With a week’s worth of preseason games in the books, it is possible to make a few observations about the teams I have seen a bit of. Obviously given the sample and the preseason, anything here is only of limited utility. But there are some legitimate takeaways so far, especially on player’s health or fitness going into the season.
–The biggest takeaway for the Bulls is that Derrick Rose looks excellent. His defense has been outstanding, and while he is not quite the athletic force he was getting to the rim, that may be more a function of him being 26 instead of 23 when we last really saw him. Granted, Rose had trouble translating his preseason success into the regular season early last year before his injury, but this preseason has provided about as many positive signs as Bulls fans could have hoped for. The only issue so far has been his midrange jumper, which as Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry noted has declined precipitously. Rose does not appear to be rising on balance very well, as he almost always lands with his body oriented in a different direction.
–Nikola Mirotic has been a mixed bag. He showed *Marv voice* the entire repertoire in the opener against the Wizards, but has struggled offensively since. He has been a little shy taking open spot up threes, looking to drive even when he has plenty of time to get the shot off. That may just be a relic of his play in Europe. There, his driving game was more effective due to a lack of shotblockers, and there is also a little bit more of an unselfish ethos. He should be a very effective offensive player once he adjusts, because he has a very high skill level.
Defensively his team defense has been encouraging. Mirotic has more quickness in rotations than anticipated, and his quick hands and length have provided a solid deterrent in the paint despite the fact he is not a leaper. One-on-one he has struggled a bit more because he does not get into a deep enough stance and does not have a ton of quickness laterally. And, the defensive boards have been a sore spot as well.
A plus though is that Mirotic appears in great cardiovascular shape. He runs the floor hard, competes for offensive rebounds and still gets back on D.
–Joakim Noah is clearly still working his way back from offseason knee surgery. Interestingly, we never found out precisely what that surgery actually was other than a “clean-up.” But the fact that Noah reportedly only resumed basketball activities for training camp after a May surgery would indicate that it was more than a small meniscus trim that a “clean-up” would normally imply.
Noah will eventually be himself on defense, but his offense will be something to keep an eye on as his athleticism declines with age—he turns 30 this year. He can be an effective midrange shooter when wide open, but his slow and low release means that teams can stray very far off him and still recover. They have not been guarding him at all in the preseason, and that is a problem when Pau Gasol is trying to post up. Some of Noah’s scoring shortcomings have been mitigated by having the ball in his hands so much the last two years, because the man with the ball generally must be guarded. But with Rose and Gasol in the lineup now we will see less of Noah facilitating this year, so he must be a threat off the ball. It may be that this is much ado about nothing, but it is something to keep an eye on as the regular season begins.
–Jimmy Butler looks to be in absolutely outstanding shape. It seems clear that wear and tear and a toe injury sapped his athleticism a year ago, but he is now jumping out of the gym the way he was back in 2012-13.
Butler is attacking the basket hard on cuts and getting to the free throw line off passes from the Bulls’ skilled big men. The only thing we have yet to see is his three point shot. Butler has taken only one in three games, which is really going to hamstring the Bulls’ offense if he can’t at least be a consistent threat out there.
–Gasol has looked excellent defensively, as he is functioning as the center with Noah at power forward. He has eight blocks in three games. On offense his midranger has been effective, but he has not been particularly effective posting up, perhaps in part due to the lack of spacing.
–One thing to watch is coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotations. He has a history of extreme rigidity, which has hurt the Bulls in the past. Thus far in the preseason, Thibodeau has started Noah and Gasol, who are both really centers. Rose, Butler and Mike Dunleavy fill out the starting lineup, which has played well despite a relative dearth of shooting. But the bench units have been disappointing. Granted it is preseason, so we may see more mixing and matching of starters and reserves when the real games begin.
My suggestion would be to play Gasol in three stints, like the Mavericks and Spurs often deploy Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker. Taj Gibson for Gasol early would allow him to return for Noah and play with the second unit when Rose sits. This second stint could give Gasol minutes with Mirotic, who could space the floor for postups and allow Gasol to work as a go-to option. It would also behoove the Bulls to try a few minutes each half with Rose and Mirotic to run spread pick-and-roll, as Mirotic’s shooting would facilitate Rose’s drives.
To really compete for a championship, this Bulls team needs to get to the top 10 in offense this year. With the offensive talent on hand, that type of finish seems possible. But, Thibodeau is going to need to find the right mix of players in his regular units to make that happen.
Golden State Warriors
–Andrew Bogut is shooting free throws left-handed now! To my knowledge, this was something no one had reported on at all until he unveiled it against the Lakers on Sunday night. After shooting a miserable 34 percent last year, perhaps Bogut came to the conclusion that the after-effects of his awful elbow injury in 2010 would prevent him from shooting passably with his natural right hand. He started 1-4 with the new approach.
–The Warriors’ offense already features much more ball movement than under Mark Jackson. The problem with Jackson’s approach was not merely his fondness for iso-ball, but the fact that little movement occurred off the ball during those isos and postups. That defect has been remedied as of the first two games, although it remains to be seen how the Warriors will look against a defense that is not the Los Angeles Lakers. How the Warriors play offensively without Curry could be the biggest key (non-health division) to whether they can reach the high 50s in wins. With Kevin Durant’s injury, a top three seed appears a bit more realistic for a lot of teams in the West.
–Brandon Rush has looked excellent so far. He cut quite a bit of weight from his nadir in Utah a season ago, when he was probably about 15 pounds too heavy and struggled with his confidence. He is looking like a viable rotation piece as a three and D player, and potentially an excellent signing for the minimum. Despite the “Splash Brothers” moniker, the Warriors could really use another shooter on the wing aside from Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.
–Backup center is the only real weakness to emerge for the Warriors. Festus Ezeli still has yet to make his debut after a setback with shin discomfort, and Ognjen Kuzmic has not impressed offensively and looks pretty limited athletically. Mareese Speights’ weakness executing the system defensively has been well-documented, so the Warriors do not have a great in-house option backing up the injury-prone Bogut.
–This play was perhaps my favorite so far of the preseason. As the Lakers were getting blown out of the gym, Kobe put Ronnie Price on Harrison Barnes and tried to pressure up Stephen Curry. This was the result.
Los Angeles Lakers
–I have seen all three of the Lakers’ preseason games. After an encouraging start against the Nuggets, the Warriors have put their weaknesses in stark relief. We knew this team would struggle defensively without a single above-average defensive player on the roster aside from the limited Ronnie Price. But as Stephen Curry roasted Steve Nash to start Sunday’s game, it was apparent that the Lakers really didn’t have a superior option. Bryant is not a stopper at this point in his career, although he is better on-ball than off. Jeremy Lin was injured and has never been great on D, and Wesley Johnson is probably too slow. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Lakers avoid the bottom five in defense this year.
–Another underappreciated Laker weakness was highlighted by Byron Scott’s comments earlier this week that he wanted the Lakers taking less than 15 threes per game. That seems like lunacy in today’s NBA, but L.A. really doesn’t have three-point shooters aside from Nash until Ryan Kelly returns from a hamstring injury. Against Golden State, they took a mere three from downtown, making none. On a related note, the Lakers managed 75 points.
–The good news for the Lakers is that Kobe Bryant has looked about as good as could be expected so far. Unlike his abortive return a year ago, he looks to be about the same weight as he finished 2012-13. Despite the torn Achilles and the knee fracture, I wouldn’t say he looks much worse than might have been expected with another two years of aging had he stayed healthy.
–The encouraging news for the Nets is that Brook Lopez looks like he is back. Lost amidst the Nets’ horrible start last year was Lopez’s injury, and the fact that he was on pace for a wonderful individual offensive season. He looked like his old self against Sacramento in China early Sunday morning.
–Lionel Hollins gave Mason Plumlee and Lopez a few minutes together, but it is hard to imagine that pairing working well with Plumlee’s limited shooting range and Lopez’s penchant for posting up. Plumlee also struggles out on the floor against power forwards despite his athleticism. It is a bit of a conundrum for coach Hollins, as Lopez, Plumlee, and Kevin Garnett are all best at center at this point in their careers.
–Garnett looked great in the few minutes he played, looking quite spry as he skied for a defensive rebound and a goaltend. Maybe we just caught him on a good day (which can be fewer and further between as players age), but it was good to see.
–The Nets were very effective posting their smalls a year ago. With the departures of Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, that strategy will be deployed a bit less this year, but Joe Johnson and Deron Williams can still be lethal in that role. They may want to try it with Lopez out of the game though, as he had trouble finding a spot to avoid gumming up the spacing. It may just be rust hurting his timing for cutting to the basket, but the small postups were ineffective when he played.
–Deron Williams looked relatively spry and canned a few jumpers, but he was not particularly successful getting into the paint against Sacramento’s usually porous defense. I did not see enough to posit whether he will be significantly improved after procedures on his ankles in the offseason, although reports from previous games and camp have been positive.
–Sergey Karasev spent the summer in relative limbo before being traded to the Nets as the Cavs cleared space for LeBron James. There appears to be almost no chance he will be in the rotation, which is not a surprise with the veteran wings the Nets have. But it would be nice if he had improved his body some in the offseason. Instead, he looked to have extremely high body fat for a young 20 year old wing. Considering athleticism is his biggest roadblock to success in the NBA, it is disappointing.
–Ramon Sessions was a very underrated signing late in the summer. He is probably the best passer the Kings have rostered since Brad Miller, and has also showed an ability to keep the defense honest with his jumper so far.
–Nik Stauskas is going to get attacked defensively, as he noted the other day. A typical sequence saw Deron Williams wave off a pick-and-roll to isolate against him, although he missed a reasonably tough jumper since the help was waiting behind Stauskas. The good news for the Kings is Stauskas can shoot, dribble and pass. It turns out those skills are pretty important for basketball. Moreover, Stauskas looks like he belongs out there athletically. He certainly isn’t going to help the Kings’ defensive woes, but I would expect him to supplant Ben McLemore as the starter by season’s end, especially with Darren Collison’s playmaking limitations.
–The reports that Omri Casspi had slimmed down appear accurate. I had noted it would really help him to do so after he looked a little heavy down the stretch with Houston a year ago, and he is much quicker getting to the basket and asserting himself in the floor game.
–The Kings are another team that somehow does not have a single high-minute player on their roster who projects to play above-average NBA defense. It is really difficult to see how they are going to improve on last year’s point-prevention, and that is a problem since the offense could take a step back without Isaiah Thomas.
–With the unfortunate injury to Bradley Beal, we are going to find out whether Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. can play. While that may torpedo Washington’s hopes of getting home-court in the first round, determining whether a long-term in-house solution is available at the three is a silver lining.
NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Looking For Rookie Season Role
Although far from guaranteed, there are five recent second-rounders who could work themselves into important roles in 2018-19.
After months of speculation, rumors and workouts, the NBA Draft and their respective summer leagues are finally well in the rearview mirror. With training camps up next, franchises can begin to flesh out their rotations and decide the early season fates of their newly-arrived rookies — even if their selection didn’t come with as much fanfare or hype.
And although draft day studs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III are nearly guaranteed to contribute immediately, much of the class’ future is still up for grabs — a statement particularly true for those that followed the first round. Whether it was a strong summer league showing or a picture-perfect landing spot, here are the five second round draftees poised to leave a mark in 2018-19.
Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18: 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting
Much as been made of the youngest Antetokounmpo’s controversial decision to come out this spring, but his faith was rewarded by Dallas with the draft’s final selection. Back in June, our Spencer Davies dove into Antetokounmpo’s time at Dayton and it’s not difficult to see why the Mavericks took a swing on the raw 6-foot-11 prospect. Over four games in Las Vegas, Antetokounmpo averaged five points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 58 percent from the floor — which, of course, is not eye-popping but could foreshadow a role moving forward.
Between Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and the ever-talented Luka Dončić, Antetokounmpo will not be called upon to carry the scoring load at any point. On a two-way deal, the Mavericks have the luxury to develop the Greek-born stopper in the G-League until he’s ready to make a difference — but for a defensive-minded Rick Carlisle, that day could come sooner rather than later. With Dwight Powell and Ray Spalding fighting for minutes at power forward, Antetokounmpo could be an option at the three, where Barnes has just Dorian Finney-Smith behind him.
For a franchise that ranked 18th in DEF RTG (107.4) last season and will strive for their first postseason berth since 2016, giving spot defensive specialist minutes to Antetokounmpo seems like a win-win partnership.
De’Anthony Melton, Houston Rockets
2016-17: 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 43.7 percent shooting
After missing an entire season due to an improper benefits scandal at USC, Melton serendipitously fell to the Rockets way down at No. 46 overall. At 6-foot-3, Melton has a shot to contribute on both ends immediately as an above-average defender and a microwavable scorer. During his Las Vegas debut, Melton tallied 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, four assists and a summer league-leading three steals across five contests — albeit at an improvable 38 percent from the floor. As a tenacious playmaker, Melton should get ample opportunity to impress with a franchise looking to avenge their brutal Western Conference Finals defeat last spring.
On top of learning from one of the best point guards in league history, there also happens to be little competition for Melton in the rotation. In July, the Rockets signed Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner that averaged just 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists in 52 games for Charlotte in 2017-18 — and, well, that’s it. For a three-point bombing franchise like Houston, neither guard fits particularly well in that regard, but Melton’s 28.4 percent clip in one season as an 18-year-old still projects better than Carter-Williams’ 25 percent mark over five years.
Chris Paul missed 24 regular season games last year, but the Rockets are still willing to head into training camp with a second-round rookie and Carter-Williams holding down the backup point guard slot — that alone says far more about Houston’s faith in Melton than anything else.
Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2017-18: 12.9 points, 4.8 assists on 39.4 percent from three
Outside of Džanan Musa and the aforementioned Dončić, the Phoenix Suns’ Élie Okobo entered draft night as the most promising overseas prospect in the bunch. Okobo, a 6-foot-2 Frenchman, could feasibly become the Suns’ franchise point guard by season’s end. The playmaking 20-year-old has just Brandon Knight ahead of him on the depth chart, a formidable NBA point guard, but one that does not fit Phoenix’s current rebuilding plan. Admittedly, his statistics won’t jump off the page just yet — 2.3 points, 3.5 assists in four summer league contests — but the potential for Okobo is certainly here.
While it’s worth noting that Okobo didn’t score in three straight contests after his impressive debut, he appears to be a suitable backcourt partner with franchise cornerstone Devin Booker. Whether he’s connecting with a backdoor cut in stride or hitting difficult running floaters, there are plenty of positives to take thus far. With a postseason appearance looking unlikely for the Suns, it’ll make sense to give Okobo the reins before long — even if they can’t move Knight’s contract worth $15.6 million in 2019-20.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
Needless to say, Mitchell Robinson could be an absolute treat for the New York Knicks.
For much of the pre-draft process, it looked like Robinson was a shoo-in first rounder, with many speculating that he even received a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 overall. Once the first 30 picks came and went without Robinson — who elected to pull out of the draft combine in May — the Knicks were more than happy to scoop him up. Across five summer league contests, Robinson averaged 13 points, 10.2 rebounds and a competition-leading four blocks per game on 67 percent from the field.
On a team-friendly four-year deal worth just $1.8 million in 2021-22, Robinson already looks like a bargain. But beyond his first-round talent at a second-round price, there’s a real chance that Robinson can contribute for New York right away. Following the recent news that Joakim Noah will be stretched if the Knicks can’t find a suitable partner by training camp, that leaves exactly two centers left on the roster: Enes Kanter and Robinson. The 7-foot-1 prospect is a natural replacement for the departed Kyle O’Quinn, while the newly-minted David Fizdale should love Robinson’s shot-changing impact defensively.
Even if Robinson shuttles back-and-forth to and from Westchester throughout the season, he could still seamlessly slide into the Knicks’ rotation from day one.
Jevon Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18: 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 3 steals on 39.3 percent from three
Earlier this week, Matt John put forth an excellent case for what should be a comeback season for the Grit-And-Grind Grizzlies — but there’s one second-rounder still currently flying under the radar. Despite a stellar final season at West Virginia, Carter dropped into Memphis’ lap and there are few that so elegantly fit the franchise’s identity without effort. As the reigning back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year, Carter should split the backup point guard minutes with newcomer Shelvin Mack, if not more by season’s end.
The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, along with renewed health from Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, will have Memphis eying the postseason once again — but Carter will likely be a fan favorite long before then as well. During his lengthy summer league initiation, Carter pulled in 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals over seven games. Although his 35 percent clip from the floor could use some restraint, he won’t need to shoulder offensive responsibilities with the Grizzlies.
Carter’s hard-nosed style of play will enhance an uncharacteristically poor Memphis defense from last season, with his years of extra experience allowing the bullish ball-stopper to drop into the rotation from the get-go.
With franchises focused on their high-ranking lottery picks, many second round draftees (and their often non-guaranteed contracts) will never carve out a consistent NBA role. But from backing up future Hall of Famers to filling a hole in the rotation, it should surprise no one if Antetokounmpo, Melton, Okobo, Robinson and Carter earn some big-time opportunities in 2018-19. Last year alone, Semi Ojeleye, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell all quickly found their niche at the professional level — so who will it be this year?
NBA Daily: Poeltl Looking Forward To New Beginning With Spurs
Spencer Davies looks at the under-the-radar portion of the DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade and how Jakob Poeltl is already embracing the change.
One month ago, a superstar-swapping trade between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs was agreed upon.
The deal—which once again sparked a national debate about player loyalty—sent a reportedly disgruntled Kawhi Leonard to The North in exchange for Masai Ujiri’s franchise cornerstone, DeMar DeRozan.
Longtime Spur and veteran sharpshooter Danny Green was also moved to Toronto, while San Antonio acquired a protected future first-round draft pick and 22-year-old big man Jakob Poeltl.
Remember, Poeltl was an integral piece of a talented Raptor bench that produced a better net rating than their starters, as well as nearly all five-man groups in the league.
While the majority of pundits have gone back and forth about who won the trade, few have mentioned the ninth overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Being involved in the transaction admittedly caught Poeltl “a little bit off guard.”
But entering his third year as a pro, the seven-foot Austrian is embracing the change and a brand new start with one of the most well-respected organizations in sports.
“That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, just the fact that this program has such a big history in developing players,” Poeltl told reporters in his first media appearance since the move. “I’m really excited for the process. Gonna be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.”
From what he has heard from players who have been a part of the Spurs in the past and those who are currently there, it’s an unselfish group of people. They consider it a family environment.
“Everybody is just in it together,” Poeltl said. “From the very top to the very last guy on the bench or in the gym. It’s really like a great atmosphere, at least from what I’ve heard. So I’m looking forward to actually experiencing it myself.”
As soon as Poeltl got to San Antonio, he gazed at the championship banners hanging inside of the gym and quickly realized the expectations he’ll have to fulfill this season are a little higher than where he came from.
“It’s crazy, it’s different,” Poeltl said. “Obviously in Toronto, we didn’t have banners like that. Like we’re on a good way there, but this program here has some tradition to it. Over the last 20 years been a great basketball team. Obviously, you can tell by the championships and all the accomplishments.
“It’s a little bit of pressure, too. Like we’re trying to live up to that. There’s obviously a very high standard here, so we’ve gotta come in and put the work in and really show what we’ve got on the court as a team.”
Poeltl hasn’t wasted any time in immersing himself into the culture. In fact, he’s been working out at their practice facility since he arrived and feels like there’s a “natural chemistry” already with his new teammates.
In the weight room, Poeltl came across the forever face of the Spurs and future Hall-of-Fame forward, Tim Duncan. The conversation between them was short, sweet and casual. Basketball wasn’t brought up, as that will likely be saved for another time when the season approaches.
Duncan still sticks around and helps in practices from time-to-time, but he won’t be there every day. Somebody else who will be, however, is Pau Gasol, a fellow international center that Poeltl looks forward to learning from.
Though those two will be able to give veteran advice and priceless pointers, Poeltl’s most crucial teachings will come from the Spurs lead general—Gregg Popovich. Like with Duncan, on-court discussions were not the focus of their first interaction.
“We went to dinner,” Poeltl said. “We didn’t really talk too much basketball. It was more just like trying to get to know each other, like a first impression. I think there’s more than enough time for us to talk basketball and really learn what the Spurs are all about on the basketball court.
“But it was a really good conversation. Like I really enjoyed it. He’s a very down-to-earth type guy for if you think about what he’s accomplished in his career. He’s really cool.”
Once training camp comes and the dialogue does take a turn towards the hardwood, Poeltl will be all ears. As it stands now, Poeltl’s niche is the hustle guy. He picks up the scraps, corrals offensive rebounds and dives after loose balls, but don’t pigeonhole “role player” to his name. He plans on doing more in San Antonio.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” Poeltl said. “I think I do a lot of the little things out there—set good screens, be in the right places, making good reads off of my teammates and making plays for my teammates at the same time. Obviously like for me, that’s my role right now and I’m really enjoying that.
“I’m working on my game every single day in practice and I’m trying to develop more offensively and defensively so I can take on more responsibilities in the future.”
Moving on from the team that drafted you to another can be difficult. Luckily, Poeltl isn’t coming alone.
“Obviously it helps to have a familiar face like a guy that I’ve played with over the last three years,” Poeltl said of DeRozan. “Like I know how he plays basketball, he knows me. I think we play well together.”
In the two years they have played together, Poeltl has noticed DeRozan fine-tune his game. Although he is first and foremost a pure scorer, his all-around offense is getting better.
DeRozan’s reads on the opposition are crisper, as are the adjustments he makes due to that. He understands when to take games over and has involved his teammates more and more with each season.
It’s no surprise that the four-time All-Star guard is coming to the Spurs with a statement to make. All he’s done since being drafted is improve and devote himself to his second home in Toronto. He hasn’t uttered one favorable comment towards the front office he feels betrayed him.
Witnessing the kind of player DeRozan is when he’s pushed, Poeltl expects we’ll see a whole other side of him unleashed this year.
“It’s a little bit scary, to be honest,” Poeltl said. “Because I know what he can do when he has a chip on his shoulder, when he gets that extra motivation. I think he’s gonna be ready.”
Poeltl doesn’t have quite that big of a score to settle with the Raptors.
He’s just ready to give his all to an organization in a blue-collar town that matches the kind of work ethic he’s had since he started playing the game.
“That’s kinda how I’ve been for my whole basketball career,” Poeltl said. “Just get the work done.”
NBA Daily: Can an Anthony-D’Antoni Marriage Work for Houston?
Shane Rhodes lays out how the Carmelo Anthony-Mike D’Antoni pairing could work this time around in Houston.
It’s official: Carmelo Anthony has joined the Houston Rockets after putting pen to paper on a contract. In doing so, Anthony will join a gifted offensive team helmed by former Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni.
Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
Back in 2011, when Anthony joined the New York Knicks via a blockbuster trade with the Denver Nuggets, a younger D’Antoni was in the midst of his third year with New York. While he didn’t exactly have a sterling record with the Knicks prior to the acquisition (89-129 before), things improved little upon Anthony’s arrival in the Big Apple (31-38 after). The two butted heads constantly and, after just a year (and an ultimatum forced on the Knicks by Anthony), D’Antoni was out the door; he resigned from his position and pursued work elsewhere.
Now, together once again, questions remain about how their relationship and, ultimately, their offensive styles will mesh in Houston. D’Antoni has already come out and said things will be different this time around, but nothing is so certain in the NBA; what is stopping things from going south as they did for the Knicks, who, despite a bevy of talent, just couldn’t make things work?
It’s important to understand where things went wrong in New York in order to look at where they could go wrong in Houston.
From the jump, the two weren’t exactly the best fit. Anthony wanted to play the way he had his entire career — heavy isolation, high usage basketball — while D’Antoni’s offense was spread out, predicated on ball movement, and closer to what we see in the modern offense.
Those two styles aren’t exactly conducive to the success of one another.
The Knicks finished the season 42-40, going just 13-14 in Anthony’s 27 games with the team. The two continued to be at odds with one another into the next season until, after leading the Knicks to an underwhelming 18-24 start, D’Antoni resigned. While things improved under Mike Woodson in 2012 — Anthony posted the highest usage rate of his career while the Knicks won 52 games — they quickly devolved into disaster and the Knicks, once again, found themselves in a hole that they are still trying to climb out of.
Now, on to Houston. This isn’t the same D’Antoni; he has changed and so has his offense. While ball movement still plays an integral role, D’Antoni has put much more of an emphasis on isolation plays in order to better fit the profile of his current roster.
The Rockets posted historic offensive numbers with James Harden and Chris Paul running the show, but did so unlike D’Antoni teams of the past. Gone are the days of the seven-seconds-or-less offense; the Rockets played at a pace (97.4 possessions per 48 minutes) that was middle of the pack, while their assist total came in at just 26th in the league, third worst among teams that made the postseason last year. Despite that, Houston managed to post the highest offensive rating (114.7) in the league.
While those stylistic changes should aid Anthony as he looks to rebound next season, they alone don’t make this the perfect fit for the Rockets. Anthony will never see the touches that he was once accustomed to in New York or Denver. He isn’t the same player he was five years ago, either; as his athleticism has declined, so too has Anthony’s ability to get past his defenders, leading to tougher, lower percentage shots that could sink the Rockets come the postseason.
The only thing that really holds Anthony back now is his own stubborn ignorance of those facts. He refused to adjust last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder because he still has “so much left in the tank.” Anthony posted some of the worst numbers of his career last season and, while Billy Donovan isn’t the offensive wizard that D’Antoni is, things should only get worse as Harden (36.1 percent usage rate) and Paul (24.5) dominate the ball if Anthony remains unwilling to change.
So, while his words may hold true, Anthony is no longer in a position where he needs to put the team on his back in order for it to be successful. Houston already has a well-established hierarchy, and Anthony is merely a column meant to buttress what is already in place. If he can’t come to accept that, the chance Houston is taking on him could backfire tremendously.
Still, Houston needs someone to eat the minutes vacated by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency. While he may not be able to match their defensive exploits, Anthony is still more than capable of filling their shoes, or even providing an upgrade, offensively. That potential upgrade alone could make the move a worthwhile one for the Rockets, who came just minutes from dethroning the Golden State Warriors despite the loss of Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.
For things to truly work out, however, Anthony must be willing to accept a change in his role, a diminished one in an offense that isn’t hurting for star power or shot takers, but one that desperately needs role players. If Anthony can adapt, he could be exactly what they need to challenge the Warriors. If not, Anthony’s arrival could blow up in D’Antoni’s face just as it did with the Knicks.