Rockets’ recent December downturn correlated with decline on defense

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  • Houston Rockets
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When the Houston Rockets won seven straight games a few weeks ago, they had a very good offense at No. 3 in the NBA in net rating (118.6) and the No. 16 overall defense (111.4) over that Nov. 24 to Dec. 8 span.

In the nine games since, however, they rank dead last among the 30 NBA teams in defensive rating (124.1). The offense has slipped slightly and is tied with Charlotte (113.3) at No. 7 overall, but that mark is still very good and among the top quarter of the league. Their production on that end has generally held steady since ditching the dual-big lineups with Christian Wood and Daniel Theis to downsize, with Wood usually surrounded by shooting and playmaking at the other four positions.

In terms of wins and losses, it’s the defensive decline that is much more dramatic and likely accounts for the vast discrepancy in record, with Houston (10-23) going 7-0 over the first stretch and 2-7 since.

There are some extenuating circumstances, of course. The Rockets have played eight of their last nine games on the road, and they have also dealt with widespread roster injuries to the likes of Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, and Wood over that period. It’s possible that fatigue from the rough scheduling run, particularly when combined with a shrinking roster pool of viable rotation players, has led to some tired legs.

From the perspective of head coach Stephen Silas, he wants the Rockets to control what they can control. He sees it as a matter of effort. “The defense has to be better,” Silas told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle earlier this week. “It’s very much tied to the effort.”

It’s also possible that the absence of Porter, in particular, could be especially damaging. At 6-foot-6, Porter is one of Houston’s longest and most athletic defenders, and he’s among their top options at the point of attack on the perimeter. Earlier this season, Silas raved about his defensive growth, and for 2021-22 as a whole, Porter has Houston’s best individual defensive rating among regular rotation players.

Drilling down further, in the first five games of the winning streak, the Rockets actually ranked in the top half of the NBA in team defensive rating (110.2, or No. 14 overall). Those were the last five games that Porter played in before re-aggravating his left thigh contusion.

When Porter finally returns from that injury in the coming games — potentially as soon as Monday, Dec. 27 in Charlotte — much will undoubtedly be made about the importance of Houston getting its floor general and primary facilitator back. However, a closer look at the numbers suggest that his presence on defense may be most important of all, at least in terms of how he fits with this Rockets team.

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