The good news is the Houston Rockets have won two straight after opening the season 0-3. The bad news is leaky defense continues to be the team’s Achilles heel. Both of Houston’s victories came down to the wire, with the club needing overtime to top the 1-4 Orlando Magic in its most recent win. The fewest amount of points the team has given up this season was 105 in a opening night drubbing at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, who’ve won just one game since.
As seen in the chart below, the Rockets are among the worst in nearly every major defensive category.
The struggle to get stops is in stark contrast to Houston’s 2014-15 performance when the team finished sixth in defensive efficiency and held opponents to a league-best 32.2 percent shooting from behind the arc. While the club is still awaiting the return of forward Donatas Motiejunas and is taking a cautious approach with top post defender Dwight Howard, the Rockets can’t use injuries as an excuse for its poor defense, especially after how well the unit played with a short-handed roster last season.
Despite a bad back limiting both his minutes and physical ability, Howard is still showing flashes of his once-dominant defensive form. Opponents are shooting 61 percent from within six feet with Howard defending as opposed to 68.9 percent normally. He also leads the team with 1.7 blocks per game.
Still, even with Howard’s efforts, the starting rotation is failing to set the tone on the defensive end. Four of the Rockets’ first five (Howard, James Harden, Ty Lawson, Marcus Thornton) are posting a defensive rating of 104 or worse, with Thornton being the weakest link at 114 points per 100 possessions.
After making huge strides as a defender during his near-MVP campaign last season, Harden’s regression as a stopper is especially disappointing. In 2014-15, Harden finished 10th in defensive win shares (4.2) and a career-best defensive rating of 103. This season, the team is giving up 108.9 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor while opponents are shooting 40.9 percent from three with “The Beard” defending. When you couple that with Harden’s struggles shooting the basketball (29.4 percent from the field, 16.4 percent from three), the case can be made that the 26-year-old is the biggest reason behind Houston stumbling out of the gate.
“James will be OK,” head coach Kevin McHale said, per Carl Watkins of ESPN following the OT win over Orlando. “He will be fine. Right now, we’re not in a great rhythm on either side of the ball, but we’ll find it.”
Harden is too good of a player to remain in this current funk for long. If he can find a way to mimic his defensive intensity from last season, the trio of Harden, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley could help stop some of the bleeding on the perimeter. Houston will also get a boost from the return of Motiejunas, an athletic seven-footer who could be utilized in bigger lineups, and Terrence Jones, an underrated post defender whose 5.2 block percentage was second only to Clint Capela on last season’s roster.
With the road to an NBA Finals berth going through Golden State and its vaunted offense led by reigning MVP Stephen Curry, the Rockets will need to make huge strides on the defensive end to live up to their lofty expectations.