Just a quick recurring thought I’ve had over the past few weeks as discussion of James Harden’s lack of defensive effort has gone viral on a national level: was Tracy McGrady ever this bad? T-Mac too was notorious for coasting on “that other end” of the court…but I don’t remember him getting embarrassed at the level Harden repeatedly has, by the likes of Reddick, Hayward, and Klay Thompson. At the same time, I’m fairly certain he wasn’t trying that much harder than Harden. That really goes to show the advantages ‘length’ provides a player in covering up for inabilities but even more, it speaks to how well a job Jeff Van Gundy–and later Rick Adelman, using the same infrastructure already set in place–did in hiding the team’s best player on that end. Having Shane Battier, of course, was tremendous, but its not like he was picking up T-Mac’s man on rotations every time down.
Another point: the disaster that has been the Rockets’ perimeter defense this season creates a newfound appreciation for the memory of Battier. I would argue that the ability to make smart defensive rotations and not get lost under screens is/are the single most underrated trait among NBA players. Fans saw Battier–who often got abused in man coverage–and didn’t really get the hype. What they didn’t see were the things he prevented: those wide open shots that can be disastrous in the final score. When a man scores one-on-one, at least he is expending energy. That was how Battier won so many matchups with Bryant despite giving up huge point totals. When someone roams free for an open ‘3’ or a backdoor layup, the floodgates open.
The Sky Is Not Falling – After the loss to the lowly Jazz, I expected the Rockets to slip quite a bit in the stats-based Hollinger Power Rankings on ESPN, which heavily weights factors such as win margin, strength of schedule, and records over the past 10 games. And I was wrong. At the time of this writing the Rockets are still firmly in contender territory at no. 4.
So on a related note, here’s David Thorpe talking about how good the Rockets are despite the stumble in Salt Lake:
Thorpe tends to be generous in his analysis of the Rockets, and has been for several years. It seems that the team’s values with respect to player evaluation and on-court strategies line up with his own.
I was a little bit shocked to hear his comment about James Harden’s commitment on defense. The reaction to the Beard’s performance on that end, particularly against Utah, has garnered a lot of criticism. The more I watch Harden defend, the more I see the pattern emerging that he’s fairly solid when his man has the ball in isolation and he’s locked in. However, when he’s guarding a cutter or someone who is running around two or three screens on a single half-court set (as Hayward was the other night, and as J.J. Redick did when torching Houston), he struggles. It’s an issue that will need to be addressed not just through Harden’s personal effort, but through training with coaches and through communicating with teammates about adjusting when Harden gets splattered by a pick.
If the Houston Rockets played their best and worst games of the season one after the other, what does that mean for the next game? That’s the big question for a team that seems to have more trouble with worse teams. With Jeremy Lin still out, with Chandler Parsons still fighting through back spasms and with the team either unwilling or unable to cement their team defense, this visit by the Phoenix Suns is looming larger than it should. Will the Rockets sink into frustration or will Phoenix pay for what happened to the Rockets in Utah?
The Suns may have some avenging of their own to do. Phoenix visits the Memphis Grizzlies the day before heading to Houston, and stands a very real chance of losing to both hungry Southwest division teams. After what might be a brutal showdown with a Grizzlies team desperate to put their season together yet again, a tired Suns might be just what the Rockets need to reassert themselves on both ends of the floor.