Nothing could have summed up the Rockets’ horrific season better than Dwight Howard hoisting up a three-pointer in the final seconds of Game 5 – down 33 points to a Warriors team playing without the best player in the world, Stephen Curry. After all the reported chemistry issues between Howard and James Harden, firing Kevin McHale 11 games into the season and struggling to make the playoffs, losing to the Warriors in 4-1 in the postseason again feels almost like a cruel twist of fate. After so much optimism following last year’s conference finals run, the most recent loss will likely put an end to an era of Rockets basketball that was supposed to last much longer.
From top down, the Rockets are built to be an outlier. A team different from everybody else, aggressively pursuing every advantage in their grasp, from player personnel decisions to the way the team plays on the court. The Rockets shoot by far the fewest mid-range jumpers per game, attempting just 11.0 per contest while the league average is twice as high. They also led the league in corner three-pointers, and ranked near the top of the league in paint points and drives per game. The Harden trade was among the best trades ever made by an NBA team, and it’s clear that an incredibly amount of care and thought goes into the way Houston operates.
On the flip side, the Rockets and general manager Daryl Morey are often vilified (perhaps unfairly) because of their perceived lack of emphasis on chemistry and continuity, only chasing talent and star power. People have criticized both Howard and Harden for their lack of leadership, and pointed to the acquisition of Ty Lawson during the summer as another example of the Rockets placing too much stock in talent over chemistry.
Interestingly, the problem for the Rockets this season is extremely straightforward from a statistical point of view. Offensively, the team was great ranking 8th in efficiency at 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Despite all the talk about how Harden hogs the ball and Howard never gets touches, the Rockets were better than they were the previous year when they made the conference finals. In fact, in 2014-15 the Rockets defense was actually better than their offense, ranking 6th in efficiency compared to being 12th on the offensive end. Unfortunately, Houston was a horrible defensive team this season, ranking as the ninth worst defense allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions.
The biggest question the Rockets have to answer is what went wrong with the defense, and how does that influence where the team goes next. Championship teams tend to be near or in the Top 5 in both offense and defense, and just a year ago the Rockets were pretty close to that mark.
NBA defense has gone through several different transformations over the past few years – from the way big men drop down to the foul line to contain the pick-and-roll, to overloading the strong side and employing schemes that incorporate more and more switching. Especially this season, it’s become increasingly clear that there are multiple ways of building a great defense, almost regardless of individual talent. In team schemes, how many points an offensive player scores on his defender says almost nothing about said defender, because doing the right things within the team concept is the best way to make your defense better. The best examples of this are the Hornets, Celtics and Hawks, teams that managed to build a great defense despite not having an obviously intimidating rim protector. Each built their defense on different principles. The Hornets stopping all transition baskets, Celtics applying crazy pressure on the perimeter and Hawks’ defense working around the versatility of Paul Millsap.
Being a great defense is about communication, execution, precision and effort before talent – or at least it can be under the right coaching and commitment from players. But this season, the Rockets showed none of the qualities that make up a good defense. Harden may the international Vine star of the team with his mistakes and laziness, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg of the Rockets’ problems.
As recently as the 2014-15 season, Howard was still an incredible defender, one of only three or four players in the league who could guarantee a Top 10 defense no matter the talent around him. Even if Howard was just 85 percent the player he was with Orlando. With Howard on the court, the Rockets allowed just 97.0 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked the team as the best defense in the league that year, and just below the historically great defense of the Spurs this season. And after posting those numbers, even with the health concerns there was reason to believe Howard was still easily a max player, especially considering the strong playoff performances he’d put on.
Howard completely disappeared this season, and it made practically no difference whether he was on the court or not. Howard posted his lowest PER since his rookie season, and his offensive game has now deteriorated where he is a clear minus on that end. With a 18.3 percent usage rate, Howard was responsible for the lowest number of his team’s possessions since Howard’s rookie year and ranked 228th in the league overall. In his best seasons in Orlando, you’d see Howard blow up a pick-and-roll at the three-point line and recover to the rim to block the ball on plays where you’d say to yourself “How can anyone score with that guy on the court?” This year, Howard ranked 96th among 125 players with over 200 plays defended at the rim, allowing opponents to shoot 49.7 percent at the basket. At the very least, Howard could always make the defense respectable. And while he isn’t bad, Howard certainly isn’t the singular answer to a team’s defensive woes.
That being said, the Rockets perimeter defense hasn’t done anything to put Howard in a position to succeed. Harden, of course, does whatever he wants. Jason Terry can’t stop anyone. Lawson was a disaster during his time. More notably, however, both Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza are among the most overrated defenders in the NBA. Brewer mainly due to causing havoc and doing a ton of active-looking stuff, Ariza because he looks the part of a lengthy wing defender who can switch and cover ground.
Brewer is a horrible defender, and among the most frustrating players to watch off the ball. Brewer is out of position with such frequency, and gets backdoor cut so often, that it feels like he’s doing the wrong thing as a matter of principle. Ariza works fine is certain situations, but he’s not mobile enough to get around picks and is at his worst chasing shooters – something the Rockets made him do to start Game 5 against the Warriors and ended up in Klay Thompson raining three-pointers on the Rockets.
Corey Brewer overreaction
The Rockets have no discipline defensively and starting from the team’s leader, who was actually respectable the year before, everyone on the roster has to be better. Individually, taking pride in playing within the team concept both with effort and better execution.
Rockets disorganized defensive play of the year
The play above is a perfect example of a “What went wrong with the Rockets’ defense”. Beverley fails to show any effort on two drives to the rim on the same possession, Capela runs out to a shooter in a superbly lazy closeout, no one has any idea where they are supposed to stand and rotate to. In the entire possession, you won’t find one defender in a proper stance. I couldn’t diagram, draw or explain the reasons behind why any of the Rockets players are doing anything, and it’s obvious neither can JB Bickerstaff or anyone on the floor.
On the court, Howard and Harden paired together made perfect sense. Running spread pick-and-roll with shooters all around them was a sure-fire way of becoming a great offense. Pushing the ball and turning transition opportunities into corner three-pointers and getting to the foul line is smart. Howard could man the defense, and with tall and long wing players and a switch-heavy scheme, the Rockets could build a great modern defense.
Reality turned into something else entirely. Howard doesn’t command the gravity of a DeAndre Jordan on the pick-and-roll, the Rockets were never able to find multiple good shooters to surround them with and we were forced to watch Brewer (and Josh Smith) brick endless jumpers. Howard declined really quickly, and those long wing players couldn’t stop anyone on the perimeter and were prone to simple mistakes.
At the very top of the NBA, the margin for error is none, and while Harden is an awesome player who instantly makes an offense go, pure talent isn’t enough to compete with the best. The best player on a team has to set an example, and Harden coming into the season overweight and not ready to play was a sign that he didn’t handle the relative success well. Harden loudly proclaimed himself deserving of the MVP award, but it was the actual winner who came into the season with something to prove and better than ever.
The general manager of the Warriors, Bob Myers, emphasized this point at the this year’s Sloan Sports Conference: “If Steph Curry, who won a championship, does the same thing this year that he did last year and acts the same way… you better believe everyone else is going to get in line.”
If Harden doesn’t begin the lead by example, the Rockets ceiling will always be short of a championship.
Like most teams in the rising cap environment, Houston will have max cap space this summer, and the first interesting domino to fall will be Howard likely declining his $23 million player option to hit the open market. Despite the fact that Howard had a bad year, it’s more than likely that he’ll opt out due to being dissatisfied with the way the Rockets have used him on the court, the chemistry issues with Harden, and the fact that during a summer when everyone has cap space, you’ll likely see desperate teams throw out money they’ll regret spending later.
Before the season, the Rockets looked to be overflowing with frontcourt depth. Clint Capela had broken out in the playoffs with Donatas Motiejunas injured. Motiejunas himself had a great season and emerged as one of the league’s best post-up bigs and playmakers from the elbows. Terrence Jones was a surprise with incredible rim protection stats and was in the process of extending his range to the three-point line. Howard not being on the roster wasn’t going to be the worst thing in the world, and the frontcourt depth should have allowed the Rockets to look for a Howard trade to bolster their young talent on the wing and in the backcourt.
Since then, Motiejunas has been either injured or terrible, and Jones has fallen off a cliff in virtually every aspect of the game. Had the Rockets negotiated an extension with either last summer, both could have commanded starting salaries north of $10 million for sure. Both are entering restricted free agency this summer and the Rockets could easily find themselves in a position where they aren’t comfortable matching other offers. In Harden, Motiejunas, Jones, Capela and KJ McDaniels, the Rockets had a core of five promising young players. Potentially, one of the bigs could have been moved to acquire point guard talent if need be. Now, that core has been slashed to potentially just Harden and Capela, since McDaniels failed to crack the rotation (though being only 22, there’s still a chance for him).
Operating under the safe assumption that Howard isn’t coming back, the Rockets can potentially get up to over $40 million in cap space by renouncing Bird rights to their outgoing free agents. Al Horford would be the dream target, being a smart and versatile defender as well as a great locker room presence. About half the league is going to be competing for Horford, and so far the Celtics and Magic have been considered front runners, but if there’s anything the Rockets can do to get into the competition they will.
Replacing Howard with a younger and better version would be to go after Hassan Whiteside, but with the chemistry issues that have plagued the Rockets this season, Whiteside would seem an even more volatile option. A slightly less well-known but great option would be going after Ian Mahinmi of the Indiana Pacers, who had a career year and is a wonderful defender in the middle. Mahinmi is currently one of the most underrated players in the NBA and should have deserved buzz for Most Improved. The team that signs him next summer will most likely end up a huge winner.
On the wing, as better 3-and-D options than the Rockets have had, Courtney Lee is a solid possibility as a player who can work off the ball in catch-and-shoot situations, in addition to being a solid team and individual defender. Luol Deng would work as a slightly bigger version of Lee, and could play the majority of the minutes at power forward, being a clear upgrade on Ariza and Brewer at that position.
Harrison Barnes will be a restricted free agent, and his ability to defend power forwards and stretch the floor would fit perfectly with what the Rockets want to do. Fresh off what is going to be a deep playoff run where he’ll undoubtedly have good moments, Barnes is extremely likely to entice offers this summer that will sound absolutely ludicrous, perhaps even near max money. It would be highly unlikely for the Rockets to sign a player to a deal that is clearly above market value. The Rockets already have their ballhandler in Harden, and thus it seems unlikely they’d be in the mix for a point guard like Mike Conley. Other names in free agency that the Rockets could target are Joakim Noah, Jared Dudley and Ryan Anderson, but what’s clear is that unless the Rockets get a big unexpected hit, this year’s free agency is unlikely to change their fortunes.
Best case scenario for the Rockets would be to keep Motiejunas and/or Jones under fair contracts and hope both (or at least one) can get back to where they were a year ago. The offense isn’t going to be the problem next year either, and finding the right group of guys who can defend together as a unit could be enough for the Rockets to be quite competitive, perhaps even pushing one of the top teams in the first round of the playoffs. Hope McDaniels, Sam Dekker or Capela make an unexpected leap and that you can find an unexpected gem in the draft. Perhaps snag a restricted free agent or make a sneaky trade to get a young player whose team gave up on him too quick – a la Trail Blazers getting Moe Harkless for nothing.
It’s been reported that the Rockets will evaluate both Morey and Bickerstaff during the offseason. And after such a disastrous season, who could blame them? But what’s frustrating is that the Rockets were just an average defense away from being a very dangerous team, even if they were never going to be on the same level with the Spurs, Warriors, Cavaliers or Thunder. Being more disciplined and cutting out the stupid mistakes on defense would have already made a huge difference. Houston ranked last in the NBA in points allowed off of turnovers at 19.6, and similarly last in defensive rebounding percentage. Transition defense and rebounding (to an extent) is about executing correctly the basic fundamental aspects of the game. Failing at the easiest metrics to correct isn’t fault of the management, but the players on the court first and the coach second.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.