Why the Rockets Won't Win A Title Anytime Soon
Troy Taormina - USA TODAY Sports
The Houston Rockets are one of the more reputable franchises in the league, with title wins in ‘94 and ‘95 - which, notably, same while Jordan was playing baseball. Currently, they boast a roster that boasts the likes of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The team is shepherded by Mike D’Antoni, who has built himself a sterling reputation around the league as a fast-paced, offensively-gifted head coach. However this very triad, characterized by superlative personalities and a unique coaching style, may be exactly what blocks Houston from reaching their lofty championship aspirations.
It’s hard not to like D’Antoni. He’s charismatic, in a Pringles can sort of way, and implements a spacey, fun brand of basketball. He won Coach of the Year in Phoenix in 2005 and orchestrated back-to-back Western Conference Finals runs. After that, he had stints with the Knicks and the Lakers, both of which had minor success with solid, yet ultimately lacklustre rosters. After a short time in Philly, D’Antoni found himself at the helm of the Rockets organization, and has found success there.
Many basketball fans, both casual and professional, have predicted the Rockets to enter the Finals in recent years - perhaps even to win it all. However, the team has only made it as far as the Conference Finals just a single time (when they were one Chris Paul hamstring away from a title shot). While it may be easy to blame their lack of late-playoff round success on the Golden State Warriors dynasty and a perpetually strong Western Conference, the issue seems to stem from a much deeper place.
Many see the Rockets as one of the most dominant teams in the league, and this is because they pass the eye test. The Rockets boast the second-best offense in the league and have two MVPs on their squad, one of which could very easily win MVP this year, too.
Defense is a different story. Currently, the Rockets allow 114 points per game, good for 22nd in the league. When paired with a 15th-ranked Defensive Rating, it's easy to see that this iteration of the Rockets bleeds buckets. This can be mostly be attributed to a dearth of perimeter stoppers and the resulting gaps exposed by D’Antoni’s coaching style; this team is an offensive juggernauts, but historically, defense is what breeds success at the highest level.
D’Antoni’s issue has always been facing teams who have been far superior on the defensive end, like the Spurs that bounced his Suns from the playoffs year after year in the early-mid 2000’s. After losing to the Spurs in the ‘05 Conference Finals, Robert Horry famously said, “Defense is the most important thing. No D, no ring.”
This can be embodied perfectly by the 04’ Finals that saw the starless Detroit Pistons beat the then-threepeating Los Angeles Lakers in five games. They had gritty, elite defensive players like Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, and Chauncey Billups. More recently, LeBron helped clinch the 2016 Finals with his chasedown block on Andre Iguadola. Time and time again, elite defense is what puts a team over the top under the bright lights of the playoffs.
Houston sent Chris Paul to OKC for Russell Westbrook this summer, which is a good trade, but it is not a move that addresses the glaring issue for a D’Antoni team. Does this mean Pringles needs to go? Not necessarily, but the Rockets will need an infusion of defensive talent on the perimeter before they can ride their red-hot offense to an NBA title.
Perhaps moving Eric Gordon or Ben McLemore for a defensive stalwart could help seal the gap on the team - a wing player like Robert Covington comes to mind; he'd capably guard the opposition's best perimeter player while Clint Capela holds down the paint.
Heed Big Shot Bob’s words, Houston. The defense needs to improve - and a roster upgrade seems to be the only path forward on their short-term title track.