A point once made over a decade ago which I found to be incredibly salient at the time was regarding defense and the coaching change from Jeff Van Gundy to Rick Adelman. It was said by someone on a discussion board that the more time that passed between the Van Gundy and Adelman eras, the worse the Rockets became defensively because the tenets ingrained in the holdovers from the previous era began to wear off.
The big change that catapulted the 2017-2018 Houston Rockets to 65 wins wasn’t offense. The team already had an elite offense without Chris Paul. What lifted that team into a different stratosphere and allowed it to compete with Golden State for seven games was that it became truly elite defensively. They changed schemes. They added Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker, replacing Ryan Anderson in the lineup completely with the latter. And they switched out Patrick Beverley for Chris Paul, the best point guard defender in the league for several years by measure of DRPM.
Last year, after settling in on a rotation, the Rockets had the second best DRTG in the league. This year, after swapping out just Paul for Westbrook, they are back down hovering around the bottom ranks in the league. Could Paul have made that big of an impact defensively?
First, I don’t think the Rockets are actually this bad. I think there’s some early season noise mixed in and the reality is closer to a defensive rating that’s middle of the pack. And as I speculated yesterday, I also think the defensive drop-off is in some part a psychological function of the pace. When you’re just going to race back up the court and get up a three-pointer in less than ten seconds, you might be more inclined to just concede a backdoor layup.
But I also think a lot of it has to do with Paul. It’s not just that he’s a superior defender to Westbrook, a point which was difficult for many to understand when the warning was given after the trade due to his age and small stature. It’s not even that he was focused and disciplined. It’s that he held guys accountable in a way which famously wore out his welcome in both of his last two spots.
In the early going, James Harden seems to have reverted back to pre-2016 form defensively, putting very little effort in off the ball. Westbrook is intense and a competitor but he’s universally been beloved by all of his teammates. I wonder if Paul just kept guys accountable for mistakes and a lack of focus. It’s been widely reported that at least at some degree, depending on what you believe, even if you don’t think Harden issued an ultimatum, Harden and Paul clashed due to a difference in philosophy. I’m wondering if what you’re seeing this year so far is just a result of that fallout and the leadership vacuum it created.
Paul could keep Harden and the team accountable in 2017-2018 because he was elite himself and carrying his weight. When Paul’s body failed him the next season, he had no ground to stand on anymore. In the reporting and commentary after last season, we all assumed the credibility issue was in relation to Paul’s drop-off offensively (e.g. Paul didn’t want to play isoball all the time the way Harden did, but Paul had no room to talk because Harden was carrying the team.) I think what we didn’t consider was the effects Paul was having on defensive accountability. We could be seeing it now.