Before their matchup against the Lakers on Thursday, Houston Rockets’ head coach Mike D’Antoni made it very clear: they’re going to ease up on switching.
“We’re trying not to switch (everything). There will be times when a guy gets hit and he can’t get through and you have to switch, but now it’s on a have-to basis, not a we-want-to basis. We’ll try to keep a big guy at home, try to keep him where he rebounds more.”
This move couldn’t have come soon enough.
Before Houston’s game on Tuesday against the Blazers that started their current win streak, a critical stretch of bad switching cost the Rockets a win against the Mavericks in Dallas. While Houston did come into that game 12-14, which gives you enough of a sample size to look at everything that could go wrong with the defensive scheme, there was still a definitive moment on the timeline that you could point to and say “enough is enough.”
With about three minutes to go in the game, the Rockets held a healthy 102-94 lead against the home team. Then Luka Doncic happened:
Luka Doncic scores 11 straight points against the Rockets!— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) December 9, 2018
(Via @dallasmavs) pic.twitter.com/CA8XyB6cz6
Allowing a rookie to drop 11 straight on you is bad enough, but the Rockets were nowhere near prepared to stop him. In one of those four possessions, the correct person was guarding Doncic; the rest were a case of bad switches and mismatches.
In scenario one, Nene is switched onto Wesley Matthews and Harden is on DeAndre Jordan. Matthews getting the ball in the wing forces Tucker to overcompensate and help Nene, leading to an open three.
In the third scenario, Tucker doesn’t allow the switch, runs Doncic off the three-point line, and forces him to take a tough shot inside.
In the other two scenarios, Clint Capela is put on an island and left for the sharks to feed on- with the last attempt not even being close.
This unfortunately has been an ongoing theme for the Rockets this season. The switch-all philosophy worked last year, but this year, they’re paying the price. In ‘17-’18 the Rockets boasted a seventh-best 105.6 defensive rating. Now they’re the third-worst at a 112.2 defensive rating. A lot of it can be contributed to one factor: the *trigger warning* departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute, and Houston’s failure to replace them with competent, experienced defenders.
Up until Dec. 10, the Rockets allowed opponents to finish a league-high 19.4-percent of their isolation plays, according to this fantastic article by Kevin O’Connor. This occurs so frequently because the Rockets allow Clint Capela to be put on an island.
We saw the great success that Capela had switching onto smaller players in the playoffs last season, but this season, it’s being exploited at a rate of him defending 4.6 isolations per game. As of Dec. 10, Capela guarded 114 of such possessions. The next closest big man in defensive isolation possessions were Kevon Looney (73), Joel Embiid (58), and Steven Adams (52).
Our own Colin Connors also broke down some of Capela’s struggles defending on switches this year as well. It’s been a glaring issue.
This is not to pick on Capela, but it’s to state the simple fact that the Rockets don’t have this luxury of switching any longer. This was easier to do when the Rockets had three long and rugged defenders in Tucker, Ariza, and Mbah A Moute to suffocate the paint. Now they’re much smaller, and it doesn’t make any sense for Houston to allow Capela to switch so frequently- or ever for that matter, and it’s been acknowledged. D’Antoni said:
“James will switch, and sometimes, they hit a good screen, and they can’t get through. You’ve got to give the other team a little credit. They’re trying to make it happen. There’s a lot of games where James has the big on him. We’ll have that going forward with Clint … or Nene guarding perimeters. We’d like to not do it unless we have to. That’s what’s changed.”
As mentioned before, the Rockets are suffering in more ways than just scoring on switches.
Look back at the clip of Luca. All the plays that Houston employed a switch, Tucker or Harden end up on Jordan. This, again, is a common theme for Houston- the league might be getting smaller, but seven-footers still exist.
Last year, the Rockets were a modest 18th in rebounds at 43.5 rebounds a game, but they grabbed a 10th-best 34.5 defensive rebounds a game. This year, they’re 27th in rebounding at 40.9 per game, and are dead last in defensive rebounding with 29.9 per game. They need their bigs to stay under the basket to be effective.
It’s clear the all-switch philosophy has not worked. But in the past three games, although a small sample size, the Rockets have shown measurable promise in switching less.
During their win streak, Houston is tied for fifth in offensive rebounds allowed at 8.7 per game, down from 10.3 on Dec. 10. In return, their opponent is now scoring only 11.3 second-chance points a game, down from 14.1 points.
A second-best 36.7 total rebounds a game are allowed, down from 43 (which is extremely impressive considering the Blazers and Lakers haul in 48.8 and 46.1 rebounds a game, respectively). Most importantly, they’re allowing only 104 points a game after allowing nearly 110 points a game earlier in the year.
Some of these numbers may seem incremental, but it’s a trackable sign of progress. The irony is that last season the Rockets feasted on forcing opponents to switch their bigs onto Harden and Chris Paul isolations. This season, all opponents have to do is set a simple screen and get the matchup that they want. Houston not switching as much simply means that they’re- and it’s kind of weird to say this- planning more for their opponent. CP3 had this to say:
“We’re going to keep trying different things on different nights. Obviously, we know switching is our bread and butter, but just throwing different schemes at teams (to) keep them off-balance.”
Before you say it’s a case of “little too late,” Houston is 14-14 and only 5.5 games back of the first seed, 1.5 games back of the eighth. They also have a favorable schedule ahead, facing the Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards at home before traveling to Miami on Thursday. Less switching may not be the answer to all of Houston’s woes, but it’s a critical move to change ideals on one of the team’s most coveted philosophies.