in the league. Rockets players are constantly ball-watching and forgetting to rotate down when a teammate doubles the post, making it easy for opposing players to waltz into the paint unmolested. This is the main area where the Rockets miss their vocal veterans that departed for Phoenix and Los Angeles this offseason.

Additionally, it’s no accident the Rockets lead the league in opposing points in the paint surrendered. Teams are making a concerted effort to pull Clint Capela out of the paint by switching him onto a perimeter player before initiating any action, therefore leaving the rim unprotected.

Due to this adjustment, the Rockets are allowing the most post-ups in the league by a mile, the second most PPP for “roll men” in pick and roll, and the second most shots within six feet of the hoop. In Capela’s stead, the Rockets need to start communicating when to help down from the perimeter on post-ups or rolls so they can defend the rim as a unit. Allowing the third-fewest threes in the league is of no use if you are giving up layups instead.

Rebounding

A cascading effect from teams purposely pulling Clint Capela away from the rim is that he isn’t in a position to help secure the board when opposing teams miss. Due to this adjustment, Capela is currently registering a career-low rebound rate and the Rockets are suffering as a result.

Currently, the Rockets sit 22nd in defensive rebounding percentage after finishing 3rd last season with a similarly undersized roster. Instead of pushing opponents out away from the rim and gang-rebounding to offset Capela’s absence in the middle, too many Rockets are standing and watching, forgetting to “box out” whoever they switched onto earlier in the possession. Through the five contests thus far, the Rockets rank 27th in box outs per game. That standing will need to improve exponentially for their small lineups to return to their dominant ways.

Effort

It doesn’t take a trained basketball eye to tell the Rockets aren’t playing with the same edge they did last season. The team seems joyless at times and any possession that requires multiple efforts is lucky to get even one.

To put it simply: they just aren’t competing as hard as they did last season. In addition to the boxout statistic listed earlier— which any old-school coach will tell you is predominantly effort-based— the Rockets rank bottom five in virtually every hustle stat available. Shots contested per game, loose balls recovered, deflections... you name it.

However, perhaps the most telling is their drop to bottom three in miscellaneous defense (ie. broken plays) after being top three last season. Essentially, that means whenever a play breaks down and requires the Rockets to scramble and defend purely out of effort, they are giving in. That’s not going to cut it with a switching system that relies on forcing dysfunction.

Unfortunately, there is no substitute for effort. It’s entirely on the Rockets players to solve that issue.

Hopefully, Coach D’Antoni has figured out a few wrinkles to offset the other issues. Rockets fans should find out tonight.