Forecasting the Houston defense

I’ve mused since the signings that I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the team repeating its success from 2015.  Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon represent the first pure shooters James Harden has played with in Houston, making an already potent offense even more dangerous.  But I’ve also said the team is nearly as likely to be a complete disaster.  As Ian Levy of Nylon Calculus noted recently, in a piece titled ‘Are the Houston Rockets headed for a terrible defensive season?‘, in adding Anderson and Gordon, the 21st ranked defense in the league is adding two players who, by box plus-minus, were estimated to be among the 40-worst defenders in the league.

By the same metric, the Rockets had just three above average defenders in their regular rotation in Dwight Howard, Clint Capela, and Trevor Ariza, and one of those three is gone.  Add in Mike D’Antoni who, as Levy points out, “still rates out as one of the worst defensive coaches in history” when considering his Knicks and Lakers teams, and its easy to understand the pessimism.

Levy goes on to explain that the Rockets’ offensive philosophy inherently presents many defensive challenges:

Looking at the rest of the league, there is an established relationship between offensive and defensive transition percentage — that is to say teams that score a lot of easy baskets in transition also usually give up a lot of easy baskets in transition.

There is also the issue of floor balance and the fact that teams that attack the rim more often (as Houston does), in general, are prone to giving up more transition baskets. These elements that are baked into Houston’s offense — attack the rim, push the pace — can give up a lot of high-quality scoring opportunities for their opponents and thus make it difficult to limit an opponent’s effective field goal percentage.

This issue can bleed into defensive rebounding as well. Houston finished last in the league in defensive rebound percentage last season, and first in the league in the percentage of their offensive possessions that came in transition. The Rockets were quite a bit worse on the defensive glass than would have been expected given their transition percentage, but there is still a fairly clear trend.

And I’ve noted previously, that defensive rebounding, not rim protection, is actually where the Rockets will miss Dwight Howard the most.

Levy wonders “[h]ow much are the Rockets willing to tweak their offensive style to maintain defensive integrity[?]”  The question corresponds with the initial concerns over the D’Antoni hiring: his system and principles overlap with their under arching philosophy.  To that end, it is difficult to envision a departure from last season in that regard.  Levy notes that an elite defense can be achieved in spite of an uptempo offense, citing Golden State, but disregards them as an “absurd outlier” with a formula that is “not easily replicable without their personnel.”  Houston, of course, does not have the Warriors’ defensive talent.

This will be Jeff Bzdelik’s challenge.  Will he get D’Antoni to compromise and achieve a middle ground?  Or will Houston need to resort to outscoring teams every night?  The latter course too could very well be effective if the Rockets can even make their defense average, an outcome which, in and of itself, would represent a notable improvement.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of

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