The concerns regarding our defensive vulnerabilities since the trade reflect what has been a sudden onset of collective identity crisis. Apart from a brief interval at the tail end of the 90’s, for nearly two decades the very phrase Houston Rockets has connoted smash-mouth defensive ruggedness. It was in this manner that the first title was won so long before Jeff Van Gundy reinstilled the same principles, embedding a culture which stayed rooted into the present day.
Defense defined our identity. Our sacred history contains a gallery of heroes spanning from the colossal Otis Thorpe—a specimen the likes of which has long been extinct—and climaxing at the perpetually-undaunted Ron Artest, the exaggerated embodiment of this very ethos.
Not just in our minds, the Houston Rockets’ identity became an extant part of the broader NBA conscience. Who can forget Kenny Smith’s Kenny’s Pictures no-space-with-the-defender demonstration of the Rockets’ attack in preview of what dissimilarities with the Jazz lay in store for the Lakers. We smiled at that. We were proud. We hadn’t won anything in a decade, but we had an identity.
That is now gone.
Subconsciously, what makes matters worse is that not only are the Rockets poor defensively but their appearance gives off the impression of such an outcome’s inevitability. In addition to a creampuff frontcourt, we now also have the most physically underwhelming backcourt in league history.
But how warranted are the concerns? It would be foolish to assume that management is somehow oblivious to the importance of defense – Daryl Morey himself has gone on record as saying that for title contention, it is necessary for a team to rank in the top 10 on both ends of the ball.
I think what we are seeing is the manifestation of a belief that it is easier to manufacture defense than it is offense.
In a utopian vacuum, all five players would be great at both ends. In the real world, teams must allocate their limited resources (money, trade chips, roster spots, playing time) towards various player attributes to create a team aggregate.
If you have a superstar, you don’t have to waste too many resources upon other offensive talents because the superstar can carry the offense by himself – you use those resources to elevate your defense to the expected standards.
We no longer have a superstar. For reasons already discussed, Daryl Morey has decided it’s not worthwhile to wait around for a superstar – he would rather use his time to build a team.
Without a superstar, if playing multiple defensive specialists, no matter how intricate the system, the offense will never be elite. This isn’t college – at the NBA level, there’s only so much a system can do to help inferior offensive players generate points.
But on the other end, weak individual defenders can be masked through a strong system; good team defense can be manufactured through an entrenched philosophy.
Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin are both undeniably bad. But with the return of Yao Ming, their assignments can once again be funneled towards the middle. With increased familiarity, players will learn to rotate and cover their spots. You can teach players to commit to transition defense and aggressive double teams; you can’t teach them how to shoot, pass and dribble.
We’re all a bit dazed after the Martin trade. It looks like Battier could be on the way out too this summer. The concerns come as no surprise – defense wasn’t just something we acknowledged as a crucial element to success; defense constituted our identity. But I think with the end of the McGrady era, management may feel it can no longer pay a premium (in salary, playing time) for defensive specialists. That doesn’t mean they are abandoning their roots. I think they are just looking to bring about familiar outcomes through different means.