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Rockets’ defense continues to be a work in progress

Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni yells at the officials during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, in Houston. The Raptors won 115-102. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

The Houston Rockets were one of the worst defensive teams in basketball last season. Rather than fix its biggest weakness, the team spent the summer bolstering the offense with shooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Houston also hired offensive maestro Mike D’Antoni to lead the club back to glory and let star center Dwight Howard walk in free agency.

The sum of those decisions is a unit that may be worse at deterring opposing offenses than last year’s bunch. The Rockets are 28th in defensive efficiency (107.5), 22nd in points allowed per game (106.3) and 27th in opposing field goal percentage. Additionally, only the 3-14 Dallas Mavericks allow enemies to shoot better from three than Houston’s 38.2 percent:

Stats courtesy of ESPN.com, as of Nov. 30, 2016.

Stats courtesy of ESPN.com, as of Nov. 30, 2016.

Offensively, Anderson and Gordon are giving the Rockets what they paid for. Anderson is shooting a career-high 41.3 percent from behind the arc on 6.1 attempts per game. Gordon is Houston’s second-leading scorer behind James Harden with 16 points per game.

Defensively, the duo leaves much to be desired. The Rockets allow 108.2 points per 100 possessions when Anderson is on the court while opponents shoot 2.1 percent above their normal average with the veteran forward defending. Meanwhile, enemy shooters are converting 41.1 percent from three against Gordon, which is 6.6 percent better than their usual rate. Veteran center Nene, another defensively challenged offseason addition, is allowing others to knock down 70.6 percent of their attempts from within six feet:

 

The blame for the Rockets’ defensive woes doesn’t fall solely at the feet of the new blood. Patrick Beverley was supposed to give the team a boost upon his return from knee surgery, but the team’s defensive rating of 113.7 with him on the floor is the worst of any player on the roster. Trevor Ariza’s decline from perimeter stopper to walking turnstile continues as opponents are enjoying a 1.3 percent increase in their field goal percentage with Ariza in front of them. That’s up from last season’s 0.2 percent decrease. Some of these numbers are a bit noisy, but it’s concerning.

The overall lack of defensive effort by the Rockets is overshadowing the emergence of center Clint Capela, who’s in the midst of a career year. Much like Howard before him, the lack of adequate perimeter defense puts pressure on the 22-year-old to stop attacks at the rim. He’s doing his best to protect the interior (1.9 blocks per game, seventh in the NBA), but the team still allows 109.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor:

Not everything has been so bad. Harden, whose brand of defense made him a constant punchline last season, is making a concerted effort to improve at that end of the court. His Defensive Box Plus/Minus of minus-0.1 is up from 2015-16 (minus-0.4), and his overall defensive field goal percentage (45 percent) is 1.8 percent better than last season (46.8). He still has a ways to go before he’s even an average defender, but any step away from being routinely mocked on social media is a good sign:

On the bright side, the Rockets’ offense is living up to the hype in its first year under D’Antoni. The team is fourth in offensive efficiency, fifth in scoring (109.3 PPG), third in field goal percentage (46.5 percent) and lead the league in three-point attempts. Harden (28.7 points, 11.9 assists, 7.3 boards) is an MVP candidate, and the Rockets hold down the fourth spot in the West at 11-7.

However, for the Rockets to reach their potential as dark horse title contenders, the defense must improve. Jeff Bzdelik was added to D’Antoni’s bench to help make this team better defensively. The players know that they can’t sustain success being a one-dimensional basketball team, per Mitch Lawrence of Sporting News:

“We spend a whole lot longer in practices and pre-game talking about defense,” Anderson said. “Obviously, it’s where we need to focus. The offense will come. We’re talented offensively. We have a bunch of guys who can score. Defense is our main focus and emphasis. We all know we need to play a complete 48 minutes of defense. The number one thing is effort. It’s a will. You want to stop your man for your teammate. Everybody has each other’s backs around here. There’s a real defensive emphasis on this team.”

Ariza concurs:

“When they hired Mike, I understood that we were going to score a lot of points. But in our first conversation, he told me, “we got to play on both ends.’ Those were his first words when he called me up after getting the job. He said, “our offense is going to work. We’ve got a lot of shooters. We have a lot of guys who can make plays. But the defensive end is something we have to pay more attention to. That’s all of us.’ And, that’s what we have been focusing on.”

In their last four games, the Rockets are allowing 113.3 points per game. They went 2-2 during that stretch, but those two wins came against the slumping Portland Trail Blazers and the lowly Sacramento Kings. They will face their biggest test of the season when they travel to California for Thursday’s meeting with the Golden State Warriors. The Dubs lead the league in scoring (117.6 PPG) and are less than a week removed from dropping a season-best 149 points on the Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s unrealistic to think Houston can slow down Steph Curry and Co., but if the Rockets want to be taken seriously, this would be a golden opportunity to get their defense out of the developmental stage.

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