The Rockets know they face a talent deficit in cobbling even an average defense from their revamped, James Harden-centric roster. No scheme will turn Harden, Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon into good defenders, or make Trevor Ariza a 25-year-old stopper again.
They are banking on the sort of happy chemistry that drives everyone to prepare a little harder, follow the game plan, and fight like hell for their teammates -- the vibe that was missing last season, when tension between Harden and Dwight Howard poisoned the locker room.
"The biggest thing with defense is that our chemistry will be good," Mike D'Antoni, the team's new head coach, told ESPN.com -- adding that he wants Houston to finish in the top 10 in points allowed per possession.
"This year, we have guys that trust each other," Harden told ESPN.com. "We are not going to take possessions off."
It is almost an article of faith that players give more on defense when they feel involved on offense -- when they get to touch the ball, and do stuff with it. "We are going to be at our best when everyone touches it," Ryan Anderson told ESPN.com, "and we really move the ball." That creates a natural tension: the Rockets built a roster of finishers whose job boils down mostly to shooting when Harden passes to them.
D'Antoni knows that players occasionally crave more in exchange for their grunt work on defense -- even if he hates to admit it. "There is something to the human nature of it," D'Antoni said. "But I don't want to believe it. Because when they feel their paycheck every two weeks, shouldn't that make you play hard on both ends? Look: you have to be a star in your role. And here, your role is: when James gets the ball to you, shoot it, and then run back and play hard as heck."
That system is devastating, by the way -- at least when Harden is on the floor. (If you look up Houston's scoring numbers with Harden resting, your computer just laughs at you.) Harden is the most brilliant pick-and-roll orchestrator outside Cleveland, and the Rockets have surrounded him with the perfect supporting cast: a pick-and-pop bomber in Anderson, two bigs -- Clint Capela and Nene -- who love to screen and zip to the rim, and just enough shooting around the arc.
They have answers for everything. Switch a big onto Harden, and he's cooking. Hug Anderson to snuff his jumper, and Harden is flying to the rim:
The dude is an artist -- all calculated shoulder fakes and sideways glances designed to open up a pass two chess moves away.
Slide a wing onto Anderson to switch the Harden-Anderson dance, and Harden just waves Capela and Nene into the action -- often on wing pick-and-rolls crafted so there is no natural weakside help defender to crash the paint:
Now that Harden brings the ball up as the anointed point guard, opponents press to try and wear him down. Harden invites the harassment. "That's fine," he said. "That makes my job easier. We just set a screen near half-court, and I'm downhill. I'm gone." Critics kill Harden for dancing with the ball, but he knows when to get rid of it early:
When teams flood Harden pick-and-rolls with a third defender -- look how early Deron Williams is helping from the right corner, and how far he ventures -- Harden whizzes crosscourt passes:
(Note: Dallas quieted Houston by smothering Harden with this exaggerated help, and forcing him to swing the ball. Expect other teams to try it -- and to switch more.)
Opponents hide their point guards on Ariza, Gordon, and Corey Brewer, and the Rockets exploit that by having those guys screen for Harden -- daring teams to switch a little guy onto him:
That Ariza drive-and-kick is proof the Harden show has room for others. But it is Harden's show. He has used up 34 percent of Houston possessions with a shot, turnover, or drawn foul, and assisted on 61 percent of teammate baskets while on the floor -- a combination no player has ever pulled over a full season. Hell, that assist rate alone would be an all-time record.
He's not selfish, but he's almost literally doing everything. Houston is dead last in passes per game; Harden often needs just one to find an open shot for someone else.
In crunch time, Harden has shown an early tendency to slow the offense and hunt for his own. Even that doesn't bother D'Antoni, and perhaps it shouldn't. Harden isolating is generally a good thing; no one can guard him, and if he spies a help defender creeping into the paint, he's ready with a laser pass. "It might not be textbook YMCA basketball," D'Antoni said. "It might not be what your dad taught you. But it's effective."
It also gets at the difference between these Rockets and D'Antoni's peak Phoenix teams. Those Suns sported three top-20 players in Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion; Nash controlled the ball as much as Harden, but he never averaged more than 13.5 shots per game. Harden has jacked almost 20, and he's had to, because he might be the only top-50 player on Houston's roster.
Having just a single star was obviously not the plan.
For a half-decade after Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming broke down, Daryl Morey, Houston's GM, operated under one rule: get stars without tanking. Every contract had to be a golden trade chip that could fetch another and another, until Houston stashed enough to nab Harden. One star would lure a second, and that twosome -- Harden and Howard -- damn near got them a third in Chris Bosh. It was masterful team-building. (How bizarre and sad is it that Houston might be better off having whiffed on Bosh, even if they gifted the Lakers a first-round pick to dump Jeremy Lin to L.A. and open cap space?)
And then this past summer the Rockets agreed to pay Anderson and Gordon $33 million per year combined. Those are not golden trade chips; Anderson's deal is a better candidate for the stretch provision than to become some appealing piece of bait in a mega-trade. The signings leave Houston with only about $10 million in projected cap space this summer -- way short of what it takes to land a star.
The moves marked an undeniable pivot. Sources familiar with the process say Houston's owner, Leslie Alexander, assumed a larger role in the team-building process, and that he was eager to rebound at any cost from the malaise of last season. The moves signaled Morey's position may not be quite as secure as it once was, league sources say. The dismissal of Gianluca Pascucci, Houston's former vice president of player personnel and a Morey confidant, was widely seen as a shot across the bow at Morey. Morey says the decision was his, and the Nets quickly snapped up Pascucci after several teams expressed interest in him.
"Last year was disappointing," Morey told ESPN.com. "It's always uncomfortable in Houston. That's how it should be. I don't feel more or less pressure about my job than I ever have."
Last season's regression drove Houston's spending spree, Morey said. The Rockets know they won't pick high enough to draft a star, and that they can't outbid Boston, Phoenix, Philly, and others on the trade market after sending out picks in the Lin and Ty Lawson deals. "We are outgunned," Morey said.
That leaves free agency as the only path to a second star, and stars generally have spurned mediocre teams. Kevin Durant didn't even grant Houston a meeting in July. "Last year hurt us in terms of perception around the league," Morey said. "We felt like if we didn't have a more successful season this year, our ability to be a top destination would be hurt."
The Rockets had room to burn amid an unprecedented cap spike, and concluded they couldn't stand pat -- or trawl the bargain bin for cheapo guys with potential to develop into trade assets. "We had a choice: keep our powder dry and value play, or go for two blue-chip players past the obvious superstars," Morey said. "It was a tough cap environment. You have to spend the money on someone."
Don't let the meager leftover cap room fool you: Houston still wants stars. "Teams that win it all generally have two top-10 players," Morey said. "We have one. We will always look for more."
The Rockets are confident everyone will thrive in D'Antoni's go-go system, bumping up their trade value, and that they can open cap space in a pinch -- via trade, waiver, or an unexpected cap leap. "We may have created some downside risk for ourselves," Morey said. "But if we're as good we think we are gonna be -- and that's a team that gets home-court in first round, or just short of that -- I don't see any problems getting it done."
Houston probably won't hit that mark if they finish 27th in points allowed per possession -- their current rank. "We have to commit to defense," said Jeff Bzdelik, the assistant coach charged with guiding Houston on that end, "or we're just a .500 team that runs up and down a lot."
Believe it or not, they are actually (kind of) trying. Before the season, Morey's crew culled video of every pick-and-roll faced by top-10 defenses in each of the last three seasons -- about 59,000 ball screens -- and crunched numbers on which strategies worked best against every variety. Bzdelik drafted a set of foundational rules based on that information.
They still start each practice with drills on transition defense, their old bugaboo, and call out breakdowns in film sessions. Coaches found mistakes on 65 percent of Houston's defensive possessions during their loss in Cleveland last week, Bzdelik said.
Everyone appears to be (mostly) working hard. They're talking, rushing out on shooters, and limiting the number of shots at the rim; only five teams have allowed fewer attempts from the restricted area so far. Their transition defense ranks around league average, a huge triumph given last season's lollygagging and the worst turnover rate in the league. Beverley's return will help.
"We have some good individual defenders," D'Antoni said. "If the rest of them just try, well, that's the plan."
They just face so many structural limitations. Anderson is lethargic at a position where opponents can run him through pick-and-rolls until he breaks. More teams will go small against Anderson, forcing him to chase speedier wings -- especially because those same wings can run him off the arc on the other end.
Anderson can bully those guys in the post, but teams don't fear him there. They know exactly what's coming when Anderson goes to the block: a step-back jumper, or a spinning layup. He never passes, and his teammates have already realized it; Ariza chatted with Anderson in New York last week after Anderson missed him wide open in the corner during another post spin job. "Trevor talked to me right away," Anderson said. "I need to be a better playmaker there."
Capela is learning on the job, and sometimes lets point guards penetrate too far on the pick-and-roll -- triggering more emergency help away from enemy shooters, coaches say. Ariza has lost a step. Brewer is an unreliable gambler. Harden and Gordon just aren't good enough over full games. Run enough motion and screening action, and the Rockets will screw up:
Teams are feasting from 3-point range, and that low number of shots allowed near the hoop doesn't mean much when opponents hit better than 65 percent of them -- the third-highest such mark in the league, per NBA.com.
Houston hopes to mitigate some of this by keeping things even simpler, and switching all over the floor. "We have guys who are challenged just to get through screens," Bzdelik said. "If we switch, they don't have to do that. We keep bodies on bodies."
Capela and Nene are experts at staying in front of waterbugs, and Harden is surprisingly stout in the post. Sam Dekker has looked comfortable chasing smaller players, a welcome boost to Houston's depth with Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas absent.
But Gordon is undersized against wings, and dispatching their tallest players 25 feet from the rim risks a crisis on the glass -- a troubling trade-off given Houston was the league's worst defensive rebounding team with Howard. They're bottom 10 so far this season, and mean-spirited behemoths love shoving Capela almost out of bounds when a shot goes up.
On a more basic level, it's hard to kick old habits. Harden still spaces out too often when he's off the ball. Two teams have grown so weary of Anderson's soft defense, they let him go for nothing. Houston's collective first step in transition comes and goes:
Harden compounds turnovers with the NBA's version of pestering the goalie -- leaping and poking for steals at half-court instead of rushing back. "If there is even a one-second delay in sprinting back," Bzdelik said, "we have no chance."
The Rockets look awesome when the shots are falling, and they are rolling. It's unclear if they can dig down and do the grimy stuff on nights when they are cold from deep, or an elite defense mucks up Harden's game. They've shown signs, including their fourth quarter in Washington on Monday, and they won 56 games two years ago when Howard missed half the season. They have never gotten enough credit for rallying from 3-1 down against the Clippers. Weak-willed teams don't do that, not even to the Clippers.
But even if these Rockets hit their ceiling, they are a one-star system team that needs more talent to compete at the very top.
It's sort of incredible that Harden and Russell Westbrook, second and third bananas for years in Oklahoma City, now helm upper-middle-class teams facing the same question: which second star wants to come play with the guy who has the ball all the time?
Peak Howard was, in theory, the ideal second star for Harden: an all-time defender who would cover Harden's weaknesses, and didn't need the ball unless Harden passed it to him on the pick-and-roll. But Howard considered that role beneath him, and the Rockets are still searching.
Harden resists the notion that he can play only this ball-dominant style. "Listen," he told ESPN.com, "I can play with anybody. I can play off the ball, on the ball, whatever. I'm just doing what my coaches ask me to do."
Still: Houston will look at every dive-and-dunk rim protector that hits free agency during Harden's tenure. Failing that, Houston faces a choice: find small upgrades that fit the current system seamlessly, or go big for stars with skill sets that might overlap a bit with Harden's. Maybe they find a mid-salaried wing with longer arms, and the ability to do a bit more off the bounce than Ariza.
Maybe they unearth a master of the short roll -- a guy who can set picks, slide to the foul line, catch a pass from Harden and make plays from there. Boris Diaw thrived in that role under D'Antoni in Phoenix. Houston could have kept Terrence Jones for this job on the cheap, but concerns about his health and work ethic turned off suitors.
Maybe Motiejunas signs, stays healthy and makes a leap.
In the end, expect Morey to chase stars again -- even if they need the ball. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan don't make for the cleanest spread pick-and-roll fit in L.A., but they are all studs, and the Clips have found a way to make it work. You can bet both Houston and Oklahoma City hope to pitch Griffin; he has experience playing off a ball-dominant lead guard, and finding ways to assert himself anyway -- in the post, leading the break, and playing connector between Paul and Jordan.
"We have one guy who can be the best player on a championship team," Morey said. "I have zero doubt of that. The more you have the better, as long as they mesh."
10 Things I Like And Don't Like
1. Julius Randle and the rollicking Lake Show
Kiddie Showtime is so fun. Even Nick Young is doing helpful basketball things!
Seriously: Luke Walton might have salvaged Nick Young! Like, how did that happen? What did Walton say to motivate him? How much would he charge to record it so I could play it whenever I'm feeling down?
Randle is the least flashy of the Lakers' kiddos, but his early-season surge is the most encouraging post-Kobe subplot. Randle is the anti-modern big; he can't shoot 3s or protect the rim, and the pace-and-space era is supposedly weeding those guys out. Larry Nance Jr. looked like a more intriguing long-term fit at power forward for parts of last season.
But bigs who face up, drive into the defense, and draw a second defender open space for their teammates. They just do it in a different way -- provided they whip the right passes. Randle is a canny passer, and when teams play him one-on-one, he's bulldozing his way to floaters and soft-touch fadeaways.
He can go coast-to-coast after grabbing a rebound, and when he tries, he's a mobile defender capable of switching onto smaller guys.
The coaching staff loves Nance; he's a better defender than Randle, with a jumper that might stretch further in a couple of seasons. He does all the gritty high-IQ things that win. But the Lakers are plus-4 in 38 minutes with both Randle and Nance on the floor, and Walton should explore that more.
2. Dancing into jumpers
We're nearing the point at which players can do the Loco-Motion as they gather for jumpers. Referees stared right at Giannis Antetokounmpo line-dancing into a potential game-winning buzzer-beater on the last possession of regulation Sunday in Dallas -- and choked on their whistles.
Shooters gain a huge advantage if they can get away with extra steps to balance themselves. Defenders know the rhythm of a normal NBA jumper, and they can't adjust their footwork in the heat of the moment to guard a guy suddenly allowed to sidestep them.
I wish the refs had whistled Antetokounmpo for walking, even if it would have short-circuited an edge-of-your-seat possession. It might have had a chilling effect. The NBA needs to crack down before someone hits a postseason game-winner after a blatant travel. Admitting that error the next day will be more embarrassing than their concession Monday that Antetokounmpo traveled (duh).
3. Hassan Whiteside, swallowing shots whole
No one else does this:
Whiteside is the NBA's Venus flytrap. The ball is there, and then, bam, it's gone -- enveloped into invisibility within Whiteside's giant hands. Yeah, sometimes these are goaltends, and Whiteside's overheated pursuit of no-chance-in-hell rejections can leave Miami exposed under the rim. I don't care. Awesome things are awesome.
4. Utah, now with flexibility!
The Jazz closed their comeback in New York on Sunday with a small-ball group of George Hill (on fire!), Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson, and Rudy Gobert. It is really hard to defend lineups featuring four 3-point shooters around an athletic dive-and-dunk screen-setter -- especially when all four perimeter players can run a nice pick-and-roll. Expect this group -- and the version with Derrick Favors in Gobert's place -- to be a crunch-time staple.
Utah hasn't had the flexibility to shape-shift like this in a long time. Few teams do. To go small, coaches usually have to shoehorn in that extra wing who either can't shoot, dribble, or pass.
Utah has faith in the long-term viability of its mammoth Favors-Gobert partnership. Lineups featuring those two have generally scored well over the last two seasons. But there will be nights against elite defenses when the Jazz can't pry open enough space to score with both bigs on the floor -- nights when they have to downsize to survive.
You need that versatility to navigate the playoffs. That's why Diaw became such a key piece of San Antonio's long runs in 2013 and 2014: when defenses suffocated the Tiago Splitter-Tim Duncan pairing, the Spurs plopped Diaw into Splitter's spot -- loosening the floor without sacrificing much on defense. Trey Lyles may eventually play that role for Utah.
One potential difference: The Spurs had the cap flexibility to hoard that depth without breaking the bank. They had a star on a rookie contract (Kawhi Leonard), veterans who took slight discounts to stay, and reclamation projects -- like Diaw -- who signed on the cheap. Utah will not have that luxury. They may face some hard choices, and they need more information about how Favors and Gobert mesh before they make any of them.
5. The unpleasantness of Taj Gibson
I mean this in the best possible way: it must be miserable to play against Gibson. He sets nasty, physical screens. When he attacks off the dribble, he will lay a hard shoulder into some sucker's chest to create room for a hook or floater. Fend him off with a weak pseudo-box-out, and Gibson will just throw your ass aside. Form real resistance, and Gibson might use dirty tricks to snag prime rebounding position -- pointed elbows, forearm shivers into your lower back, and hockey checks.
You feel Taj Gibson. With Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol gone, Chicago's most underappreciated player is finally getting his due. Gibson is shooting 53 percent, generating some late-clock offense from nothing, snagging offensive boards at a career-best rate, and doing his best to anchor Chicago's defense as the de facto center on smaller second units.
6. The Thunder during breaks in the Westbrook show
The Thunder are just an average-ish offensive team with Westbrook on the floor, and when he rests, holy hell do they become unwatchable. They have scrounged just 84 points per 100 possessions in those precarious minutes, a number so far below Philly's league-worst mark it makes you wonder if a D-League team could pull it off.
Oklahoma City just doesn't have a ton of bench pop. Smart teams are doubling Enes Kanter in the post, daring him to fling passes all over the arena. Getting Cameron Payne back will help, and Victor Oladipo figures to settle in as the alpha dog in hybrid lineups; he's just 8-of-27 so far without Westbrook on the floor, per NBA.com.
But this is something to monitor. The Thunder are shooting-poor, and their entire offense revolves around Westbrook's singular ability to attack the rim from any angle, at any time.
7. The Suns, bringing purple back
Hallelujah. The Suns mercy-killed their misguided Halloween-y black-and-orange, and brought back the purple we all know and love.
The shift away from purple three seasons ago was an attempt to symbolically move on from the Steve Nash era, said Jason Rowley, the Suns' president. "The idea was to be a little more edgy," Rowley said. "Black tends to be a very popular selling color, in terms of uniforms and merchandise."
Credit the Suns for gauging fan reaction, and moonwalking back to purple. "Once you go that route, you realize, 'Hey, we also need to be true to our traditions,'" Rowley said. "And part of our tradition is the purple and orange color scheme."
It can be hard to untangle nostalgia from artistic quality. Sometimes, we like bad stuff because it reminds us of happier times. The Suns' purple is a case where good taste and good vibes align.
8. Sacramento's new road duds
Speaking of purple!
The Kings nailed every aspect of their makeover. Their old look bordered on garish, with a darker purple and a logo so cluttered it was almost indecipherable.
Their new road duds might be the highlight. That purple is gorgeous -- muted, but without losing its purpleness. It is almost regal. Slapping stripes down each side risks overstimulating the eye, but the central gray is a calming shade that mostly serves to highlight the purple around it.
The new font is clean, and that tiny gray crown logo in the middle of the neckline is a subtle masterstroke. Their purple alternates, sporting "SAC" instead of "KINGS," are even snazzier.
9. Joel Embiid, must-see TV
Man, this is the season of crazy statistical outliers. Embiid's per-36 minute averages: 30 points, 11.5 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, almost a dozen foul shots, 5.7 fouls and 7.4 turnovers. Honestly, the turnovers might be the most impressive number. No rotation guy has ever averaged more than 5.6 cough-ups per 36 minutes over a full season. The Sixers are letting Embiid do whatever he wants, and it is amazing.
10. Kelly Oubre, wandering around
Oubre is lost on defense, one reason the shallow Wiz are over-reliant on their starters -- plus Marcus Thornton. Relying on Marcus Thornton is good way to lose games.
Oubre smacks into picks all over the floor, both on and off the ball, and just doesn't know where to be once an opposing offense forces Washington into rotations.
Oubre's only 20, and he has the raw tools to turn into a solid two-way wing. But the Wiz are under pressure to win now after missing the playoffs, and he doesn't look ready.