The popular narrative especially among national writers is that the Rockets have taken a step back this season. The reasoning is simple. While the Rockets may have been an injury away from the NBA Finals, they lost key members of the team that made them the sixth best defensive squad in the NBA (third, actually, after the All-Star break). Without Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, both of whom moved on to other teams via free agency, the Rockets defense will struggle, they say.
This is compounded by the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. The veteran forward is not known for his defense and coming off one of the worst seasons of his career in Oklahoma City. Then there was the departure of assistant head coach Jeff Bzdelik, the defensive guru who was the architect of the team's resurgent defense over the last two seasons.
No one would dispute that Ariza and Mbah a Moute were critical components to the Rockets success in the 2017-18 season (though Mbah a Moute to a lesser degree given his injury problems, particularly in the playoffs). They were also both outstanding defenders, who helped elevate that part of the team's game. And Bzdelik was, no doubt, in their ears every day about it. But, the declarations of a precipitous fall in this team's game at that end of the floor are exaggerated.
There is no mention of Ariza's actual replacement, James Ennis.
One of the more disconcerting missteps by writers lambasting the Rockets for their losses is the failure to even mention Ennis in the discussion, who will start with Anthony coming off the bench. Ennis, who was recruited by the Rockets on the advice of P.J. Tucker, has many of the qualities of Ariza and some added benefits. He doesn't have the pedigree, but he is tenacious on defense and a guy who is constantly hustling, no dissimilar to the guy who suggested him to the team. Having another Tucker-like player on the roster, especially considering how indispensable Tucker has become, can't be discounted.
And there is something Ennis has that Ariza never did: speed. Ennis loves to get up and down the floor defensively and offensively. As this team tries to create a quicker pace than last season with easier shots and better transition defense, Ennis would seem to fill that role perfectly.
Switching defense will help minimize individual deficiencies.
While the Rockets were sixth overall in defensive efficiency, they moved up to third in the second half of the season (and second in the playoffs) when they moved to a Golden State style of switching defense. Not only did it create more turnovers, which led to scoring opportunities, it tended to minimize inefficiencies by certain players on the defensive end of the floor. This was especially true because teams like to force the Rockets into switching big men onto smaller players, but Clint Capela and Tucker excelled at guarding smaller players on the perimeter.
Whatever the Rockets may lose in individual defense with Anthony, they can make up for it through their defensive rotations. Having had half a season plus a postseason running the same defense is also a significant factor. This team fully understands the concept and they are committed to it. Anyway...
Anthony can't be worse than Ryan Anderson.
People seem to have forgotten that Anderson was the Rockets starting power forward at the beginning of last season. And while he was the team's best three point shooter by percentage, he was also terrible defensively, so much so that even after recovering from a late-season injury, he barely played in the postseason. For all his flaws, Anthony is not Anderson. He is substantially more athletic and a very smart guy on the floor.
Anderson might not shoot 40 percent from three, but his overall scoring as Anderson's replacement should be substantively better and more efficient. If you really want to compare last year to this one, you have to compare Anthony to Anderson instead of Ariza. No one will argue that is a huge upgrade.
The team is much deeper than last season.
Tucker didn't start until the second half of last season. Gerald Green was sitting on his couch at home until nearly Christmas. Anthony and Ennis were not yet here, nor were Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight, both of whom could factor into the team's rotation plans as the season goes along. Finally, one of the real underrating signings of the offseason, Michael Carter-Williams was playing elsewhere. This team is deep and talented. A case could be made that their second team rotation is better than the starters for half the teams in the league.
That means that not only will they tend to bury teams quickly, hopefully allowing veterans to play fewer minutes, but that they will still have good depth even if the injury bug temporarily sidelines starters, which it undoubtedly will.
Chemistry will be a huge factor.
Much like Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony wanted to be here. All of the hand wringing over Paul joining James Harden in the backcourt was, at least for those of us who cover the team regularly, reduced to absolute nonsense when it became clear this was a choice for Paul and Harden. And all Harden did was win league MVP. Anthony is joining his closest friend in Paul here, something he's wanted to do for two seasons and the Rockets have wanted for at least four. Anthony weighed his options, played pick-up ball with the guys over the summer and discussed his role with coaches (including Mike D'Antoni, who he struggled to play under in New York) and staff before making his decision.
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At media day, the players on this team repeated over and over and over again that everything was about defense, culture and chemistry. They all understand their roles. They are studied in them. And much of the team has been together through at least half a season and the playoffs. That will loom large throughout the season and make them one of the league's most dangerous teams yet again.
Whatever people may think of the Rockets, they are more talented than probably 20 teams in the NBA before tipoff. That almost insures, barring significant injury losses, they will win 50-plus games. The question is, how close can they come to the franchise mark of 65 they set last season? Las Vegas has the over-under line set at 56.5 as the season is set to open Wednesday night. Our money is on the over, but not by a lot. Getting to 65 is a difficult feat for anyone. The Rockets will likely take a step back this season, but they will still be one of the best teams in the NBA. Only injuries have the chance to limit their improvement.