The Houston Rockets’ offense has grabbed the headlines, but it is their work at the other end of the court that should scare the rest of the league.
During their current seven-game winning streak, the Rockets led the NBA in offensive rating (117.4), points per game (120.3) and three-pointers made per game (18.1) — but they also lead the league in defensive rating (95.9) and opponent three-point percentage (28.2) during the same span — which has helped them rank first in net rating (21.5).
Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni has not exactly made his living in the NBA by building great defensive teams. After all, he orchestrated the five-seconds-or-less offense with the Phoenix Suns. The Suns had one of the best offenses in the NBA during his six-year tenure and at the same time never reached the NBA Finals because they could not get enough stops.
The Rockets did not have trouble scoring points last season. Only the Golden State Warriors (113.2) had a higher offensive rating then Houston (111.8) did last season, but the Rockets ranked 18th in defensive rating (106.4) and that prevented the Rockets from achieving their ultimate goal. The San Antonio Spurs knocked Houston out of the playoffs in the second round, scoring more than 100 points in four of the contests.
Houston has the fifth-best defensive rating this season (100.9), and they have only allowed 102.9 points per 100 possessions this year according to Cleaning The Glass, good for the fourth-best rate in all of basketball. The Rockets have done a great job of limiting second-chance opportunities.
They are currently ranked fifth in offensive-rebounding percentage (23.1) and have averaged 9.2 steals per game, the third-best average in the NBA. In addition, Houston has recovered the fourth-most loose balls per game (7.6).
All of this adds up to the best differential between points scored and allowed in the league at +13.2.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey made a concerted effort to add defensive-minded players this past offseason, and his moves have paid big dividends.
After spending the previous two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, Luc Mbah a Moute signed with Houston and has made an immediate impact on the defensive end. The 31-year-old small forward/power forward ranks eighth in the NBA with a 96.2 defensive rating.
Mbah a Moute made his mark on both ends against the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 23. He posted a plus-57 plus-minus, meaning the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by 57 points in his 26 minutes of work, the highest plus-minus by any player in a single game in two decades.
The CP3 Difference
Kia MVP favorite James Harden is the most talked about player on the Rockets, but Houston has won their last seven games since Paul returned from an injury.
In addition, the Rockets set an NBA record with their sixth-consecutive road defeat of a team by 15 points or more, surpassing the 2011-12 Miami Heat who accomplished the feat in five-straight road contests. Houston beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 118-95 in Los Angeles on Sunday night.
In his last 10 games, Paul is averaging just over 13 points per game and more importantly 9.7 assists per game. It has not taken long for him to develop a chemistry with James Harden and other players and the Rockets offense has been efficient and dynamic as a result.
More importantly, Paul has made great decisions with the basketball. He is second in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (5.6).
During the Rockets 12-1 month of November, one of the most dominant months by a team in NBA history, Harden averaged 34.9 points per game and 10. 1 assists per game.
This season, Harden leads the league in points per game (31.7), assists per game (9.7) and three-pointers made (98). He also ranks first in usage percentage (35.8) Win Shares (5.5), Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.332), Box Plus/Minus (11.7), Offensive Box Plus/Minus and his 2.8 Value Over Replacement Player (the NBA equivalent to Wins Above Replacement in baseball) also leads the league.
Harden is the best player on the best team in the league and should win the MVP Award if he and his team keep up their respective paces.
Harden and Paul are not the only players that have gotten the job done on offense.
Besides their tenacious defense, any player can score in bunches on any given night which makes this team even more dangerous.
Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant may own the two-best offensive ratings this season and Shaun Livingston sits in seventh, but the Rockets are the only team with four players in the top 10. James Harden (3rd, 115.5), Eric Gordon (4th, 115.1), Trevor Ariza (6th, 114.9) and Ryan Anderson (9th, 114.1) can fill it up from all over the floor.
This has a lot to do with their shot selection. The Rockets take fewer shots than most teams from midrange positions and in the post, the two least efficient spots on the floor to shoot.
The Rockets also boast four players in the top 10 for net rating, including Gordon (3rd, 18.3), a Monte (6th, 15.3) Harden (9th, 13.2) and PJ Tucker (10th, 13.1).
Clint Capela has also done a great job for the Rockets. In his last 10 games, he is averaging 13.7 points per game and 12.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 62.8 percent from the floor. Capela is averaging a double-double (13.5 PPG, 11.4 RPG) to go along with 1.8 blocks per game.
In order to anoint themselves as kings of the West, they have to beat the Warriors in the playoffs, but the Rockets are the most complete team in the West and could easily take down Golden State and attempt to give sports fans in Houston their second pro sports championship in seven months.
Main image: Embed from Getty Images