Through three games, Rockets defense is invisible

Mike D'Antoni is looking for answers. Harry How/Getty Images

So Saturday night we had "Loogie Nights" in Los Angeles and a fight involving two of the best point guards of our generation in Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo. It all started when Lakers string bean Brandon Ingram decided to push James Harden after a foul and ended with Ingram rushing the pile and throwing a haymaker at the closest red jersey he could find. The end result was suspensions as Ingram got four games, Rondo three games and Paul two games. What this fight did for Rockets fans was distract them from what has been a much bigger pain for the team than any fight or suspension. The real wound rearing its ugly head for Houston early this season is the team' awful defense and inability to stir rup even the slightest desire to stop their opponent.

If you are a basketball junkie like me, it's pretty easy to see where the Rockets shortcomings lie. The defense is a seive and opposing players run through it like tap water through a strainer. The team seems to think the best defensive strategy is outscore the other team and hope they don’t need a stop or get into a tight game late in crunch time. New Orleans took the Rockets to the woodshed by scoring inside, outside and on the break as they stunned the opening night crowd at Toyota Center. In Game 2 the Lakers were made to look like a well oiled machine that could get buckets anywhere and everywhere on the court, instead of a totally new group of players including several misfits from other squads.

In Game 3 the H-town 5 made this years version of the Clippers look like the squad that had CP3, Blake Griffin, Reddick, Crawford and company, instead of the bunch of recycled veterans and youthful exuberance that comprise this seasons team. The Clippers scored at will and attacked the paint throughout the game on their way to the upset victory that sent Houston home 1-2.

There is no team defense, rotating, helping or much switching. There is a ton of finger pointing and head shaking as everyone stands around and watches the layup line locomotive go steaming by. It has to change and fast if this team truly hopes to return to the Western Conference Finals and compete for an NBA title.

Ever since Mike D' Antoni took over the team, all of Red Nation knows their team can score with anyone in the league. Adding Carmelo Anthony to an already high powered offense led everyone to believe the scoring would possibly go up a season ago. The concern started to surface started back in July when Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute departed via free agency. Not a big loss most people said, because they weren't big contributors on offense and each fizzled out in the postseason. Ariza played steady ball all year and over his tenure with Houston, until Game 7 against Golden State. It was then that he joined the rest of his Rockets squad in losing their 3 point shot at the most important moments of the season. Mbah a Moute was MIA the entire postseason after an underrated regular season that had him deeply entrenched in a solid Rockets rotation. He was a spot starter that knew his role and stuck to it and that meant he went all out of defense. What everyone is missing here is that the two players were above average on-ball defenders and key cogs in Jeff Bzdelik's defensive unit that helped to shut down opponents and close out games.They were a top 6 defensive team that could get stops, grab rebounds and win games by doing more than putting the ball in the hoop. Speaking of Bzdelik, fans also are sleeping on how important he was in orchestrating one of the better team defenses in all of the NBA. He got his players to buy in and sell out on the defensive end and that was a huge accomplishment, considering the fact that James Harden and others had a 25 letter alphabet with no "D" in it before the coach arrived in Houston.   

Can it change? The answer is yes. Is there plenty of time to figure it out? Of course there is. Can Roy Rodgers get setted in as the new Defensive Coordinator and get his players to give it their all and commit to the teachings that he will subject them to? They better and they better start soon. Of course Daryl Morey is always tinkering with his team and can get on his friends and family plan of NBA GM's to try and orchestrate a deal or two that can upgrade their roster and its ability to get some stops, but not everyone has the kind of help they need and others aren't inclined to assist. Regardless of where we go from here, the fact is, the Rockets aren’t going anywhere in late June, let alone late May if they don't recognize the problem and start working on the toughness it's going to take to fix it. Toughness that starts in the middle of your chest and not at the end of a knockout punch.


Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
The Astros are utilizing a 6-man rotation. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros should schedule an Old-Timers Game, if not annually maybe every other year. Only the Yankees have regularly played Old Timers Games and it’s a highlight in the Bronx every season. The Astros have plenty enough history to welcome back an ample number of guys to make for a fabulous event. Maybe they could tie it into their now annual Hall of Fame Weekend. Anyway, don’t you feel that if Jose Altuve took part in an Old Timers Game in 2050 he’d bang out a couple of hits, and then if the Astros played him in the regular game he’d line one more hit somehow, at age 60?

After missing the first 43 games of the season while recovering from his broken thumb, Altuve went 0 for four in his first game back, but has since been generally fantastic with his OPS through nine games played at 1.013. It won’t stay that high, but Altuve is a direly needed upgrade to the Astros’ offense which has been utterly mediocre. Offense is the reason the Astros continue to look up at the Texas Rangers in the American League West. The Rangers’ offense has been fantastic, outscoring the Astros by a whopping 100 runs through the first third of the season.

As the regular season entered its middle third this week, the Astros are in the middle of playing a game in 17 consecutive days. It’s their longest stretch of the season without an off day. They are inserting Ronel Blanco as a sixth starting pitcher in the rotation for a couple of turns. The point of mixing in a sixth starter isn’t that the Astros are teeming with guys who belong in a big league rotation. The 29-year-old Blanco is not a notable prospect. This is about lightening the load a little on two guys: Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown.

In becoming a rotation mainstay last season, Javier blew past his previous biggest season workload by nearly 50 innings. He’s on pace to go another 25 innings beyond that this year without even accounting for the playoffs. Hunter Brown last year set his professional high with 130 innings pitched encompassing work with the Space Cowboys and Astros. Brown is on pace for about 170 innings this regular season. That’s a significant jump, and of course the Astros are hoping for another postseason of multiple rounds. Javier, Brown, and Framber Valdez are the three most critical pitchers on the staff, and the Astros hope they remain healthily so for several more years.

Lance McCullers’s latest recovery setback makes his plight increasingly sad. Well, except for him on payday. The odds now lopsidedly favor McCullers never again pitching a near fully healthy and effective season. His only one to date was 2021 (until he broke down in the playoffs), the year before his five year 85 million dollar contract kicked in. McCullers pulls down 17 mil this year (And again next year. And in 2025. And 2026), exactly two and a half times what Framber Valdez makes. I reckon Framber’s representation is aware of this, as it is of the five year 63 million dollar deal the Astros struck with Cristian Javier. Framber is more than three years older than Javier, but has been better, and can hit free agency after the 2025 season, the same time Javier could have gone to market.

Timing isn’t everything but it darn sure can matter. The Astros’ two best relief pitchers through May were Hector Neris and Phil Maton. Neris enters June with a 1.19 earned run average, Maton even better with a teeny-weeny 0.68 ERA. Maton has been especially amazing, given that last year while not pitching very well he posted his career best ERA at 3.84. His 2022 ended ignominiously when after giving up a hit to his brother Nick in the regular season finale, Phil took the ding-a-ling of the week award by breaking his pitching hand punching his locker, sidelining him for the postseason. The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010. Now Maton is up for Best Pitcher (per inning worked). Both Neris and Maton were James Click acquisitions. Both become free agents after this season.

Up next

Four games with the Angels at Minute Maid Park through the weekend mean the amazing Shohei Ohtani is in town. It’s “Sho-time” on the mound Friday night in a doozy of a pitching matchup with Framber, with Ohtani batting in at least three of the four games. In one player the Angels have a pitcher as good as Cristian Javier and a hitter better than Kyle Tucker. And the Angels will probably miss the playoffs again anyway. And then lose Ohtani in free agency. After the Angels series the Astros are on the road next week. They start with four games at Toronto against the Blue Jays’ very potent lineup, then it’s three at Cleveland vs. the Guardians whose offense has been pathetic so far this season.

Walk this way

Geek Astro factoid of the week: Jeremy Pena drew two walks in Tuesday’s win over the Twins. In his rookie season, Pena had only one two walk game, also in May, also against the Twins. Tuesday’s bases on balls finally got Pena into double digits for the season. He has just 11 walks drawn (largely explaining his weak .307 on-base percentage) vs. 50 strikeouts.

Catch our Astros podcast every Monday!

Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it goes up at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

Apple Podcasts


Google Podcasts






SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome