51 Q: Will D’Antoni’s Rockets defend well enough to make a deep playoff run?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets defend well enough to make a deep playoff run?

James Harden‘s defense has become a caricature of itself. Bad Harden defense clips are as easy to find on YouTube as cats playing the piano.

Except, Harden’s defense is not quite as bad as the perception — or at least not always. Go back two seasons, Harden’s near MVP season, and he played solid team defense. He’s never going to be a lock down defender, but he can be respectable when in shape and focused. He was just neither of those things to start last season.

The same thing is true of Mike D’Antoni — he’s had some terrible defensive teams in New York and Los Angeles, but his Phoenix teams were middle of the pack defensively (they just gave up a lot of points because of pace in an era before many analysts followed per possession stats).

Combine Harden and D’Antoni and it’s no wonder the perception is the Rockets defense will look like matadors waving capes as guys drive by to the rim. They know it can’t be that way if they want to win. The reality is simple in Houston:

The Rockets will go as far as their defense takes them this season.

These Houston Rockets are going to have one of the best offenses in the NBA. Harden will have the ball in his hands running the D’Antoni offense, with Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and the improving Clint Capella among others. There is athleticism, there are shooters, there are guys who can get up and down the floor.

Houston will have a top five, maybe top three offense this season.

It’s the other end of the court where the questions make you wonder how deep they can go in the playoffs.

The Rockets were 21st in the league defensively last season (using points allowed per possession), and that was with Dwight Howard playing well as a backstop protecting the rim. He’s in Atlanta, and the Rockets see this as addition by subtraction overall. Maybe. But Howard played well and played hard on the defensive end for much of the season, and in his place come in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, both of whom are statistically terrible defenders.

Two areas are of particular concern: The Rockets were 23rd in opponent effective field goal percentage last season and dead last in defensive rebounding percentage. For the Rockets to win playing the D’Antoni way that has to change — you can’t run if you’re taking the ball out of the basket, or if you don’t get the defensive rebound to throw the outlet pass. Howard helped in both those areas, and a lot of pressure and went will fall on Capella to own the paint for the Rockets.

The challenge is limiting easy buckets for opponents — teams focused on running tend to get easy baskets but also give up a lot of easy buckets. There are exceptions — Golden State, the Celtics last season, the championship Spurs of a couple of seasons ago — but D’Antoni’s previous teams have tended to lose any balance and positioning on the floor in the quest for buckets, and it hurt them getting back defensively. If the Rockets do, they will not be a serious playoff threat.

There is defensive talent on the Rockets — Capella, Ariza, Patrick Beverley, they picked up Nene this summer — but the question is more about the defensive system and if the Rockets will fully buy into it. The franchise hired Jeff Bzdelik to be D’Antoni’s defensive coordinator. Will that be enough?

The Rockets are going to be talented and fun to watch this season — the beard running seven-seconds-or-less has great potential. However, if they are winning games 130-125 in the regular season their postseason run will be short. It is this simple in Houston:

The Rockets will go as far as their defense takes them.