On Defense and Our Collective Identity Crisis

2010 March 3
by rahat huq

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 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.

Brooks and Martin are both undeniably bad.  But with the return of Yao, 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.

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  • RoxBeliever
    I think DM thinks 2 or 3 steps ahead.

    While we are waiting for Yao to come back, I believe DM is also looking to get a star PF either to partner with Yao or as the main option when Yao goes to the bench. The Rox are trying to build a team that will play to win SOON, maybe within the next 2 years, which is the time I believe Yao can still be at his prime. That's why we are willing to gut the present team and amass those talents.

    DM was handicapped by the huge contracts of Yao and TMac. It was only this Feb 18 that we were finally able to make big moves.
  • Stephen
    Generally defenders get paid less than offensively skilled players,so I imagine there will end up being a Battier replacement,just at a much lower salary. And I tend to believe in an ideal world Morey would prefer not to trade Shane,it's just that Shane is his best trade chip left that can help bring back a highly paid player.

    What really disappoints about Brooks is that he never seems to use his speed to draw charges. He should be able to beat an opposing player at least once a game to a spot and draw the charge.
  • hometownfanhouston
    Wow, I love my Rockets, I have been in mourning of losing Tracy...this still feels personal....however how can we rely and get excited about Yao coming back....when we dont know if HE IS coming back...I know hes gonna try.....but LJ tried coming back from back surgery and that didn't pan out either....I have lost faith and trust in an organization that was suppose to have class. Why are we trying to wait and build around a guy who could EASILY get injured and play 30 games next season......DIDNT WE TRY THIS ALREADY (TMAC). The defintion of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting to get different results....I am scared for all us Rocket fans, that we are already defeated this year....and now all our hopes rely on someone who is currently injured and WILL get injured again, but what? Rahat, do you really believe Yao is just going to come in and dominate, hes big, we will score......but for how long.....this feels like Tmac all over again.....not to mention.....all the Tmac hating faction, who say hes soft.....is Yao not the softest giant in the world.....the dude is 7 foot 6 inches and does lay ups....I love Yao, but he is not hardnose......however....the same people that love Yao, hate T-Mac...and they have produced VERY SIMILAR RESULTS!!
  • nelson
    You may have a point, but have you ever thought why Morey, Rosas, Hinkie, Les Alexander and the entire coaching staff are still leaning on our often-injured center. Its because nobody can do a better job at 5 position other Yao himself. The team is built around him. He is arguably best center in the league. With all scouting and analytics you can't replace Yao unless DHoward suddenly wants to be traded to Houston.
  • I think Kevin Martin will take a full year on a quality defensive minded side before he turns around his defense which I believe he is fully capable of doing. He has good quickness and length for a two guard. With more effort and focus he'll be able to become an above average defender. Never a top defender but a good one.
  • I've been disappointed in the Rockets defense this season. I expected them to be better defensively.

    The Rockets still had a very strong interior defender in Chuck Hayes and two good defenders in Scola and Landry. One very good-to-excellent defender on the wing in Trevor Ariza and one exceptional defender in Shane Battier. And a very good defensive point guard in Kyle Lowry. That is a lot of talent, defensively, personnel wise.

    Ranking 16th in defensive efficiency + 20th in defensive eFG% is performing well below their capabilities.
  • Do Rockets fans think Scola and Landry are good defenders? Have they been better in the past? I hadn't watched a lot of Rockets games before this year, but I've seen quite a few Rockets games this year. I've seen the Chuckwagon destroy opposing bigs in the low post, I've seen Ariza disrupt a game with his steals, I've seen Battier play good defense, and I've seen Lowry come off the bench to give the team a defensive lift (and the defense has taken a big hit in his absence). I haven't really seen anything that suggests that Scola and Landry are even average defensive players, though (although they're not clueless, so they could probably be "hidden" effectively next to Yao).
  • I'm more of a general NBA fan than a Rockets fan ... but to answer your question, I consider both players to be good defenders.

    I think both Carl Landry and Luis Scola are very good team defenders. Their pick and roll defense and general defensive rotations are both very good. They're also good in transition, at drawing charges, at closing out on shooters and solid at switching onto other players (relative to fellow PFs). In terms of man-to-man defense, they're both fairly mediocre. Vulnerable against talented post scorers with length but solid on bigs who rely on midrange jump shots and that sort of thing. Overall, I think both players make a positive contribution defensively and are therefore good defensive players.
  • Vamsi
    So, you are saying Welcome to Don Nelson's Mavericks brand of basketball and it is ok.
    I dont think that brand got the Mavericks far.
  • DowJones
    I must respectfully disagree with your characterization of the Roxs ever playing Nellie ball, I think the worst case of this Houston Rocket squad with a healthy Yao would be a slow-down version of the early 2000s Kings team, coincidentally also coached by Adelman.
  • Verbs and Nouns
    My worries lie in my opinion that defense is all about passion and sheer determination to not allow your man to beat you. On offense talent and skill come easy, God given even. I dont see that defensive desire coming from anyone other than Ariza or Battier, and recently Jeffries (who I think will be a valuable rotation guy next year amidst all the jokes about him). Yao's return is widely touted as something that will be 20/10/2 BPG but in all reality it may take some time for him to regain form, so when we look at other offensive rosters around the league and then glance at ours I dont see how we can accept a philosophy of outscore vs defend. Im saddened as well because H-Town was known for defense, and slowly but surely we'll just be 7-10th ranked offense while our defense takes a drastic fall and I dont feel that it adds up to winning basketball.
  • Alituro
    Great Read Rahat. I love defense in every sport or team I've ever played or been a fan of. As much as I hate to see my all time favorite team lose their identity, I realize the goal is to WIN regardless of any ideologies sacrificed. One important thing to note, unlike offense which is more opportunistic, coming through talent and skills, good defense is infectious. One or two good stops, and all of a sudden everybody gets involved. The stops create easy opportunities for the offense, contributing to the infectiousness on the other end. That's how leads are built and games are won. It's important as we go through this transition, for Rick to allow significant minutes in the rotation for our defensive specialists to establish the presence each game and for the new, young, defensively-challenged guys to learn it's intricacies and just how good it feels to shut someone down play after play. As I've said before, Rick doesn't have a history of playing Nelly-ball and I don't think he's going to start now. Brooks and Martin's biggest handicap defensively is they don't have the build to phsyically stop anybody, but as Hayes and Battier have shown, they need to learn effective defense within their physical limits. Just some patience and I think they'll get there.
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