The Houston Rockets are currently sitting at 1-6, only the Suns are worse than them in the Western Conference. This isn’t just a rocky start, difficult schedule to start the season or injuries. The Rockets are currently a bad NBA team. What is going on in Houston?
When they lost Mbah a Moute and (especially) Ariza it was obvious their defense will not be as good. These two players enabled the Rockets to play a switch everything style that was designed to stop the Warriors and they practiced it to perfection through 82 regular season games. For such a system to work you need versatile defenders that can cover several positions and be average contributors on the offensive end. Mbah a Moute and Ariza are exactly such players and losing them impacted the defense and more importantly the defensive scheme.
Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis and Carmelo Anthony were their free-agent arrivals that were supposed to offset the loss of Mbah a Moute and Ariza. You don’t have to be an analytics guru to know this isn’t going to do the trick. Carter-Williams and Ennis have the size and length to potentially fit into the defensive scheme, but they are not on the same level defensively.
Then there is Carmelo Anthony. Rockets GM Daryl Morey always loads his team with as much talent as possible. If we look at it from a defensive side, Anthony has never been a contributor on the defensive end and is for sure not able to play a switch-everything system. Defense requires effort, something we have never seen from Anthony, and a lot of repetition. In the past, he would compensate those deficiencies on the offensive end. Your average basketball team shoots a lot of threes and layups, builds an offense on movement. The Rockets pumped the threes and layup part with steroids but switched the movement part with a lot of iso-ball with Harden and Paul dribbling to infinity. You could see a system where Anthony fits into an iso system, as that was his strongest game. The problem is, he is at best a third fiddle on the Rockets offense and he will not get enough possessions to compensate his defensive issues. The second issue is that most of the time he won’t be able to dribble and then fire off a mid-range shot.
The most important piece of news to explain these issues was that their assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, the man who engineered the defense last season, retired mid-September. This is one of those news reports you don’t pay special attention to because we don’t know who the assistant coaches are and how significant their influence on the team is. Not only did they lose their defensive coordinator but they found out very late in the off-season. With such limited time and a head coach that never really focused on defense, this was the most significant blow to the Rockets having a 116.3 opponents points per game score. To give you an insight, the Celtics are the best defense in the NBA with a score of 99.5.
Ok, so defense isn’t working. The Rockets were always hoping to be a good enough defense and a spectacular offense. They are currently the 26th ranked offense with 106 points per game. Last seasons they were at 112.4 making them the 2nd best offense in the NBA. Keep in mind this is only 7 games into the season, Harden has been dealing with a hamstring issue, Paul was serving the suspension from his fight with Rondo so a few bad games without the two most important players and the statistics are skewed. Obviously, all this change and drama at the start of the season influenced them, as Mike D’Antoni said (via ESPN) “We’ve lost our swagger and we’re on our heels”.
What to expect?
The Rockets will bounce back offensively for sure, the defense will be more tricky, but they are heading for the playoffs without a doubt. But, the playoffs are not the standard in Houston. It’s Finals or bust which means they will have to go through Golden State and this team does not look like the Rockets of last year that can go punch for punch against the Warriors. That’s why you put four first round picks on the table. You know you are not good enough.