Rockets Defense Is A Collective Issue, Not Individual

By Salman Ali on March 22, 2016

There’s this thing we do in basketball where we take someone’s reputation for being a defensive player and assume that player will be either that great or that bad defensively for the rest of their career.

It’s understandable I suppose, considering the first thing we naturally look at when watching basketball is the offensive side of the ball and the first statistics we often check as casual observers are the box score statistics. However, aside from the much diluted metrics of blocks and steals, it’s pretty much impossible to check how a player is defending throughout the course of a basketball game or season through just the box score statistics. It’s just the unfortunate truth that there is no real time data for this yet.

So naturally when we look the Rockets, we view Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Dwight Howard as plus defenders given their reputations of being just that. The effort to re-evaluate “good defenders” is seldom taken. When we then look at where the Rockets stand as a defensive unit (currently 23rd in defensive rating) it makes it all the more head scratching as it’s hard to envision a core surrounded by these plus defenders as being so bad defensively.

This ultimately results in the skewed analysis a subpar defenders like James Harden is weighing this Rocket team down to these unacceptable levels.

Here’s the harsh truth - no matter how bad of a defender you think James Harden is (which is often overstated by social media), he can’t possibly bring the Rockets down 23rd in defense all by himself. If you factor in that he’s a shooting guard and that he’s often hidden on 2nd rate offensive players, this rings truth even more.

It’s time we re-evaluate our perceptions of Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Dwight Howard as great defensive pieces.

A natural starting point is Patrick Beverley. Beverley’s reputation is well-known; a stingy defender that infuriates point guards around the league. However, the fact of the matter is, “Mr. 94 feet” hasn’t been “Mr. 94 feet” in quite a while. Two years ago, Patrick Beverley would literally defend point guards the full length of the court while the ball is being inbounded. Now, while he still does this, he keeps his distance from the point guard, so as to not get blown by which is very uncharacteristic of him.

Also, before his meniscus injury, Beverley would almost assuredly go over the screen on pick and rolls involving the point guard. This season, you often see him going under on the screens when he’s not trapping/crowding the ball handler (this seems to be Bickerstaff’s signature defensive scheme). Of course a lot of the way PnRs are defended in the NBA are up to coaching staffs, but even then it’s apparent a lot of the things he does are to avoid getting blown by which strangely enough, also happens more often than it did two years ago.

Just watching him or “the eye test” it’s pretty clear he appears to have lost a step since he tore his the meniscus in his right knee back in March of 2014. The numbers also reflect his decline.

Defensive Rating:
2012-13: 98.9
2015-16: 105.1

Beverley, in all likelihood, is still a really good defensive player, but it hasn’t showed this season - whether it be because of the meniscus tear or decline, he’s just getting beat too consistently this year.

The Rockets have also been getting killed on the perimeter this year whether it be by open 3s, back cuts, or penetration which brings me to my next player - Trevor Ariza.

Our natural perception of Trevor Ariza is the guy who came in last year after the Rockets lost Chandler Parsons and solidified the perimeter defense. He’s the guy who was placed on the biggest perimeter threat night in and night out whether it was Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard.

That’s not necessarily the case this year.

Trevor Ariza has been, point blank, a below average defender this year and it’s unclear why that is. His closeouts aren’t as timely, his effort isn’t as ever-ready, and he just gives up a lot, which is odd. The Rockets are 27th in transition defense this year and a lot of it just because guys like James Harden and Trevor Ariza aren’t running back after broken offensive possessions.

ESPN's Defensive RPM:
2014-15: 2.36 (7th among small forwards)
2015-16: -0.52 (45th among small forwards)

It’s extremely unusual considering effort has never been a problem for Trevor Ariza before. One could make the case that he’s exhausted after playing 35.7 MPG (9th) last year and 35 MPG this year (20th) or that he sees no one else on his team running back on defense and closing out on shots and it makes him less interested to do so himself. Either way, it’s no excuse to not play up to the best of his abilities. We see the vines of James Harden getting beat on back cuts and failing to close out, but the same thing happens to Ariza almost just as much and it goes unnoticed, because he has this amazing defensive reputation to fall back on and Harden doesn’t.

This brings me possibly the biggest reason the Rockets are where they are as a defensive unit; Dwight Howard.

When we view Dwight Howard, we view him as this historically great, HOF level defensive big man because, well, he is one. Twelve years in and three defensive player of the year awards has certainly earned him that respect.

However with respect, comes expectation.

His teammates and Rocket fans expect him to show up every night and anchor a top 15 NBA defense just like he's done since 2006 (excluding that disaster season in Los Angeles). However, he's failed miserably to even make the Rockets a top 20 defense which he normally could have done in his sleep any other season. He's just too damn good to not expect a large and consistent last line of defense from.

Not this year.

Dwight Howard is having possibly his worst defensive season over the last 10 years based on every statistic imaginable and the “eye test”.

From an eye test perspective, Dwight looks to be contesting fewer and fewer shots at the rim than ever before (for his standards anyways). When guys like Beverley, Harden or Ariza get beat off the dribble, he often chooses to seal his man off instead of rotating over the help and contest the shot. You're seeing him watch guys make layups with him just a few feet away from the basket watching and prematurely waiting to box out for a defensive rebound.

HIs rim protection has dropped off, and all the advanced metrics show it.

Contest percentage at the rim:
2014-15: 54.9
2015-16: 39.1
(Provided by Nylon Calculus)

Rim Field Goal Percentage:
2014-15: 45.7%
2015-16: 49.9%
(Provided by Nylon Calculus)

Also, his pick and roll defense has become uninspiring. Dwight Howard was once a big that was lauded for his ability to cover and recover pretty much all spots on the floor. That’s not the case anymore. His footwork, while still good, isn’t great anymore and it really shows when covering PnRs. He’s in the 50th percentile ( while covering the roll man in PnR situations, which is okay, but you don’t pay nearly $23 million a year to a defensive minded big to be okay for covering PnR. Dwight used to be excellent at covering the PnR - one of the best. Now he’s just, well, average.

Here are some other metrics that also indicate a decline in Dwight’s defense:

ESPN’s Defensive RPM:
2013-14: 4.91 (4th in the NBA among centers)
2015-16: 3.07 (18th in the NBA among centers)

Defensive Win Shares:

2013-14: 4.1
2015-6: 2.5
(Provided by Basketball Reference)

Dwight, point blank, hasn’t performed up to his potential defensively and it’s been a major reason the Rocket’s defense is atrocious. He either can’t or won’t make up for others’ mistakes anymore and it’s costing the Rockets big time. He should receive a steady share of the blame despite his reputation of being an incredible defender because he hasn’t been one this year.

Going forward when we evaluate the Rockets for the poor defensive unit they’ve been, the blame has to be shared. Sure James Harden and others are contributors to the lack of effort, but he’s stepped his effort up since the All Star break and few have followed. Basketball is a team sport and there’s no way one individual is weighing the Rockets down to this level.

If the Rockets truly want a shot at salvaging the season and making a run in the playoffs, everyone has to step their effort up and that starts with Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Dwight Howard - the cornerstones to this team’s defense.

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