For four seasons, the identity of the Rockets was clear.
More than a 7-6 center from China, more than a two-time scoring champion, the Rockets’ image was tied to a defense that squeezed the life from opposing offenses and often, the game itself.
The Rockets put all sorts of new entries on the defensive pages of their record book, always remaining among the league leaders in every key defensive statistical category. And for the past two weeks, since the start of training camp, and really since they brought in Rick Adelman and his historically prolific offense, the talk was of scoring, rather than stopping it.
Yet, Adelman has some definite ideas about how he wants the defense played, including some changes nearly as significant as those on the offensive end. He and Rockets players also have spoken of using the principles that worked so well.More than anything, the Rockets have insisted that defense will not be forsaken for the allure of a fancy new offense.
“This team is really good,” Adelman said of what he has seen defensively. “We have four or five guys that are really good defenders, and they’ve been a good defensive team. They are pretty good at picking things up and staying with it.
“I know if you’re going to have more possessions offensively, it’s harder to keep your concentration on the other end. That’s something we talk about all the time.”
Talking all the time about defense would seem business as usual, but there are some changes in the ways the Rockets defend.
Jeff Van Gundy was a proponent of trapping the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls. Adelman will never trap with his centers, having Yao Ming or Dikembe Mutombo instead sinking back into the lane. He also will more often have guards try to guide the ball-handler toward the baseline.
Van Gundy insisted on contesting every jump shot, and last season wanted closeouts, even if they meant going for pump fakes, believing that shooting percentages decrease off one- and two-dribble jump shots when compared to spotting up. Adelman will more often let a specific game plan determine whom the Rockets must close out.
But the trick will be incorporating personal preferences without losing too much of what worked. In each of the past four seasons as Rockets coach, the Rockets were first or second in opponents’ field-goal percentage, leading the NBA last season.
“I want to do some of the things they did because they were so solid at it,” Adelman said. “I’ve said before, Jeff did a great job with them. When you start with the guys we have like Rafer (Alston) and Shane (Battier) and Chuck (Hayes), there’s good defenders out there. You’re going to be pretty solid defensively.”
That has been such a point of emphasis that it is not surprising the Rockets would have good habits defensively. The key might be keeping those priorities when the new offense makes it more difficult to switch back to the old devotion to defense.
“I worry more about the transition defense than anything else,” Adelman said. “The way they played before, they always had two or three guys back. That allowed them to protect all the time because they were spotting up. In our offense, guys are in different spots all the time. It’s harder to understand who needs to be back. It’s something we have to keep our concentration on.”
The most noticeable difference will be with Yao no longer trapping on the perimeter. Several years ago, when Van Gundy kept Yao in the lane, penetrating guards would draw fouls on him, helping to prompt the change to Van Gundy’s preferred style. But Yao said he is a smarter defender than he was then.
“It might save my energy,” Yao said. “I don’t need to trap outside and (run) all the way back to the paint. Against a special player like Kobe (Bryant) or someone, we may still need a double team. But if it keeps me in the paint, it might limit my fouls. If you’re smart enough, you will stay out of foul trouble, whatever game plan you play with. Last year, I was much better. I’m smart enough.”
The intelligence of defenders will be key. As with Adelman’s offense, there is freedom to see an opponent’s game plan and react.
“A little is on veteran guys, to see if we have the knowledge as the games go along, to see what the offense is trying to do,” Alston said. “As opposed to having 20 to 30 set ways to guard, we might switch (on screens), or force a guy down, or chase a guy around screens. But it helps to have guys like Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes to facilitate defense.”
A soild foundation
It also helps when trying to defend, to have done it so well.”We have talks amongst ourselves; we have to keep some of the defensive principles from last year,” Battier said. “Coach Adelman knows that, too. He asks our opinion. He knows we were a very good defensive team last year.”
In a way, for all the talk about the offense, that greatest challenge might be on the other end, where the Rockets will take one of the league’s best defenses and try to make it better.