Before he could finish answering a question about his external evaluation of the 2013-14 Houston Rockets, newly-acquired small forward Trevor Ariza allowed a sly smile to slowly spread across his face, a grin that hinted to those within earshot what Ariza would say even before he said it.
At that very moment the unvarnished truth was as obvious as the expression revealed, so there was little reason for Ariza to offer any diplomacy. Last season the Rockets' offensive brilliance was oftentimes something to behold and admire.
Their defense? That was a different story altogether.
"I thought they were a really good team last year. Could score a lot of points," said Ariza, recalling his vantage point with the upstart Washington Wizards. "Didn’t really do too much on the defensive end, but again that takes time. Hopefully we can focus on both ends instead of just one."
Inserting Ariza into a starting lineup that features two plus individual defenders in Beverley and Howard should dramatically alter the Rockets' defensive bottom line.
This is the time of year when hope springs eternal across the NBA, when roster additions are lauded and roster deletions are framed as additions by subtractions. Executives pat themselves on the backs for proclaimed savvy personnel decisions, players declare a renewed sense of purpose both to their bodies and to their crafts, and coaches teem with excitement over the potential that accompanies a new campaign. Promise is in abundance.
The Rockets are no different and, like those teams eyeing title contention or mere relevancy, their aspirations should be digested with a spoonful of dubiousness. General manager Daryl Morey failed spectacularly with his gambit to add a third superstar to his first-team All-NBA tandem of shooting guard James Harden and center Dwight Howard.
His swing and miss on Carmelo Anthony came as no surprise. His inability to coax Chris Bosh from the LeBron James-less Miami Heat served as a shock to the system, rendering Morey's subsequent acquisitions fodder in many NBA circles.
However, Morey should be credited for making chicken salad out of chicken excrement, and the Rockets' pledge for an improved defense does not ring hollow given their roster additions. Morey did not land the biggest fish in the free agent pond, but he did not return to shore with an empty net.
"The season is probably going to come down to our defense. We need that to be championship caliber," Morey said. "We feel like with the addition of Trevor Ariza — with Trevor, (tenacious point guard) Pat (Beverley) and Dwight we’ve got three of the top defenders in the league."
Dreams of a brighter defensive future start with Ariza, who finished last season ranked fifth among starting small forwards logging heavy minutes in defensive rating. The Wizards' defensive rating was 3.7 points per 100 possessions better in the 2,723 minutes Ariza played last season compared to the 1,288 minutes he did not, and his net +/- per 100 possessions was +7.3 per basketball-reference, another indication of his positive impact.
New Houston Rockets Lineup
Inserting Ariza into a starting lineup that features two plus individual defenders in Beverley and Howard should dramatically alter the Rockets' defensive bottom line, particularly when measured against the waning defensive contributions of departed small forward Chandler Parsons. Practically zero teams feature five elite defenders as starters, and the Rockets will remain relatively vulnerable with Harden and power forward Terrence Jones on the court. But Ariza undoubtedly represents a significant defensive upgrade over what the Rockets trotted out last season.
"We’re going to improve tremendously defensively," Beverley said. "We understand that not getting stops last year cost us the (Portland) series. I take a lot of responsibility for that. To add (Ariza), to add the toughness from (Joey) Dorsey, the toughness from Jeff Adrien, it’s going to be a good year."
While any analysis of Beverley and his defensive impact requires some parsing of facts from narrative, there is no discounting the toughness and grittiness he provides, contributions that were in short supply from his teammates. Via the signings of Adrien and Dorsey, the Rockets welcomed two more journeymen with a knack for rugged play and a clear understanding of the sacrifices required to earn a consistent paycheck in the NBA.
Dorsey, in particular, cultivated a reputation as an assertive defender and rebounder while building his resume in Spain and Greece. To a lesser extent the same could be said of Greek forward Kostas Papanikolaou, who isn't an extraordinary individual defender but brings with him a desire to produce sincere effort on that end of the court. And, given the Rockets' pervasive defensive shortcomings, effort is a foundation on which to build.
"We had some very good defensive moments last year," Morey said. "We had some times where we weren’t as good and bottom line is overall we were an average team. We want to be a Top 10 team. If we can be Top 10 on both sides of the ball that’s sort of the entry card to hoping to be a team that can compete for a championship."
"If we can be Top 10 on both sides of the ball that’s sort of the entry card to hoping to be a team that can compete for a championship."
The Rockets finished 12th in defensive efficiency last season, allowing 103.1 points per 100 possessions. But they surrendered significant defensive momentum when both Beverley and Howard missed games down the stretch of the regular season due to injury and never regained that swagger. The Trail Blazers overwhelmed their defense in the playoffs, torching the Rockets with a 111.8 offensive rating while claiming the series.
Expectations are that Ariza, Dorsey, Adrien and Papanikolaou will bolster the Rockets' defensive might enough to offset the losses of Parsons and Jeremy Lin, both plus offensive players. Of course, no matter what the Rockets gain defensively via their roster additions, Harden still assumes an inordinate burden to improve his individual defense to a level of general respectability. Last season his defense was an embarrassment, and the din created by his deficiencies on that end of the court followed Harden throughout the offseason, even marring his efforts in the FIBA Word Cup.
Unchallenged as the premiere two guard in the league, Harden is charged with rounding out his game, with mustering a defensive competence that at minimum complements his extraordinary offensive talents. He can no longer skate by with his stunning reluctance to defend and habitual frequency to ball-watch and lose focus. With Ariza, Beverley and Howard also in the lineup, the focus on Harden will be that much sharper and unrelenting.
"That’s one of the things that I’m excited about as well this season," Harden said of contributing to a Top 10 defense. "You’ve got a point guard on one side of you whose mindset is he’s going to lock anybody up.
"You’ve got a small forward on the other side of you who has that same mindset, and then you have a big man who’s blocking everything. I have no choice."