The Fundamentals: Rockets thrive on in-between game with Howard out
When we talk about basketball, offense and defense tend to be treated as separate endeavors. Each carries its own statistical indicators, its own stars, its own brand of analysis. Teams are characterized for their tilt in one direction or the other so much that they're said to win games by offense or defense alone. The Cavs, ranked No. 5 in points per possession and No. 22 in points allowed per possession, are an 'offense-first team.' The Bucks, who by contrast rank No. 21 and No. 2, respectively, are a 'defense-first team.' It all makes for simple, practical short-hand.
Yet the Rockets elude any such classification. Technically speaking, they are either, neither, and both of the above – at times as stingy of a defense as you'll find in the league and at others as potent an offense. Theirs is an intersectional success. With availability an issue throughout the season for Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, and Terrence Jones, Houston has evolved into an unpinnable moving target. Only one major through line persists: James Harden, without fail, will warp and gnarl an opposing defense in its attempts to stop him. Clearly it cannot be done.
To the extent that the Rockets have an identity, it begins there. Much has been made of Harden's defensive improvement and perhaps not enough of his subtler growth as the leader of Houston's offense. This is Harden's third year in control of a team and it has brought a touch of poise; stalled possessions are seen through to positive ends more often than in years past, in no small part because Harden works to make it so. Houston's offense has become even more reliant on its central creator as a result, scoring a lush 107.2 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup and 92.4 points per 100 possessions without.
It's no mystery who carries the weight, particularly with Howard ruled out indefinitely with a right knee injury. Houston needs every minute and every possession it can get from Harden. Yet it also needs his full commitment to a defensive system that is no less essential than his individual contributions. With that buy-in, Houston has started to blend its offensive and defensive talents into one cohesive, adaptive unit. That's led the Rockets to notch an impressive 17-8 record when Howard is sidelined this season.
Early claims of Harden as a bonafide stopper were terribly overblown, but we've seen the former punchline swell defensively this season through multiple-effort play and more concerted attention. Those factors alone go a long way for a player so intuitive. They also lend themselves perfectly to Houston's priorities in coverage, which were engineered with the team's offense in mind.
"For the past two years, we’ve been one of the best offensive teams in the league," Rockets assistant J.B. Bickerstaff said on Red Nation Roundtable. "So we wanted to figure out a way how our defense could complement our offense."
This goes deeper than building a defense in proportion to its offense. Houston is finding an equilibrium in the way it manages the margins between both sides of the ball. While looking to score, Houston maintains remarkable floor balance considering just how often Harden ends up at the hoop or on the floor. Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Corey Brewer are stellar sprint-back defenders with a great sense of when to retreat and when to linger. As a result, Houston sits in the top 10 in points allowed per transition possession, per Synergy Sports. The Rockets' style naturally allows opponents to get out on the break, but that doesn't mean those opportunities need go undefended.
Otherwise the Rockets tend to tranquilize opponents with extended possessions ending in either scores or free throws. Houston ranks in the top 10 in free throw rate this season, as expected; Harden alone attempts just four fewer three throws per 48 minutes than the Knicks. With his parade to the line comes repeated opportunities for the Rockets to establish their defensive structure – a means of provision that bleeds over from one side of the ball to another.
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Similarly, Houston defends in a way that's actively intended to facilitate its scoring. This year's Rockets are an altogether more aggressive outfit than last – better trained in committing to double-teams, more consistent in applying pressure on the ball. The result: A team that ranked No. 26 in opponent turnover rate last season now rates No. 3.
"We watch a lot of film on the guys that we’re going to play," Bickerstaff said, again on Red Nation Roundtable. "We know guys who are more willing to make passes and those guys are harder to double-team because now you’ve got two guys out of the play. But then we know guys who want to dribble-dribble-dribble and are trying to create the shot for themselves, those guys you can be even more aggressive on. They’re going to take even more time on the clock and reverse their dribble and end up back at halfcourt. Then you can just build your defense back from there."
Specifically, Bickerstaff identified the weak side of the pick-and-roll as a point of leverage. Donatas Motiejunas has done solid work in filling in for Howard to anchor the middle, but he's had plenty of help; Ariza, Harden, and Brewer (all of whom rank in the NBA's top 16 in steal rate) lurch in from the perimeter to play the passing lanes in pick-and-roll scenarios, forcing complications if not turning an opponent over. It's amazing how much damage can be done by bumping an opponent off of its primary and secondary options on a given sequence. In those scenarios, every non-shooter and shaky ball handler becomes a liability. That Houston plays in a way that almost forces the ball into the hands of those players is a tremendous benefit.
Ariza is especially effective in operating as the cheat in the pick-and-roll, which helps to explain why he's sometimes tasked to guard static spot-up types. There will be nights when Houston can't get away with matching up against top perimeter scorers with Harden and Brewer alone. Yet as the matchups permit, Ariza can play to his strengths by working the angles both aggressively and responsibly.
That touches on what may be Houston's greatest feat of all: Even with its programmed commitment to creating turnovers, the Rockets still manage to hold opponents to a league-best 31.6-percent shooting from beyond the arc. This is a persistent bunch when put into a scramble. Josh Smith, a genuine catalyst, has picked up opponents inside and out to force delays and second guesses. Motiejunas knows his role and which areas of the floor need to be protected most. Altogether it works well enough to win—a constant swirl of activity to disrupt and intimidate even in Howard's absence.
This results in more than mere stops and, in the event of a steal, more than mere points. Getting out in transition has proven to be a vital way to balance the offense opposite Harden. Every Brewer leak-out preempts a possession in which Harden would have to take on more creative responsibility. It buys a moment for a superstar newly dedicated on both sides of the ball while yielding more points per possession than a typical Howard post-up.
Houston's power comes from that harmony. A cohesive game plan executed by a balanced roster (one to be heightened by Howard's eventual return) makes for more than a good offense or a good defense. It's a concert of progressional play – of added value, one into the other.
Statistical support courtesy of NBA.com.