Daily Rocket Science: Defensive improvement

The Houston Rockets, after adding reputable shooters this summer, are poised to be an elite offensive team.

However, they’re in need of some serious defensive improvement if they want to be competitive. The public is all too familiar with James Harden‘s Vine-worthy attempts at defense, and new guys Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon aren’t juggernauts on that end of the floor either. It was a step in the right direction to hire the defensive-minded Jeff Bzdelik as assistant coach, but it’ll take commitment from the whole roster.

If the Houston Rockets are able to get their defense even just to average playoff standards, they’ll be dangerous. The Beard and company will have no issue scoring the basketball. If they can play respectable defense, it’ll be tough for opponents to keep up.

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Ian Thomsen of NBA.com wrote on how Mike D’Antoni’s system could work in Houston. It seems far fetched to compare Harden to the likes of Steve Nash, but he could be successful in that kind of role if he’s willing to distribute.

As much as Harden has been caught sleeping on defense, he has also been criticized for holding the ball.

“You know what, he does,” agreed D’Antoni. “But Steve Nash held onto the ball a lot. Chris Paul holds onto the ball a lot. They have this unique position where they can make a play. That’s as much as you want. When the ball goes to him, he’s going to make a great play. But he’s never shooting with three guys on him. He’s not going to make bad passes, and he’s efficient. That’s why he can play that way, because he’s efficient.”

Everything in Houston runs through James Harden, and for good reason. He’s the best player in the building on most nights. This year, according to Dave Dufour of RealGM.com, The Beard could be even more efficient. His increased distribution should lower the number of ISO plays he runs, which is when he’s most turnover-prone.

While the team around Harden this season appears to be more well suited to his game, his willingness to adapt will be the ultimate deciding factor. According to his own internal projections, D’Antoni expects Harden to average between 11 and 12 assists per game. To achieve this level of playmaking, Harden will need to buy in to D’Antoni’s philosophy.

If the Rockets are able to step things up on defense and if Harden accepts a more point guard-like role, it should put the Rockets near the top of the Western Conference. Additionally, it will remind fans that Harden is a top tier talent. Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report ranked him as 13th best in the league going into this season, but Houston fans know he, and his team, are capable of better than that.

Criticize Harden’s defense (or lack thereof) all you want—you’re perfectly justified in doing so. But so long as you’re harping on his flaws, make sure you acknowledge that he’s a historically excellent offensive player who can carry a team almost single-handedly. This bearded 2-guard may be a one-way player, but he’s still one of the NBA’s most valuable contributors. 

Admittedly, there are a lot of “if”s mentioned in this piece. But the Rockets have all the makings of a great team, and it will simply come down to whether or not all the pieces can come together and mesh well.

After last year, there’s really no direction to go but up considering the amount of talent within the Rockets’ organization.

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