It’s a great time to be the Houston Rockets, who are riding a 14-game winning streak heading into their meeting with the Lakers on Wednesday night.
Our Basketball Power Index has the Rockets favored in every game but one the rest of the season (a road game against the Raptors in March), which includes two games against the Warriors. And it’s not just the offense that has put them in this position to win, but the defense too.
The Rockets entered Tuesday ranked sixth in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions, at 104.7. They finished last season ranked 19th at 109.0.
Areas of improvement
What are some of the things we can attribute this to?
The Rockets have made a significant improvement in a couple of areas. They went from 21st in defensive rebound percentage last season to second so far this season. More defensive rebounds means fewer second-chance points allowed. They went from 26th in second-chance points allowed (13.8) to 11th thus far (11.7).
The Rockets have also improved slightly in steals (as you might expect from a team that added Chris Paul). They rank fourth in the NBA in steals per game and fifth in the NBA in deflections per game. They ranked 13th in the latter last season.
The Rockets and the Thunder are the only teams to rank in the top 5 in deflections per game and loose balls recovered per game so far
Rockets rank fifth in the NBA in deflections per game this season (14.6). They ranked 13th in that category last season.
The Rockets and Thunder are the only teams to rank in the top 5 in deflections per game and loose balls recovered per game.
The Rockets also defend post-ups well. According to Second Spectrum the Rockets allow 0.78 points per chance on post-ups. That's tied for the second-best by any team on any particular play-type behind only the Lakers defense on hand-offs (0.76).
Who are the keys?
The defensive rebounding improvements are largely attributable to Clint Capela. Second Spectrum (which does video tracking of NBA games for teams and media) has a stat that it calls Rebounds Above Expectations, which looks at a player’s probability of getting a rebound compared to the probability that he should get the rebound. Capela ranks first in the league in that stat, which might explain how his rebounds per game have jumped from 8.1 last season to 11.3 this season in a similar number of minutes.
The Rockets' best
Gordon, who moved to the bench with the return of Paul, is allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from the field when he is the closest defender. Taking 3-pointers into account, he’s allowed an effective field goal percentage of 44 percent, 15th-best in the NBA (out of more than 300 players. He also rarely allows shots, yielding 10.3 per 100 possessions (third lowest in the NBA).
Gordon is one of several Rockets who defends post-ups well, per Second Spectrum. He ranks second in the NBA in post-up effectiveness, yielding 0.58 points per chance. Trevor Ariza also ranks in the top 10. James Harden rates just outside the top 20, but is third-best among those who have been posted up most often (at least 50 times).
The Rockets may also miss Mbah a Moute, with whom they allow 97.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, but 106.5 per 100 when he’s off the court.
Is this Mike D’Antoni’s best defensive team? In the 2005-06 season, D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns allowed 102.9 points per 100 possessions, slightly below what his current team is averaging.
The big difference is in relative performance. That Suns team ranked 16th in the NBA. This team currently ranks far better – sixth overall. It’s another way in which these Rockets are unlike any other team D’Antoni has had.
Vincent Johnson also contributed to this story.