When the Houston Rockets and a number of other franchises tripped over themselves to make overtures for Dwight Howard last summer, many onlookers questioned whether it was worth it. Howard was coming off the back of two sub standard seasons by his standards, in which he drew more headlines than ever before in his career, but not for his play on the court. Howard sulked in Orlando, wanting to go elsewhere, and then once again when he became a Laker and things didn’t go his way. The one thing that was always inescapable though, was Howard’s talent. He has the potential to be a franchise changing player, or even more specifically a defensive cornerstone, and that’s why the Rockets pulled out all the stops to ensure he landed in Houston.
It has taken the Rockets a little bit of time to mesh together, but in the last month there can be no denying that they are starting to put things right. For the month of January so far, the Houston Rockets have the third highest winning percentage in the league. This only trails the resurgent Bulls and Nets, making them the top team in the West so far this month at 8-2. The win category may be the most important statistic, but it’s not the only area that Houston are excelling in this month either. They rank sixth in field goal percentage, seventh in rebounds, sixth in blocks, sixth in points and sixth in winning margin. While looking a little bit deeper again, they have the fifth best offensive rating and sixth best defensive rating for the first month of 2014.
To put this in perspective, the Rockets are consistently one of the best offensive teams in the NBA, but its the defensive end of the floor that will likely define their ceiling in the long term. Although many of those offensive stats are in line, or even slightly worse than what the Rockets have averaged for the season as a whole, their improved defensive rating is what stands out. The Rockets have the 11th best defensive rating for the season as a whole, generally making them a middle of the pack defensive team, but with their leap up to sixth this month their numbers are bordering on elite.
The Rockets are holding opposition teams to a 42.5 percent field goal percentage in their last ten games, good for third best in the NBA, improving upon what had already been a very impressive number by a further 1.1 percent. When looking at numbers like these, it’s easy to make the assumption that as a former Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard’s interior defense and presence as a shot blocker must be playing a significant factor in this improvement, but the numbers point elsewhere.
Taking a look at the breakdown of opposition shooting percentages against the Rockets by zone this season, reveals a number of slightly surprising details. Within five feet, they rank thirteenth best, from 5-9 feet, they rank ninth, and from 10-14 feet, they rank eleventh. Where their numbers are really striking though is when we move out to mid-range and closer to the perimeter. From 15-19 feet, they are fourth best, from 20-24 feet, they are also fourth best, and from beyond the three point line, they give up the fifth lowest percentage in the league. Put simply, from outside of 15 feet Houston are holding teams to a 35.6 percent shooting percentage.
These are numbers that should strike fear into teams around the league. It was always going to be difficult to score in and around Dwight Howard on the inside, but if the Rockets can prevent teams from making jump shots from further away from the basket, they will only become harder and harder to beat. Howard acts as a defensive leader on the floor, and there’s evidence that it’s spreading throughout the locker room. The likes of James Harden and Chandler Parsons aren’t renowned as defensive players, but judging by the numbers, they’re understanding their roles, applying pressure and executing on that end of the floor. At point guard, with Lin, Beverley and Brooks,the Rockets have put together a group of tenacious guards who will always make things difficult for their opposite number also.
The Rockets finding their feet should be a major concern for the top teams in the West. They won’t finish the regular season with the best record in the conference, but they have all the tools to make them capable of toppling any team in the post season. Longer term, could the Rockets develop into the best two-way team in the NBA? Right now, they still have a way to go to match the Pacers in that sense, but as a young team with plenty of potential they could get their sooner rather than later.