Update: This article was originally written during the beginning of the NBA season for the Houston Chron. Since then, James Harden has played like a world-beating MVP and the Rockets are still on a roll.
Houston, we have a defense.
Not many people saw this start coming. The Rockets are 7-1, and while people may be quick to dismiss it as the result of a relatively easy schedule thus far, isn’t part of being a great team wiping the floor with lesser opponents? If this keeps up, I’ll be happy to eat crow after decrying Daryl Morey’s offseason.
The Rockets have picked up where they left off on offense; they’re eighth in the league in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) at 106.4. And look at that shot chart, which reads like something out of Daryl Morey’s fantasies. They’re doing well close to the basket and shooting it efficiently from 3-point range, especially from the corners, while eschewing the midrange shot. This results in a true shooting percentage (percentages with free throws, 2-pointers, and 3-pointers weighted differently) of 60%, good for third in the league.
It’s the early defense that’s been the major surprise. The team’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) has gone from a mediocre 103.1 last year to 93.7 so far this year. That’s good for first in the NBA. Trevor Ariza, Morey’s big free agent prize, has continued his hot play from last year, providing elite shooting with elite perimeter defense. Suddenly, the Rockets boast three elite defenders in Ariza, Patrick Beverly, and Dwight Howard. Even James Harden’s effort level has gone up on that end!
By all metrics, the Rockets are off to a terrific start. Offense was never going to be the question. James Harden’s offenses in Houston have never finished outside the top six in offensive rating. However, his defenses have never sniffed the top ten, either. Looking back at the last ten years, the NBA Finals winner has never finished outside the top ten in defensive rating. In fact, six out of the ten winners have finished in the top five. In the time that Harden has been with the Rockets, Ariza’s defenses though have always ranked in the top 10. And he didn’t get to work with a rim protector anywhere near the level of Dwight Howard.
Trevor Ariza is undeniably an elite 3-and-D wing. While it may be a slightly unfair to Chandler Parsons, it is hard to imagine Ariza allowing Damian Lillard to get so open for that season killing 3-pointer in last season’s playoffs. In a brutal Western Conference, the Rockets’ improved defense, should it sustain, could hold the key to postseason glory.