Houston Rockets: Analyzing the team’s improved defense

Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images /

The Houston Rockets are one of the best teams in the NBA this season. However, this season they are are winning games on both ends of the floor.

Ever since the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, people have been accustomed to the Houston Rockets running up and down the floor, shooting endless amounts of 3-pointers, and putting up 120+ points on a regular basis.

With Mike D’Antoni as your coach and James Harden as your point guard (surrounded by quality shooters), that is the end result. However, things have changed for Houston this season. Unlike last season when the team had the 16th-ranked defense, per Cleaning The Glass, this year the Rockets are supporting their league-best offense with the league’s fourth-ranked defense.

(Side note: it must be pointed out that Cleaning The Glass, excludes garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves from their calculations, thereby providing a more reflective calculation of a team on both ends of the floor.)

Let’s take a closer look at Houston’s defense and why it has improved so much this season.

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Right off the bat, the first reason for improvement is personnel. The Rockets brought in P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute this offseason, adding two high-quality wing defenders. Of course, their headlining move for Chris Paul also brought in one of the best guard defenders in the league. These moves provided Houston with an ample amount of quality defenders, from Paul, Mbah a Moute and Tucker to Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela.

In fact, so far this season the trio of Ariza, Mbah a Moute and Tucker has played 144 minutes together, and they have posted an elite defensive rating of 95.1 in that time. Individually, all three are sporting impressive defensive metrics, including defensive box plus-minus and defensive real plus-minus.

Both Tucker and Mbah a Moute have fit in very well in Houston, and both have shown a knack for disrupting a team’s offense, even when guarding off the ball:

Again, the Rockets haven’t had any other elite wing defenders in recent seasons besides Ariza, and asking him to guard the opposing team’s best offensive player on a nightly basis was wearing him out.

Looking into the team’s defense further using Cleaning The Glass’ Four Factors statistics, some interesting and important aspects of Houston’s defense are revealed. The Rockets rank 10th in opponents’ effective field goal percentage, allowing teams to shoot 51.5 percent from the field (adjusting for the extra point from 3-pointers). This number is passable, but potentially a warning sign down the road, as you can’t let teams shoot well on a regular basis from the field.

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The Rockets rank ninth in opponent turnover percentage, causing a team’s possession to end with a turnover 16.1 percent of the time. Some defenses thrive by causing turnovers, while others (like the Portland Trail Blazers, who rank 30th in this category) don’t. Having quality wing defenders and one of the smartest point guard defenders on your team will lead to causing turnovers on a fairly regular basis, which is also a very helpful way to generate quality fast-break offense.

Additionally, the Rockets excel at preventing offensive rebounds, allowing teams to get rebounds off their own missed shots just 23 percent of the time, good for fifth in the league. Clint Capela has played a big role in this, as he is playing more minutes and has improved his rebounding significantly.

Finally, the Rockets don’t let opponents get to the free throw line very often, as they own the eighth-best free throw rate in the league, allowing teams to make 18.2 free throws per every 100 field goal attempts. Several of the other top-five defenses in the league also excel at preventing teams from getting free throws — another strong way to build a good defense.

There are different ways to have/build an elite defense. Some teams excel at causing turnovers and limiting opponents’ shooting from the field. Others do a strong job of controlling the defensive boards and preventing teams from getting to the free throw line.

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Regardless, the Rockets have had an elite defense for the majority of the season, and now that they finally have the personnel to sustain such a defense, can be viewed as a significant threat to the Golden State Warriors come playoff time.