After a storied Italian basketball career in Milan, Mike D’Antoni is known in the city as Il Baffo—or, the Mustache—for his iconic, Pringles-logo visage. So, then, it was almost destined that he’d land in Houston. From Il Baffo came the Beard, and one of the most jaw-dropping individual seasons in NBA history. D’Antoni had long been a point-guard whisperer of sorts, transferring his basketball ideologies into a single player who had the ability to execute his vision on the court. D’Antoni found an ideal avatar in James Harden, who combines all the lessons learned from Steve Nash’s “Seven Seconds or Less” heyday in Phoenix and repackages them in a 6-foot-5 frame to become one of the game’s most reliable scorers.
But it turns out we weren’t thinking big enough. D’Antoni lorded over the Italian league as a hot-headed competitor, a leader, and a disruptive player with quick hands. The latter ability led the greatest point guard in Italy’s history to earn another nickname: Arsenio Lupin. The Gentleman Thief. Sound familiar?
In Chris Paul, D’Antoni found a proxy for the side of the ball he’d abandoned in his quest for total offense. Committing to defense always seemed paradoxical to D’Antoni’s true ambitions. The ball can’t find energy if there isn’t any left for the offensive end.
But D’Antoni’s longstanding defensive hat quandary has all but evaporated this season. Twenty-six games in, we’ve been offered a glimpse at what an even more perfect D’Antoni collective could look like. It’s a fusion of the forward-facing small-ball revolution he’s shepherded for years, and his sensibilities as a player that had lain dormant all the while. The dual point guard system, as it turns out, wasn’t an attempt at establishing total offense; it was an effort to instill a sort of balance absent in so many of D’Antoni’s previous teams. It’s led to the best record in the league, and, improbably, an elite defense.
The seeds were planted last year, when D’Antoni brought in Jeff Bzdelik as a defensive coordinator, effectively ceding defensive operations to a person whose job was to serve as the ego to D’Antoni’s id. The bar was low for the job. Houston was below league average in defensive rating last season, but Bzdelik still received plaudits for what he’d done to the defense; at least they weren’t in the bottom third of the league. A defensive structure and mind-set were being installed, but they didn’t have the right pieces, nor did they have a proper leader.
Elite defenses have signal-callers on the floor, players who can break down what’s happening and relay necessary information to teammates about what’s about to happen. In Paul, Bzdelik has a player who possesses the kind of militant approach to the game that had been lacking in last season’s squad. And in new additions Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker, the Rockets have established a bullpen of interchangeable 3-and-D defenders who can take on almost any assignment given to them. In Wednesday’s 108-96 win against the Hornets, the Rockets deployed Tucker on Kemba Walker, Dwight Howard, and everyone in between.
That’s the burden of responsibility given to a defender in the D’Antoni system. Over the years, that label has felt like a gimmick: Imagine an enforcer in hockey, but then imagine if mano-a-mano brawling were literally half of the sport. Shawn Marion was, at most, the third-most-popular player on the D’Antoni Suns, but there was more pressure on him to provide for the team than anyone else. “I want him to be everything, do everything,” D’Antoni told the writer Jack McCallum in Seven Seconds or Less. Dan D’Antoni, Mike’s older brother and a Suns assistant coach at the time, clarified those thoughts. “We don’t want him to just guard his guy,” Dan said. “We want him to keep his guy from scoring. We don’t always ask that of our other players.”
The Rockets now have a cadre of those players, and thus far, Bzdelik’s visions of an elite Houston defense have manifested quicker than anyone could have predicted. As outlined by the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen, D’Antoni-isms like the ball finds energy have given way to Bzdelik-isms. He has given the team a defensive mantra: Talk it. Touch it. Switch it. Grab it.
It’s shorthand notation for the thought process behind switching screens, emphasizing communication and a tactile transference of one person’s assignment to another. The two defenders will call out the switch, keep one hand on their man to prevent an easy roll to the basket, and then assume the other’s defensive responsibility once the switch has been made. "Switching can't be a convenience," Bzdelik told Feigen. "It has to be used as a weapon. It can be very effective because of the way the game is played. Our rules are, you switch to deny, you switch to force a turnover, and you switch to take away a 3.”
With the framework of a modern defense set in place, the Rockets have taken liberties with the talent at their disposal. Tucker, Mbah a Moute, and Trevor Ariza are such stout individual defenders that it’s allowed Paul opportunities to freelance on the weak side. Here is Paul moonlighting as an NFL cornerback, flying in midair to Peanut punch the ball out of DeMarcus Cousins’s hands before Boogie even has time to gather:
Bzdelik has created an organizing principle for the team, but trust is the foundation of all good defenses. Knowing that a teammate can be counted on to rotate allows the four engines of the defense (Paul, Ariza, Mbah a Moute, and Tucker) to let their own instincts take the wheel. Here, Harden and Nene quickly double Victor Oladipo in a pick-and-roll he’s running with Domantas Sabonis. It prompts Dipo to get the ball to Sabonis as soon as possible, but Harden’s length is enough to turn it into an awkward bounce pass at an awkward angle. The time it takes for Sabonis to corral the pass is more than enough for Tucker to leave his assignment (Lance Stephenson) and trap Sabonis to force a jump ball.
The most interesting thing about the Rockets defense is how little ground they lose when shrinking their lineups. At one point in their game against Charlotte, the Rockets trotted out a lineup of Paul, Harden, Ariza, Tucker, and Eric Gordon against a traditional, Dwight-centric unit. Dwight may have gotten favorable touches in the post, but luring the Hornets into multiple post touches against the Rockets’ 3-point barrage is a basic arithmetic advantage. Tucker is more than game to do a Chuck Hayes impersonation guarding down on the low block, and the Rockets don’t suffer at all from the height differential Tucker faces guarding centers most nights. It’s an interesting counterpunch to the Warriors’ near-unsolvable lineups—and we saw some Warriors-busting potential on opening night.
The Rockets, as you may have heard, have not lost a single one of their 12 games with Paul in the starting lineup. Since November 16, when Paul made his return from a month-long absence due to a knee injury, the Rockets have had the best defense in the league. It’s not all roses: Mbah a Moute suffered a shoulder injury in the Hornets win, but the team is hopeful that he’ll be able to return in two to three weeks, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. How the Rockets respond and maintain their defensive efficiency down one of their aces will be something to watch heading into the new year.
A D’Antoni-led team with multiple superstars in tow has nothing to prove on offense during the regular season. But if defense is a product of timing, repetition, and familiarity, the regular season still offers the necessary reps to develop a consistent presence on that side of the ball. As impressive as the Rockets’ 22-4 start has been, the team is still dogged by the confluence of negative perceptions that has plagued D’Antoni, Harden, and Paul all their careers, each of them carrying a unique scent of perennial postseason underachievement. The Rockets can’t do anything about that now, but their showing on defense this season is more than enough evidence that this team is unlike any the trio has been a part of.