By: Rajan Nanavati
Whether you want to call it the will to win, their “swagger” (as head coach Mike D’Antoni recently put it), their total defensive identity, or the belief that they’re (still) one of the best teams in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets have clearly lost whatever it was that propelled them to within one game of last year’s NBA Finals. And if they don’t find it sometime soon, things could get very ugly in a hurry.
Nobody should be completely shocked by these circumstances, given what we saw this past offseason. No team can lose two of the best defensive players in the NBA and expect to have zero dropoff in preventing opponents from scoring. We gave the Rockets the benefit of the doubt when they watched Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute leave Houston, with the team not really acquiring anyone to fill those gaps, because they were so good last year. In hindsight, said benefit of the doubt looks really dubious, considering there’s nobody on this team that’s come even close to the defensive presence those two provided last year.
But the underrated loss by the Rockets has to be assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who retired after last season. Effectively serving as D’Antoni’s defensive coordinator in Houston, many around the NBA credited Bzdelik with spending countless hours with the Rockets running drill after drill last offseason, as they perfected a switch-based defense that catapulted them towards the top of the NBA in defensive efficiency (and was specifically designed with stopping the Golden State Warriors in mind).
But as mentioned, people inside and outside the NBA tended to gloss over those key components that Houston lost, and became more fixated on the fact that Houston was able to acquire forward Carmelo Anthony. What’s ironic, especially in today’s “superteam”-centric era, is that the acquisition of Anthony might have only exacerbated Houston’s problems.
Let’s remove the fact that Anthony is merely a shell of the All-Star that we remember him as, coming off a season in which he had career-lows in points per game, effective field goal percentage, assists per game, and minutes per game. More importantly, Anthony hasn’t played a lick of defense in years, and he’s brought that total apathy for defense with him to Houston. There’s a big reason why Anthony is on his third team in three years. Do you really think any well-run NBA team would be so callous with someone like Anthony if he was really the star that most people confuse him for being?
All of that being said, most people still assume that once James Harden returns to the lineup (he’s battling a hamstring injury), and once Chris Paul knocks the rust off his game (he’s looked very sluggish while on the court this season), things should be a lot closer to normal. But is it really safe to make such rationalizations, considering we spent the offseason rationalizing that “Houston will be fine,” only to end up in these circumstances in the first place?