SALMAN ALI

It's early, but Rockets defensive issues are concerning

Carmelo Anthony (and James Harden) are focal points in a bad defense. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After a polarizing offseason, most experts expected the Houston Rockets to take a significant step back defensively this season. This analysis was swiftly met by backlash from fans of the team and even Rockets brass. However, after just three games into the regular season, it does indeed look like there may have been truth to the criticism.

The Rockets, simply put, look disastrous on defense.

According to NBA.com, Houston is giving up an exorbitant 114.2 points per 100 possessions - good for 24th in the league. The same level of communication and execution that led to a seventh ranked defense last year has simply fallen off the face of the planet.

What once was an efficient system of clean switching and rim protection has eroded before our very eyes.

While it’s not totally fair to pin the blame on individuals when the collective output is this bad, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony stick out as roots of the problem. You don’t have to look at the numbers to draw this conclusion, but when you do, it’s staggering how bad they’ve been.

Houston Rockets Defensive RTG:

With James Harden: 118.6

Without James Harden: 92.5

Houston Rockets Defensive RTG:

With Carmelo Anthony: 118.0

Without Carmelo Anthony: 102.2

It’s one thing if these were players that weren’t integral to what the Rockets want to do this year or barely play any minutes. However, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony combine for 65 minutes per game, with usage rates of 29.9% and 17.6% respectively. The Rockets heavily rely on them for offensive production, particularly Harden. As a result, they have to be on the floor even with their defensive warts.

However, if the Rockets want to have any chance at true title contention this year, both have to get their act together defensively and they have to do it fast.

Watching game tape only highlights how bad both of them have been, especially Harden. To Harden’s credit, he had turned things around these past couple years and become an average defender. This year, it seems he’s reverted to old habits of falling asleep on weak side help, back-cuts, and ball-watching.

Take a look at this video of Harden letting Tobias Harris cut to the basket for an easy layup or  a similar play just a quarter later.

There are endless examples of Harden’s defensive lapses littered throughout the first three games of the season and it’s unfortunate, given the strides he’d made in that arena.

Anthony’s defensive issues come into form with reckless closeouts on shooters, a general lack of aggression, and the same issues with ball-watching Harden has.

As an example of this lack of force, here’s Anthony refusing to meet Elfrid Payton at the rim in transition, leading to the easy, uncontested layup.

Here’s are couple of plays of Anthony falling asleep on his man, one on Nikola Mirotic, leading to the easy two and one where Anthony half-heartedly defends Anthony Davis at the basket.

The bottom is line is both Harden and Anthony have been abysmal early on and the effort just doesn’t seem to be there. You can attribute the drop-off in defense to the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, but you would only be half right. James Ennis has done an adequate job of replacing Ariza as the Rockets are defending 10 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor. Losing Mbah a Moute compounded with adding the negative defense of Carmelo Anthony and James Harden this season is really what’s hurting the Rockets.

Houston was able to get the very best out of negative defenders like Harden and Ryan Anderson last season and the fact that they haven’t been able to do that yet this year points to a possible institutional decline. Perhaps this is where losing Associate Head Coach Jeff Bzdelik just weeks before the season hurts. It could also be a general lack of interest after topping out at 65 wins last season and making it to the Western Conference Finals. It’s tough to quantify.

Whatever the case, the Rockets will need to turn it around fast if they want to be taken seriously. It’s still very early so this all may be presumptuous. However, the early returns aren’t encouraging and Houston can only fall so far behind if they want to obtain homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs like they did last year.

 

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Houston dropped two of three

Astros drop series finale to Oakland, A's win series

Jose Urquidy couldn't hold Oakland back on Saturday. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With Oakland finally ending their drought against the Astros on Friday night to split the first two games of the series, and with the Angels staying in step with them as both teams started the day 6-2, the Astros needed a win to keep momentum in their favor on Saturday.

Instead, Oakland would outslug Houston once again to take the series finale and take the series win. The loss moves Houston to 6-3 and down to second place, at least for now, until the 6-2 Angels complete their game on Saturday evening.

Final Score: A's 7, Astros 3

Astros' Record: 6-3, second in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Frankie Montas (1-1)

Losing Pitcher: Jose Urquidy (0-1)

Urquidy gives up four over six

Much like the night before, Oakland was able to bring in runs against Houston's starter, this time Jose Urquidy, Saturday afternoon in their second time through the order. Their first time through, Urquidy was cruising, allowing just one baserunner in the first three innings on a single in the top of the third.

Things shifted in the top of the fourth, with the A's getting back-to-back singles to set the stage for a two-run frame with dual RBI-singles to take a 2-0 lead. Oakland doubled that in the fifth, getting a two-out single to set up a two-run homer by Ramon Laureano to make it 4-0. Urquidy would go on to finish six innings, but with no run support to that point, would leave in line for the loss. His final line: 6.0 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 93 P.

A's pad their lead before Houston gets on the board

Meanwhile, although getting five hits, the Astros could not get anything on the board against Frankie Montas through six innings. Brandon Bielak took over out of the bullpen for Urquidy in the top of the seventh, but after loading the bases, he would allow a dagger two-RBI single to make it a 6-0 deficit for Houston.

With Montas starting the seventh looking to face a batter or two before Oakland moved to their bullpen, Kyle Tucker would finally get Houston on the board with a leadoff solo home run, cutting the lead to 6-1 and ending Montas' day. Houston would get a two-out rally going, with an RBI-double by Jose Altuve followed by an RBI-triple by Michael Brantley to make it a three-run game at 6-3.

Oakland takes the series win

Ryne Stanek tried to keep it a three-run game and give the Astros a chance to stay in it in the top of the eighth but instead would give up a two-out solo home run to push Oakland's lead back to four. That 7-3 score would go final as Houston would go scoreless in the eighth and ninth.

Up Next: Houston will have a day off on Sunday before continuing this homestand Monday night by welcoming in Detroit and former manager A.J. Hinch for three games. In the series opener, the Tigers will send young star Casey Mize (0-0, 2.25 ERA) to the mound, while the Astros will get another start by Zack Greinke (1-0, 1.38 ERA).

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