Mike D'Antoni known for offense, but Rockets making D a priority

HOUSTON -- This is the year of change for the Houston Rockets.

A new coach. A new position and leadership role for James Harden. A new offense. A new court. A new center and power forward. Even the guy who plays Clutch, the Rockets’ mascot, has changed.

But perhaps more than anything else, the Rockets need to change their defensive identity.

All of those embarrassing YouTube and Vine videos of Harden missing defensive assignments? They must become a thing of the past. The team also must learn how to prevent backdoor cuts and display a desire to chase down open shooters.

There can be no excuses.

Following the hire of Mike D’Antoni as head coach, Jeff Bzdelik was brought in next. He gained employment because he can fix defenses.

Bzdelik keeps it simple. Along with assistant coach Roy Rogers, the pair can be seen at Rockets practices telling players to communicate more and move their feet to open spots on the floor to guard shooters.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of things,” Bzdelik said. “You can’t let what happens on offense dictate your defensive energy. Defense needs to be constant, offense is a variable. It’s a mindset more so than anything else, to take it personal when you get scored upon.”

It’s hard to judge based on two preseason games just where the Rockets are on the defensive end. However, after a 130-103 victory over the New York Knicks on Tuesday night, Harden praised the defensive effort.

“It felt good. I think it started with our defense, though,” Harden said. “Just for the first quarter, we held them to 15 points; that’s why we were able to get off to a big lead. We’ve just got to be better. We’ve got to be better for all four quarters. Stay in our defensive intensity and just be solid. We knew we can score, but defensively, we’ve just got to be solid for four quarters. And we will, it’s just a learning experience for us.”

The defensive numbers from last season were abysmal.

Houston gave up the most offensive rebounds (970) and highest corner 3-point percentage (30.6) in the league. No other NBA team gave up more than 30 percent on corner 3s.

The Rockets’ defensive rating per 100 possessions, at 109.1, was the ninth worst in the league. Opponents scored an average of 106.4 points per game, sixth most in the league.

Of course, these are just numbers.

At times last season, it appeared effort was missing from the Rockets on the defensive end. Bzdelik speaks to his team about effort and caring -- making those things a priority.

“It’s really hard to guard people in this league,” Bzdelik said. “When you give your best effort ... there’s [still] going to be breakdowns. And when breakdowns occur, there needs to be help, and to take it another layer, there needs to be help and everybody needs to be on a string to trust and have each other’s back.”

D’Antoni doesn’t have the reputation of a coach who cares about defense. The stories from his days in Phoenix were of a man who didn’t even practice it.

But that is no longer the case. The Rockets are discussing and practicing defense. That includes defending the pick-and-roll, rotating over to shooters, boxing out and getting in shooters' faces. During a recent practice, Bzdelik instructed K.J. McDaniels to get closer to a shooter during a drill.

D’Antoni has talked about wanting a defender on the floor -- Patrick Beverley -- with Harden in the backcourt. D’Antoni also has a desire to make McDaniels not only a versatile offensive player who can play three positions, but also one of the best defenders on the team.

McDaniels has embraced the role. In the Rockets' win over the Knicks, he blocked Brandon Jennings on a fast break, and on another play, McDaniels beat two defenders to grab an offensive rebound.

“It means a lot coming from the head coach,” McDaniels said. “I feel like I can do that and (push) it to the limit and do that. Scouting is definitely important, but having the will to want to go out there and do it and want to go out there and defend -- that will be a difference this year on our team.”

Will this year ultimately be different for the Rockets? Most can imagine what the offense will resemble with Harden as the new point guard and two accomplished shooters, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, preparing to pounce on defenses from the outside.

But envisioning Houston as a defensive team?

Now that requires more of a leap.

“To get stops, everybody needs to be involved and everybody needs to trust one another and [have] a clarity to what your schemes are,” Bzdelik said. “That needs to be consistent, there needs to be a consistent effort and discipline to one scheme defensively. Everybody is on a string, and everybody does their job.”