Almost exactly one year ago, the Rockets made their first major personnel transaction of the 2018-19 season; it did not involve a player. On November 5, Houston brought assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik out of a short two-month retirement and re-signed him to mastermind the team’s defensive scheme. It wasn’t quite a panic move, but it was a soft call for help. At the time, Houston was 4-5, and ranked 21st in defensive rating and 28th in points allowed in the paint. For a team that aspired to get back to the Western Conference finals, at least, this wouldn’t do.
So the Rockets patched things up with Bzdelik and improved to a middle-of-the-pack defense (in 2017-18, a full Bzdelik season, they were the league’s sixth-best defense). It was a small but significant uptick. Houston finished with 53 wins, and though the Rockets imploded in the second round of the playoffs against the Warriors, the Bzdelik move had at least kept them afloat through the regular season.
Fast-forward to the present day, and it’s déjà vu. Or maybe things are even worse. The Rockets are a defensive disaster: They are second to last in defensive rating and are giving up the league’s highest effective field goal percentage (59.3 percent). As Houston went down 59-18 to the Heat on Sunday and gave up more than 120 points for the third straight game, it was impossible not to at least glance at the panic button. In the Rockets’ past three games, their opponents have shot 52.2 percent from 3. But this isn’t just the result of a small sample size; they are symptoms of a larger defensive problem, except this time, there’s no move to make. Dr. Bzdelik isn’t coming to the rescue: He’s in New Orleans now, coaching on Alvin Gentry’s staff.
The reality is that this team has always masked its below-average defense with a singular and defiant offense. In two of their three wins so far, James Harden has had to score 40 and 59 points. The latter was in a thriller against the Washington Wizards (not exactly the cream of the crop), which Houston barely won, 159-158. Thirty points from Harden is no longer enough to secure a win, and even 40 is still a dicey proposition.
In Sunday’s game against the Heat, the foundation cracked. Harden’s 29 points were meaningless. The Rockets were outrebounded by eight, got smashed in fast-break points (25 to 6), had 22 turnovers (13 combined from Harden and Russell Westbrook), and allowed a whopping 52 points in the paint. Westbrook alone was a minus-46 (I repeat, a minus-46!) in just 26 minutes of game time.
“We know what we did wrong, especially defensively. Offensively. Defensively. All of it,” Clint Capela said after the game. It may have been better if Houston had blamed the performance on the South Beach nightlife.
The frustration is natural, even good, perhaps. Harden’s scoring can make up for only so much. And though he did score at least 30 points in 32 straight games last season, asking him to carry that kind of offensive burden is not a sustainable model. As my colleague Zach Kram detailed here, the Rockets offense with Westbrook has a split personality. The lightning bolt of a guard has made them play a whole lot faster than they did last season when he’s on the floor. While that means more possessions for Harden and Co., it also means Harden is less efficient (he’s missed 10.3 3s a game and is banking on averaging a ridiculous 15.8 free throw attempts per game) and the team has more opportunities to showcase its bad defense (they are 21st in allowing fast-break points). Westbrook, meanwhile, is still shooting more than four 3s a game at a paltry 25.0 percent clip and, on defense, he’s a regression from what Chris Paul added last season.
At first glance, that makes little sense. Paul is smaller, slower, and less athletic than Westbrook. But where Westbrook can run through a wall, Paul can find a way to maneuver around it so that he doesn’t have to make a mess in the process. Paul’s savviness on defense was valuable even if it wasn’t always quantifiable. Westbrook will block shots and get steals (1.8 per game so far this season) but while his style can make an offense chaotic, on defense it can knock an entire unit off its axis.
Harden shouldn’t get off the hook, either. Whatever effort he showed on defense during the past two seasons seems to be missing. Houston’s margin for error on the defensive end is slim, and it’s allowing the seventh-most points off turnovers in the league. And on offense, the team’s effective field goal percentage this season is 51.5 percent—4 percent worse than last season, which bumps them from top five in the league to 17th.
“We were soft,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “At a certain point, you’ve got to fight. Little like last year, not enough tiger out there. We’re just not playing as hard as we should be playing, especially on the defensive end.”
Allow me a moment to break down this quote real quick.
“Like last year.” Insert worried face emoji here. The fact that D’Antoni is referencing last season as an aspirational point is concerning.
“We’re just not playing as hard as we should be playing.” Folks, it’s Game 6, not Game 60. If the scheme was the primary problem, or the personnel, then at least things could be seen as solvable. But the fact that effort is being questioned is telling. Oh yeah, I missed the part where D’Antoni called his team soft. Sound the alarm.