The problem was, of course, defense. The Rockets ranked 12th in defensive efficiency entering the playoffs, but they were absolutely lit up by the Blazers. Houston's defense surrendered nearly 112 points per 100 possessions to Portland—a rate that would have ranked dead last in the league by a wide margin in the regular season.
The Rockets will be looking to seal a few of their defensive holes over the summer, and there are a few ways they could do just that.
This would be the easiest long-term solution, and it comes down to James Harden and Chandler Parsons.
Harden and Parsons are both wonderful offensive players, but unless they improve defensively, a natural cap is placed on the Houston defense. Topnotch defensive teams can't have two wings log heavy minutes and play below-average to terrible defense.
Harden's poor defense has been well-documented over the past few seasons, but even so, what he's capable of on that end is shocking at times (in a bad way). At his worst, Harden is a dangerous combination of inactive and apathetic, and the Blazers took advantage of that in the playoffs by slanting the action toward him as much as possible.
Harden's a serial ball-watcher, and too often he opts to swipe at the ball as his man goes by him rather than move his feet and attempt not to surrender position.
Defensive gaffes like that are awful, but even more damaging are the little, less noticeable habits that strain the rest of the Rockets defense. Not fighting over screens, jogging back in transition, lazy switches...it all hurts.
Richard Li of Red94 recently did a little digging concerning Harden's defensive activity, writing:
ESPN’s recap of game 1 alluded to a stat that surprised me a bit, so I double checked to verify its veracity. Out of 160 players who have played at least 50 games and at least 25 minutes per game, James Harden ranks 159th in distance traveled per 48 minutes at 2.9 miles, just barely ahead of the less-than-spry Paul Pierce. In comparison, his backcourt teammate, the energetic Pat Beverley, ranks 8th at 3.5 miles.
When Harden is engaged (as he was in Game 6 against the Blazers), he's at the very least a passable defender, and the Rockets need that much from him next year.
Parsons isn't nearly as bad as Harden, but he has some of the same habits. That's a shame because he has all of the tools to be a very good defensive wing (and is at times).
Parsons is smart and rangy, and most advanced metrics have him hovering around average defensively. That's not bad, but he could be much better if, like Harden, he gave more effort and didn't lose focus off the ball so often.
Poor perimeter defense affects the entire team. The rest of Houston's roster has to deal with funky matchups when the team tries to hide Harden on less threatening players. And Howard's defensive numbers pale in comparison to other elite rim protectors, primarily because opponents can get to the rim unimpeded, without another defender attached at the hip.
If Harden and Parsons take just a small step forward on defense, a lot of Houston's issues would be solved. Heck, even small improvements on offense could go a long way toward helping the defense.
Only the Philadelphia 76ers turned the ball over at a higher rate than the Rockets last season, and because of that, Houston gave up a ton of transition opportunities, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required). Buckets don't come any easier than in transition, and cutting down on just one or two giveaways a game could mean a lot.
Harden, Howard and Jeremy Lin are the worst offenders, but it's a team-wide issue. The Rockets play at a high pace, but still, there's no reason to be turning the ball over on 16 percent of all possessions. Definitely something to focus on.
It's tempting to think that the Rockets might be able to swing some kind of impact deal involving either Lin or Omer Asik, but they're each slated to make nearly $15 million next season, and not many teams will bite on that money.
Any actual personnel upgrades are likely to come through free agency, and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sounds confident that he can shed salary if need be.
The Rockets are probably going to have to go bargain hunting, but there are a few interesting unrestricted free agents out there who could provide some defensive punch in limited minutes. C.J. Miles and Thabo Sefolosha are perhaps the best fits.
Miles isn't an elite defender, but he's much better than Harden or Parsons, and as an added bonus, he can really shoot. He canned 39 percent of his threes last season, and the Cleveland Cavaliers were nearly four points per 100 possessions better defensively when he was on the court—a massive swing.
Miles played big minutes at both the 2 and 3 this year, per 82games—making him a good fit in smaller lineups that feature Parsons at the 4—and he's big and quick enough to check most wings.
Sefolosha isn't at Miles' level offensively, but he's a true wing stopper—one of the league's top perimeter defenders by pretty much any measure. And for what it's worth, though his three-point shot mysteriously vanished this year, he did shoot over 40 percent from deep in the two seasons prior.
Sefolosha is a terrific on-ball defender, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have asked him to check everyone from Tony Parker to LeBron James. Sefolosha's massive wingspan makes it easy for him to gum up passing lanes, and he has terrific instincts when it comes to gambling for steals.
In fact, Sefolosha may have had the defensive sequence of the playoffs (so far) in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Watch him pick Jamal Crawford's pocket and then jump the inbounds pass for another steal (which ultimately led to a Russell Westbrook three).
Like Miles, Sefolosha can play the 2 or 3, so he'd also be a pretty versatile fit. Neither he nor Miles should command too much money in free agency, and the Rockets could certainly end up with one of them if they make it a priority.
The Rockets can and will experiment with some new players and player combinations next season (Troy Daniels will get a serious look), but the big experiment is still the “twin towers” of Howard and Omer Asik.
The Asik-Howard pairing hasn't worked out yet to say the least. The Rockets basically just stopped scoring when the two were out there in the regular season, and the opposite happened in the postseason—they scored in bunches but were gashed on the other end.
Still, Houston has a whole offseason of tinkering ahead of it, and there's no reason that Asik-Howard lineups shouldn't be solid defensively.
Asik is absolutely quick enough to check the league's 4s, and if Harden and Parsons are going to be logging heavy minutes together, then doesn't it make sense to have defensive-minded bigs behind them?
The “twin tower” lineups obviously have some drawbacks offensively. No one really guards Asik, and that puts Houston's two top offensive plays (high screen-and-rolls and Howard post-ups) in shaky territory. It may lead to a Parsons three, but watch how little room Harden has to operate in this play:
That's trouble. Still, there are ways to minimize some of that damage, and Asik's rebounding helps the Rockets get out and run. It's by no means a perfect solution, but if managed right, the “twin tower” lineups could be big pluses defensively. That's enough to make them viable for stretches.
The Rockets are not going to be an elite defensive team next year, but with a little help from internal improvement, new personnel or experimentation, they could crack the top 10.
That alone would be an accomplishment, and considering how deadly the Houston offense is, it would likely be more than enough to ensure a deep playoff run.
All stats accurate as of 5/8/2014 and courtesy of NBA.com unless specifically stated otherwise.
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