Sorry, Sir Charles: The Houston Rockets Are a Good Defensive Team
Yeah, I'm one of those guys -- you know, the guy who never "got the girl" in high school. The one who never played organized basketball at any level. I guess that means I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to hoops.
According to Charles Barkley, analytics have no place in basketball. Earlier this week, he specifically referenced the Houston Rockets and reignited the controversy of the merit of advanced analytics in professional sports. Barkley claimed that the Rockets are not a good defensive team and doesn't want anything to do with analytics because, in his eyes, if a team can't perform well on defense and give up 118 points on a given night, they shouldn't be considered a serious contender.
But something has to give in this never-ending debate, right? We can't evaluate teams on simply the points they score and the points they allow to another team. Basketball has changed, and an eyeball test is only part of the massive equation in evaluating the sport. Analytics aren't the end all either, but they do have their place in explaining what's happening on the hardwood.
So where exactly do the Rockets stand as a defensive team? Are they really one of the worst defenses in the league? Do they measure up to the championship teams the Bulls, Lakers, Heat, and Spurs have had over the last few decades? And should they be considered a contender for the NBA title?
Not Just About Points
First, let's address the base of Charles Barkley's argument. He called out the Rockets for not having a good defense because they gave up 118 points to the Phoenix Suns recently. That's like a pot calling the kettle black according to Tom Haberstroh.
Barkley: "No good team gives up 118 points." His '93 Suns gave up 118+ points 11 times in the regular season. Went to the Finals.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) February 11, 2015
In the 1992-1993 season in which those 11 games happened, the scoring average for all teams in the league was 105.3 points per game. Barkley and the Suns made it to the Finals that year by having the highest scoring team and a below average defense (based on points per game allowed), so you don't have to have the best defense in the league to go deep into the playoffs. You just have to win.
If we look at the scoring average for the 2014-2015 season so far, the league average is 99.9 points per game. There are 16 teams in the league that average 100 or more points per game, and 11 of them reside in the Western Conference. The Suns have the fourth-highest scoring average in the league (105.9 points per game). So while 118 points allowed isn't great, it did happen when two of the seven highest-scoring teams in the league were squaring off.
Houston's giving up 118 points in a game isn't the end of the world. No one is calling out the Atlanta Hawks, and they have given up 118 points three times this year. So have the Warriors. The defending champion Spurs have given up two games of 118 or more points as well -- it's going to happen, even with the best defenses. But this is only part of the story for the Rockets.
How Good Are Championship Defenses?
Barkley brought up the cream of the crop over the last 24 seasons when comparing the Rockets this year to the teams that won a championship. Four franchises have really dominated the NBA since 1991, as the Bulls, Lakers, Spurs and Heat have combined for 19 of the past 24 NBA Championships. Let's see how the Rockets currently stand up to the teams that Barkley mentioned specifically.
|Team||Points Scored/Game||Points Allowed/Game||Off. Rating||Def. Rating|
|'15 Rockets||103.1 (7th)||99.8 (17th)||106.8 (12th)||103.3 (9th)|
|'14 Spurs||105.4 (6th)||97.6 (6th)||110.5 (7th)||102.4 (3rd)|
|'13 Heat||102.9 (5th)||95 (5th)||112.3 (2nd)||103.7 (9th)|
|'12 Heat||98.5 (7th)||92.5 (4th)||106.6 (8th)||100.2 (4th)|
|'02 Lakers||101.3 (3rd)||94.1 (10th)||109.4 (2nd)||101.7 (7th)|
|'01 Lakers||100.6 (3rd)||97.2 (23rd)||108.4 (2nd)||104.8 (21st)|
|'00 Lakers||100.8 (6th)||92.3 (6th)||107.3 (5th)||98.2 (1st)|
|'98 Bulls||96.7 (9th)||89.6 (3rd)||107.7 (9th)||99.8 (3rd)|
|'97 Bulls||103.1 (1st)||92.3 (6th)||114.4 (1st)||102.4 (4th)|
|'96 Bulls||105.2 (1st)||92.9 (3rd)||115.2 (1st)||101.8 (1st)|
|'93 Bulls||105.2 (15th)||98.9 (2nd)||112.9 (2nd)||106.1 (6th)|
|'92 Bulls||109.9 (5th)||99.5 (3rd)||115.5 (1st)||104.5 (4th)|
|'91 Bulls||110 (7th)||101 (4th)||114.6 (1st)||105.2 (7th)|
First, we see that, offensively, all championship teams except for the '93 Bulls were a top-10 team in scoring. On the defensive side, only the '01 Lakers had a defense that was out of the top 10 in points allowed. The commonality continues through the Offensive and Defensive Ratings. Only three teams were not in the top-five in Offensive Rating. Defense was a little more of a mixed bag, but still -- only the '01 Lakers had a defensive rating out of the top 10.
As you can see, Houston doesn't quite measure up to these teams from a points per game standpoint -- except the '01 Lakers -- but at the same time, they aren't too far off in terms of Defensive Rating. However, this Rockets team is still a force on the defensive end according to the defensive rating above, which does line up with the championship teams listed.
What Our Metrics Say
In case you don't check it out on a regular basis, we have power rankings that are updated daily on the site. And if you look at our rankings, we base them off of our nERD metric, which measures a team's efficiency and is predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage.
Right now, the Rockets rank as the 10th-best team with a nERD of 58.8, seventh-best in the West. With our offensive and defensive efficiency marks falling in line with the team's offensive (106.8) and defensive (103.3) ratings, the Rockets actually rank better on the defensive side than the offensive side, as they rank ninth in defense and 12th in offense.
So where exactly does this leave us in respect to the Rockets?
Well, they definitely aren't the worst defense in the league, like Barkley suggested they might be. They just had a rough night against the high-scoring Phoenix Suns (and still won the game). Allowing 118 points isn't great, sure, but it is an outlier compared to their season average so far. Charles Barkley got it half right -- contending teams probably should not give up 118 points in a game.
But analytics do have a place in basketball, and according to them, the Rockets have a very respectable defense right now -- comparable to championship defenses he pointed out himself. And they're doing it without three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, who has played in just 32 games this year.
But Barkley's questioning if they are a contending team or not is justified. Their record (36-17) currently puts them second in their division and fourth in the West. According to our algorithms, though, the Rockets are just the 10th-best team in the league and have just the 12th-best chance to win the title (2.5%).