The Brooklyn Nets will enter the 2014-15 NBA season with the league’s highest payroll for the second consecutive year. With quite a few significant personnel losses, the NBA’s most recently relocated franchise hopes to build upon the success that they have had in their first two seasons in Brooklyn.
Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-15 Brooklyn Nets.
Five Guys Think
Despite having spent obscene and unprecedented amounts of money over the course of the last couple of years to field as competitive a team as possible, the Brooklyn Nets have continually fallen short of expectations. This year, with Brook Lopez finally healthy, the Nets have to capitalize not only on what could be Kevin Garnett’s last year in the league, but also on what might be one of only a few peak years remaining for both Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. In other words, the time is now for this terribly expensive roster to earn its collective paycheck, and luckily for them, they look like they could have the best team in the Atlantic Division this season.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
The Nets will likely be a very different team in 2014-15. Jason Kidd is out and Lionel Hollins is in. Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, Andray Blatche and Marcus Thornton among others are out and Jarrett Jack, Jorge Gutierrez, Cory Jefferson and Markel Brown among others are in. Kevin Garnett’s future remains up in the air, although it sounds like the organization expects him back. Getting Brook Lopez back from injury will also significantly change this Nets squad, as he was lost for the season early last year. I’m curious to see what Brooklyn can do and I like Hollins as a coach so it’s good to see him back in the league, but I’m not confident that the Nets are legitimate contenders. That is very bad for a team that mortgaged their future to win now.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
Brooklyn entered last season confidently talking about their title aspirations, but the team was humbled early and struggled out of the gate under first year head coach Jason Kidd. While the team did rebound and make the second round of the playoffs, it’s safe to say the season was by and large a huge disappointment. Kidd is now residing in Milwaukee and Lionel Hollins gets a shot at the helm. The expectations are much lower in Brooklyn these days but there is plenty of talent remaining on the roster. The Nets will need a bounce back year from fading guard Deron Williams and center Brook Lopez must stay healthy. The Nets are no longer fringe title contenders but could still make some noise in the Eastern Conference.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
There are still some very serious identity issues as it relates to the Nets. The team will now employ Lionel Hollins—its fourth head coach in less than two calendar years. The departures of both Jason Kidd and Paul Pierce should fill Nets fans with an almost unimaginable pain, as Kidd was a franchise mainstay and prospective savior and Pierce was the major piece hauled in as a result of sacrificing too many draft picks to count. As of now, there are some questions as to whether or not Kevin Garnett will return for what would be his 20th season, but the early indications are that he will. All of that aside, the Nets have added Jarrett Jack and have finally managed to secure the services or Bojan Bogdanovich. With the return of Brook Lopez, if he and Deron Williams can stay healthy, the Nets should have every opportunity to challenge the Toronto Raptors for the division title. Those are big “ifs,” however, and at this point, the safest bet, unfortunately, seems to be that attrition will take its toll and the Nets will end up the third-best team in the Atlantic.
3rd place – Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Brooklyn Nets hiring Lionel Hollins was one of my favorite moves of the offseason, and one that I think should pay off immediately for them in a big way, especially if Kevin Garnett returns for his 20th season and plays alongside a healthy Brook Lopez for most of the season. His system and approach fit this group perfectly; hopefully ownership and management keep their distance and let him coach, that’s the only way I could see this partnership not working out. Even without Garnett, this is a team that has the pieces to make some noise in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. They were able to advance to the second round of the playoffs last year, but will miss Paul Pierce and everything that he brought to the table as they attempt to match that accomplishment. I’d be willing to bet on them, if their star players, Deron Williams and the aforementioned Lopez, didn’t have such a bad injury history.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: Joe Johnson gets the nod over Brook Lopez, though reasonable minds may offer a different opinion. Last season, when the Nets were way below .500 and struggling to find something, and after Brook Lopez had been declared done for the season, it was Johnson who emerged as the key figure that helped the Nets turn their entire season around. At 6-foot-8 and weighting in at 240 pounds, Johnson is a shooting guard in a small forward’s body and quietly remains one of the more underrated and efficient perimeter post players in the entire league. Although his scoring dipped from 16.3 points per game in 2012-13 to 15.8 points per game last season, Johnson made a higher percentage of the shots that he did take and managed to connect on over 40 percent of his three-point shots for the first time since 2005—back when he was a member of the Phoenix Suns. His playmaking ability has long been underrated, and all around, we consider him to be the most dynamic offensive force in Brooklyn, with Lopez a close second.
Top Defensive Player: What Joe Johnson is on the offensive end for the Nets, Andrei Kirilenko is on the defense end. Kirilenko has the ability to guard no less than three players on the floor, but at this point, we are still inclined to tap Kevin Garnett as the top defender on the team. Although he is a few steps slower than he was back when he helped lead the Boston Celtics to the NBA Championship back in 2008, Garnett is still a brilliant on-ball defender with impeccable timing. Even more so, Garnett is the quarterback on the defensive end for the Nets and can be easily helped barking instructions to his teammates, whether he is on the floor or on the bench. Without Garnett, the Nets are a different team, but especially on the defensive end of the floor.
Top Playmaker: Although his production has waned since becoming a member of the Nets back in 2011, when he is fully healthy, Deron Williams is clearly the top playmaker on the roster. At times, the Nets have opted to force-feed Brook Lopez in the low-post, something thwarting Williams’ ability to run the floor and make plays for his teammates in open space. In his first 12 games as a member of the Nets, Williams averaged 12.8 assists per game. Since then, attrition and roster turnover has seen his proficiency in that area wane. Newcomer Jarrett Jack is a capable distributor, but is not the caliber of playmaker Williams is when he is at full strength.
Top Clutch Player: Without question, anyone who has paid even close attention to the NBA over the past few years will agree that Joe Johnson is not only the most clutch player on the Nets, but arguably the most clutch player in the entire league. Kevin Garnett called Johnson “Joe Jesus” en route to Johnson’s amazing 7-for-7 stretch of hitting shots in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime when his team is tied or behind by three points or less (ESPNNewYork.com). Johnson has come up with huge plays during key playoff moments, as well. The argument can be made that he is the the premier clutch player in the league, so it stands to reason that he is on his own team.
Top Unheralded Player: Mirza Teletovic remains a largely overlooked player in the NBA, and if there is one silver lining to the departure of Andray Blatche, it is that Teletovic will get increased minutes and opportunity to show what he can contribute in the NBA. At the very least, he is an effective floor-spacer at either forward position. At most, he can be a dynamic offensive weapon that can carry a team in spurts. If coach Lionel Hollins can bring out the most of Teletovic on a consistent basis on the defensive end, he can add a unique dimension to the Nets that could make a bigger difference than many imagined.
Top New Addition: The Nets have effectively traded both Marcus Thornton and Shaun Livingston for Jarrett Jack. Jack has different gifts that either of those two, but with Alan Anderson filling in at the shooting guard spot, the Nets may not feel the impact of Livingston’s defense—at least on the perimeter—as much. Jack, on the other hand, give the team another bonafide floor general who can run an offense in the event that Deron Williams misses any time. Bojan Bogdanovic is considered by many to have the ability to be an impact player in the NBA, but until we see it on the court, we will give Jack the benefit of the doubt.
– Moke Hamilton
Who We Like
1. Lionel Hollins: After firing Avery Johnson in December 2012, Hollins will become the fourth head coach to man the sidelines for the Nets in less than two years. The team has seen quite a bit of roster turnover during that period, and the search for an identity is ongoing. If there is one thing that Hollins knows, however, it is who he is. As an NBA player, Hollins was a two-time member of the NBA All-NBA Defensive team and coached the Memphis Grizzlies to the best years in franchise history. He did it by studying his players and developing a system that effectively utilized their collective strengths. That is exactly what he has vowed to do in Brooklyn and based on his impressive track record, it is exactly what he will probably do. Overall, Hollins seems to be a knowledgeable head coach who has the personality to excel in New York.
2. Brook Lopez: Over the course of his six-year career, Brook Lopez has shown impressive growth and reasonable upside. While there may be some concerns over his slow-footedness and how it meshes with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, Lopez, when healthy, is one of the most efficient and hard-working centers in the entire league. Defensively, while he is not the quickest or most athletic, he is a game-changer who can protect the rim and will cause defenders to at least think for an extra second before attacking. There is a lot to like, though concerns over whether he can contribute for a full 82-game season persist.
3. Joe Johnson: Though not the same player he was with the Atlanta Hawks, Johnson’s game has slowed down enough to where he seems to see the floor and his teammates better than before. Still a scorer at heart, he has learned to pick and choose his spots more effectively and has become a more efficient scorer. Without Paul Pierce, Johnson may come under a bit more pressure to produce for the Nets on the offensive end, but with Jarrett Jack flanking him, Johnson should be able to focus on scoring and continue to be the most consistent Net of them all.
4. Mason Plumlee: Plumlee was one of the players who helped the Nets turn their season around last year and his on-the-fly learning and development into an everyday NBA contributor has been noticed by even casual NBA onlookers. With a gold medal in tow from the FIBA World Cup this past summer, Plumlee will enter the season a bit wiser and with a first-hand look of what it takes to be successful at the professional level. That will pay dividends for the Nets.
5. Mikhail Prokhorov: The willingness to write checks is something we have to respect about any owner in the NBA. For that reason, Prokhorov deserves our affection, but if you have never stood near the Russian billionaire, you have been robbed of an opportunity to experience a man with unlimited swag and an insatiable desire to win and win big. To this point, he has certainly been an owner worthy of respect. Even if his Nets have not come close to winning a championship, they have made impressive progress since he took over.
– Moke Hamilton
Even with the losses of Shaun Livingston, Paul Pierce and Andray Blatche, the Nets are still a fairly deep team. Talent has never been an issue with this group, it has been more about attrition and the finding of an identity. With Lionel Hollins, the Nets will collectively hope to mimic the success that Hollins found with the Memphis Grizzlies, where he led the team to a combined record of 183-129 in his four full seasons at the head coach. With Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, Jarrett Jack and an impressive group of youngsters that includes Mason Plumlee, the Nets have enough to contend out East, it’s just a matter of how Hollins meshes it all together.
– Moke Hamilton
Age and attrition. While they may be talented, they certainly are aging. Deron Williams will join Kevin Garnett (38 years old), Joe Johnson (33 years old), Andrei Kirilenko (33 years old) and Jarrett Jack (30 years old) in the 30-and-older club. Brook Lopez, while just 25 years old, doesn’t exactly have a record of exemplary health. While there is more upside on this roster with Mason Plumlee, Mirza Teletovic, Marquis Teague and Bojan Bogdanovic, the Nets will be counting on an aging core of veterans to get them past younger, more spry teams in the Eastern Conference such as the Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards and, obviously, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
– Moke Hamilton
The Salary Cap
The Nets have become a perennial taxpayer, leading the league in payroll. The franchise is locked in to about $93 million in salary with 13 guaranteed players, which would lead to an approximate tax bill of $33.2 million. That’s actually a drop after last year’s $102.8 million payroll and $90.6 million tax hit. Brooklyn used their primary spending tool, the $3.3 million Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception on rookie Bojan Bogdanovic. Other than acquiring players through trade, the Nets have just minimum contracts to offer. The team also has trade exceptions on their books, but at under $800k each – they likely go unused.
– Eric Pincus
The Nets were one of the highest profile squads in the league last year, but seem to have completely fallen off the radar this year due to the departures of Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, and Jason Kidd. Nevertheless, there are some reasons to believe this team could be better than last year. Recall that in 2012-13, Brooklyn won 49 games with Brook Lopez and Deron Williams healthy–if they can get back to their form from that year the Nets could easily surprise for a team that many are picking to miss the playoffs. Andrei Kirilenko is another player who had essentially a lost year, and with the Nets’ hole at the 4 he could finally get a chance for significant minutes at what is really his natural position.
While age and injuries make a bounce-back season for the Nets less likely, it is at least possible given the talent on hand.
See some of the reasons for optimism above. Mason Plumlee continues to improve off a summer with USA Basketball, and he, Lopez, and Garnett provide a very solid big man rotation. Coach Lionel Hollins, potentially but not certainly an upgrade on Jason Kidd, uses the versatile frontcourt with those players, Kirilenko, and Mirza Teletovic to gain matchup advantages on a nightly basis. Joe Johnson continues to defy the aging process and plays like he did in the 2014 playoffs, while young wings Bojan Bogdanovic and Sergey Karasev contribute in backup roles.
Williams continues to struggle and confirms that he is basically done as a high-level player. Lopez suffers a third foot injury that also puts his career in question. Without those two, the Nets lack scoring and crater into the bottom quarter of the league. While the defense holds up under Hollins, they simply cannot put the ball in the basket without any stars, as Johnson really only qualifies against certain matchups when he has the size advantage. It is ironic indeed that a team that has paid so much luxury tax over the years could very well end up in a position without any true stars at all.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Are the Nets a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference?
It is difficult imagining the Nets improving over last year’s 44-38 record without Paul Pierce, but it is not out of the question. If things break right for the Nets—if Brook Lopez and Deron Williams can both stay healthy and if Bojan Bogdanovic and Mirza Teletovic are difference makers—then contention is possible. Of all divisions in the NBA, the Atlantic is most difficult to predict. If the Nets were able to win the division and draw either the Charlotte Hornets or Washington Wizards in the first round, they would certainly have a chance to win. In fact, with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ size issues and Chicago Bulls’ consistent injury issues, we would be foolish to discount the Nets completely. Yes, there are a lot of variables, but as Kevin Garnett once said… Anything is possible.
– Moke Hamilton
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.