Over the course of the season, despite whatever record James Harden broke or whatever promising stretch the Rockets put together, analysts were always quick to dismiss the Rockets’ title chances for one reason: their defense.
Sure, the Rockets pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink last year, have the best offense in the league outside Golden State, and have the best scorer in the league, but last year’s Rockets were seventh in defense and this year’s team can’t get out of the bottom five. How can you contend like that?
It was an instant trump card. There was never any real case for contention with a defense that poor.
However, in their last 13 games, the Rockets have perked up defensively. After adding a couple of players, getting the new faces familiar with their scheme during All-Star break, and finally regaining some semblance of health, the Rockets started playing defense again, ranking 11th in defensive rating over the 10-3 stretch.
In that time, the Rockets rotation gained Chris Paul, Clint Capela, Gary Clark, and Iman Shumpert (kinda), and subsequently, saw minor improvements in steals per game, deflections, defensive loose balls recovered, and points in the paint.
Regardless of the numbers, it’s hard to say what exactly fueled the turnaround. There’s no end-all-be-all area they addressed or a huge scheme adjustment that fixed a weakness. They just upgraded their defensive personnel and saw marginal, yet meaningful improvements across the board. Such is life in the NBA.
Paul, Shumpert, and Clark all playing increases the Rockets’ supply of reliable perimeter defenders, allowing the team to collect more steals, deflections, and loose balls, while Capela returning ensures the Rockets are capable of protecting the rim anytime they haven’t gone small. There are very few weak links anymore.
Those rotation additions, mixed with the earlier injections of Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried, have collectively allowed the Rockets’ to meet a baseline level of defensive competence regardless of lineup they simply couldn’t before. Faried is now out with an injury, but it isn’t thought to be be serious, and he’s expected back next week.
Daryl Morey really wasn’t joking when he told The Athletic’s Kelly Iko in September about his fluid vision for the roster, saying:
“I think a lot of times people try to make their team perfect from Day 1. We try to add a bunch of players we think can contribute and then tweak it as you go down the season and hopefully peak in April as we go into the playoffs.”
If this recent surge is anything of substance, expect the Rockets to creep back into the title discussion as we near the playoffs (in fact, they already are). 11th in defensive rating isn’t anything special, but for an offense this potent, it just may be enough.