For the first time since 2009, the Houston Rockets are in the postseason. And it still isn't enough.
Not for a team with high-volume scorer James Harden, as well as rising stars in the likes of Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Thomas Robinson. This Rockets team, led by coach Kevin McHale, wants to be more than an eighth seed that's likely going to end up as Oklahoma City's first victim this postseason.
While there is still a possibility they can steal the series, especially with how improved they look in Game 2 and the future absence of Russell Westbrook, but they will need to wait until the offseason before being brought up with legitimate contenders such as the Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
At the moment, it would be difficult to claim them as borderline contenders along with the likes of the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. Because even with the league's fifth top scorer (Harden, who averaged 25.9 points per game in his first year as a primary option), the Rockets are still a long way from being in the same ranks as the Thunder or Spurs.
Houston's struggles this year stemmed from their defensive ineptitude. They ran the risk of being a high-octane offense, averaging a league-high 98.6 possessions per game, and became the league's sixth most efficient offense.
As a result of the quick play and focus on offense, the Rockets ended up as a middle-of-the-pack defensive squad, yielding 103.5 points per 100 possessions, according to John Hollinger's rankings. The only playoff teams with a worse defensive efficiency are the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, with the New York Knicks being tied with the Rockets.
Only the Knicks could be considered a contender among those four, and they have to make an unreasonable amount of three-pointers and jumpers every game just to boast being the second best team in the East.
Houston's defensive efficiency, however, doesn't matchup with how porous the Rockets defense was this season. They ranked 28th in the league giving up 102.5 points per game, the worst of any playoff team.
Thanks to SynergySports, we are able to get an in-depth look at where the Rockets struggled on defense throughout the season, and it's not a pretty picture.
Houston ranked 20th or worst when defending post-ups, the pick-and-roll man, spot-ups, off-screens, handoffs (they ranked worst in the league defending those plays) and transition opportunities. Their lone successes on defense came when defending the pick-and-roll ball-handler and isolations.
As for offense? The Houston Rockets (second in the league in points per game, a percentage point behind the Denver Nuggets for first) were a force to be reckoned with, especially with the pick-and-roll ball-handler, which ranked first in the league.
Houston ranked fifth in points per possession on offense, but ranked 21st in PPP given up.
While it's disappointing how inefficient the Rockets were around the rim, ranking 26th in post-ups and 21st in PPP on offensive rebounds, they became a team that had to have its shooters defended on pick-and-rolls and spot-ups.
The Rockets ranked eighth in three-point percentage and second in three-point makes, being one of only two teams to average at least 10 makes per game. The only characteristic of this team worth worrying about on the offensive end is the lack of an inside scoring presence, which can be eradicated with the development of Thomas Robinson.
No, it's defense where this Rockets team is going to need to make some improvements over the summer if they're looking to establish themselves as a contender.
Do you start by asking your top player to improve on that end of the floor? According to SynergySports, Harden ranked 307th in PPP given up and was allowing his assignment to shoot 40 percent from the floor.
Harden handled himself well as a defender in isolations (ranking 69th and only giving up 0.71 PPP, per Synergy), but was a disaster when defending spot-ups and players coming off the pick-and-roll. With opponents going to the spot-up 39 percent of the time, Harden allowed his opponent to shoot 41 percent.
On pick-and-rolls, the ball-handler was scoring 41 percent of the time as well. When defending assignments off screens, Harden was allowing his man to score 46 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports.
Isn't it obvious? Harden isn't aggressive enough fighting through screens. He had success in defending one-on-one situations, at least in isolations along the perimeter, but couldn't defend his assignment when his opponent garnered the help of a big man to shed Harden.
He also has the tendency to ball-watch, as seen by this poor effort that allowed LeBron James to get into the lane for a layup during Harden's final game as a member of the Thunder:
But Harden isn't going to be singled out. To be as poor a defensive team as the Rockets were this year, Harden was obviously going to need some help, and he found it in his backcourt teammate, Jeremy Lin.
Unlike Harden, who defended isolation plays well, Lin was an absolute trainwreck. Ranking 283rd in defending those plays, Lin was allowing his opponent to shoot 46 percent overall, 43 percent on three-pointers, on plays where it was a simple one-on-one situation, according to Synergy.
Because he can't defend isolations, used by his opponent nearly 16 percent of the time, the Rockets are forced to center their focus on whoever is planning on taking Lin off the dribble. It's surprising that opponents didn't abuse Lin more, possibly because of the looming "Asik-Wall" underneath the rim.
Lin fared better in defending pick-and-rolls (ranking 95th and giving up 0.76 PPP, per SynergySports), but also struggled in guarding spot-ups, allowing his assignment to shoot 39 percent from beyond the arc.
However, opponents were able to convert better than 50 percent of their shots when generating offense directly from the pick-and-roll man. The problems on defense are obviously starting at the top.
In case you couldn't already tell, the Rockets had a difficult time defending jumpers. When it comes to defending beyond the perimeter, Houston was allowing their opponent to shoot 43 percent on transition plays, 39 percent on spot-ups, 38 percent on off-screens and 38 percent on handoffs, according to Synergy.
Houston forced their opponent into over 1,700 spot-up shots, yet yielded a 40 percent completion rate, according to SynergySports. There has to be a better effort in getting out to the perimeter, or on jump shooters altogether, and creating some discomfort.
However, there are some signs of encouragement. Chandler Parsons, for example, was a former second-round pick who is among Houston's top defenders. He ranked 38th in defending the pick-and-roll man and 89th in isolations, according to SynergySports.
Once again, however, Parsons fit into the Rockets' dynamic of being unable to defend spot-ups, ranking 211th and allowing his opponent to shoot 39 percent from beyond the arc. Overall, Parsons was allowing his assignment to shoot 38 percent from the land of three, according to Synergy.
That covers the perimeter, but surely the Rockets' imposing center, Omer Asik, had something to say to expectant scorers, right?
Well, yes and no. Asik was allowing his post-up opponent into 45 percent shooting and gave up a similar shooting percentage in his defense overall. He performed a formidable job on spot-ups, allowing his opponent to shoot 42 percent from the field, per Synergy, and showcasing an ability to hold his own when brought out of his comfort zone.
Still, Asik was arguably one of the Rockets' top defenders on spot-ups. He's able to cover a lot of ground, which is perfect for a Rockets team that is usually in need of its second-line of defense to deter potential scorers.
Unfortunately for Houston, there just aren't many defensive options outside of Asik, who is spending the majority of his time defending post-ups and picking up the slack of teammates who can't keep their man in front of them.
The Rockets are overwhelmed with talent on the offensive end, yet are extremely lacking on defense. There's no doubt that top offensive contributors such as Harden and Carlos Delfino can provide on that end, but this game is a two-way street and no team with a great offense and a poor defense is winning an NBA title anytime soon.
If those Phoenix Suns teams of the 2000s weren't even making the Finals, then the Rockets aren't going to become the first to break the trend. It takes a great defense in order to be recognized as a team that can legitimately compete for a title.
Houston needs more than what they currently have. Fortunately, they'll have room to spend with a payroll for 2013-'14 that's only $38 million, which even includes the nearly $14 million Harden will be making.
Believe it or not, Francisco Garcia is currently making more than any other member of this Rockets team, raking in $6.1 million this year.
Houston will also have several decisions to make within the roster, including deciding on what team options to pick up amongst Parsons, Delfino, Garcia, Greg Smith and Aaron Brooks.
With Harden on the roster, Houston should be able to convince some above-average players to join the squad. Dwight Howard was linked to Houston during his tumultuous ride last season, but this season hasn't exactly raised enough spirits to hand over a possible $100 million contract to him.
Plus, Howard re-signing with the Los Angeles Lakers appears to be likely.
Memphis Grizzlies guard/forward Tony Allen will be a free agent this summer, and would be a huge defensive boost along the perimeter for Houston if he can be signed. Allen ranked 37th in PPP given up, including ranking 16th in defending the pick-and-roll ball-handler, 77th on isolations and 103rd on spot-ups.
However, the Rockets would likely have him coming off the bench, unless they choose to either move Harden to small forward or Parsons to power. Still, Allen represents a huge answer to Houston's perimeter defending woes.
Finding a defensive-stopper doesn't have to be a costly endeavor. There are plenty of role players, such as Matt Barnes, Brandon Rush and Shawn Marion (named only because we're coming to the end of his career), who can come in and give Houston a cost-efficient boost along the perimeter.
As for big men, I'm waiting until 2014 rolls around before shelling out any significant amounts of money.
With the Miami Heat's "Big Three" set to opt out and become free agents, there is a possibility that Chris Bosh, the oft-forgotten member of the All-Star trio, chooses to go somewhere that would pay him more and put him in a grander spotlight on offense once again.
Bosh has actually improved his defense since joining the Heat, recently matching a career-high with 1.4 blocks per game. With Houston's need for a scoring big who can stretch the floor and open up the lane for guys like Harden and Parsons, Bosh would be a tremendous pickup.
But Houston can't worry about that. What they need to worry about now, even before the offseason, is possibly stealing a series from a stunned Thunder team that will now be without one of its top two scorers.
The defense will come, but the offense will be there. Trying to do nothing other than outscore an opponent hardly ever works in the postseason, but it could create some turbulence along the way for a specific No. 1 seeded team and some confidence for a young No. 8 seed.
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