We’ve all been spoiled. During the Rudy Tomjanovich era, the Rockets didn’t have the best athletes or even the best one-on-one defenders (a certain center excepted), but they played lock down defense. When Jeff Van Gundy manned the ship, the team had an odd mix of players, none of whom were particularly big (another center excepted) or overly athletic, yet they were consistently one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
Now that Rick Adelman is in charge, we have better athletes and more size than we’ve had in some time, yet our defense is abysmal. Why is that?
Playing defense in the NBA is about more than one-on-one defense, especially in the post-hand-check era. To be a good defensive team, you have to know how to rotate to the correct spot on the floor and close out on the shooter – in essence, to help out on the guy that is open even if he isn’t your man. It’s been a while since we have witnessed a Houston Rockets team so poor at both.
When Rudy T coached the team, he stressed playing stay at home defense. Players didn’t gamble. They kept a hand in the shooter’s face, rotated to the open man and funneled drivers to Hakeem Olajuwon, who played goalie. JVG preached a similar sound defensive technique that emphasized closing out on open players and being disciplined on your rotations so you are in the right spot at the right time.
Knowing how to rotate properly turns average athletes into good defensive players, something Stromile Swift never managed to get when he was with the Rockets (he wasn’t ever thought to be the sharpest tool in the shed) and one of the reasons a guy who should have been a top shot blocker in the NBA couldn’t manage to protect the basket if he were wearing the Iron Man suit.
Whether it is a lack of focus on defense in practice (mind you, this stuff must be worked on with the same degree of intensity as offense) or lack of hustle, these current Rockets give up wide open looks from all over the court because they are often so out of position on defense that the shooter could sign a couple autographs for folks in the rich-people seats before even lining up his shot.
The old adage “Defense wins championships” isn’t a terribly accurate statement, but there is little argument a team that plays poor defense has no shot at a title. If the Rockets don’t start rotating better on defense and closing out on shooters, they’ll be lucky to muster a winning record let alone make the playoffs and challenge for a championship.