Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 33 seconds, Kobe Bryant’s 81 points and even Giannis Antetokounmpo’s leapfrogging Tim Hardaway, Jr. in a professional basketball game—those moments are why I watch the game.
Aside form the obvious, other moments often end up being the reason why I cover it.
As fans of professional sports and those that cover the game, we spend so much of our time sitting through expected occurrences just in case something exceptional happens.
Kyrie’s three-pointer to sink the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals and Ray Allen’s three-point shot to give the Miami HEAT new life back in the 2013 NBA Finals are two examples, but the truth of the matter is that moments of grandeur occur fairly often. Obviously, though, the higher the stakes are the more those moments will resonate as time progresses.
What I’ve appreciated most over the past five seasons, however, have been the moments that occurred behind the scenes and away from the public eye. As journalists and those that follow the game, we have a front row seat to both the action that occurs on the basketball court, but also many of the things that happen off of it.
Here are a few that will stay with me forever.
Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant’s Rendezvous
In 2012, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh by his side, for the first time in his career, LeBron James knew what it felt like to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. Little did he or Kevin Durant know that it would be the first of a few times that they would be doing battle for the right to sit atop the NBA’s iron throne.
It’s been a long six years for James. Dating back to 2011, he’s made eight consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, emerging victorious in three of them. One could argue, however, that the past six years have been even longer for Durant.
Back in 2012, the basketball viewing public was still euphoric at the thought of James, the mercenary, still being winless.
In many ways, the 2012 NBA Finals featured the HEAT—a team that many felt were attempting to “buy” their way to a championship—against the team that had come to embody all that was right about professional sports. Along with Durant, Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder had an organic program that featured players that had been drafted by the franchise. From Russell Westbrook to James Harden, Serge Ibaka and the oft-used Reggie Jackson, the marketing tale of the 2012 NBA Finals was one of good versus evil.
Still, after the HEAT somewhat easily dispatched the Thunder in five games, the contrast between the upstart Thunder and the veteran-laden HEAT was stark. The HEAT turned American Airlines Arena into a South Beach nightclub, while Durant and Westbrook sat silently in their locker room after Game 5 had concluded. I stood over Durant’s shoulder for about 10 minutes. He said nothing, but found refuge in his iPhone. In all likelihood, it appeared that he was finding a way to cope with the loss and responding to the hundreds of text messages he’d received that were each attempting to reassure him.
None of those text messages, however, probably resonated with him as much as his chance encounter with Dwyane Wade.
The two had an impromptu rendezvous as Wade’s media availability ended. Standing in a white tee-shirt that smelled of Dom Perignon champagne, after going up and addressing the media, Wade spent about five minutes chatting with Durant while I stood about 10 feet away.
In the conversation, Wade told Durant to keep his head up and assured him that as long as the Thunder stayed together and remained dedicated to one another, that they too would be winning multiple championships.
For the most part, Durant simply nodded, even as Wade instructed him to never be afraid of failure. Wade held the Larry O’Brien trophy in his left hand and embraced Durant with his right.
The two eventually went their separate ways and, interestingly enough, would never see one another in the playoffs again.
Years later, in our last one-on-one conversation, Wade, then a member of the Bulls, discussed Durant and his defection to Golden State with me at length. Wade drew comparisons between his experience with James and what Durant would experience in Oakland and advised him to not try to play into the villain role.
Now a two-time champion, Durant can obviously do things his way. But I’ll always remember how he appeared in Wade’s embrace after the 2012 NBA Finals.
Humble and meek, the young Durant has come a long way.
Greg Oden’s Triumphant Return
Just as it’s impossible to mention the name of Michael Jordan without thinking of Sam Bowie, it’s equally difficult to think of Kevin Durant without Greg Oden.
Oden was believed to be the second coming of Bill Russell back when he was dominating college basketball, and for the Portland Trail Blazers, the decision to use the first overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft to select Oden (instead of Durant) was easy enough to understand.
Unfortunately for Oden, he would play just 82 games over his first five years in the league and would eventually be waived by the Blazers after undergoing a fifth micro fracture knee surgery in February 2012.
After spending the 2012-13 season away from the game, after an edict to curb spending had come from the Miami HEAT’s ownership group, the club made the decision to trade Joel Anthony to the Boston Celtics in what amounted to a salary dump. The departures of Anthony and Mike Miller—two vital contributors to the HEAT’s championship success—played an indirect role in James departing for Cleveland some years later, but that’s another story for another day.
Part of the reason why the HEAT opted to send Anthony packing was because they thought they could get similar production from the 25-year-old former first overall pick. Best part? Oden would only cost the HEAT about one-fifth of what Anthony would, including luxury tax charges.
Internally, the HEAT kicked the idea around a bit before deciding to take a flier on Oden. He was still just 25 years old and Miami only needed him to give them some spot minutes here and there.
During the 2013 preseason, Oden wasn’t able to get on the floor on this particular night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but he was kind enough to chat with me, anyway. I met Oden outside of the locker room after the game was over. In our one-on-one conversation, the center told me what he’d endured over the past few years. He hadn’t been traveling with the Blazers and cited only the love of his family and his dream of salvaging somewhat of a career as the things that kept him from self-destructing.
In the years since, Oden has battled depression and has done his best to remain close to the game, even though his knees have consistently reminded him that they have other ideas.
What I’ll remember most about my conversation with Oden that night was his conviction and the simple answer he provided when I asked him exactly what he hoped to get out of his tenure with the HEAT.
“…to walk off healthy,” is what he told me.
Sadly, it simply wasn’t meant to be.
Oden went on to play just 23 games for the HEAT. He played about seven cumulative playoff minutes for the club en route to their succumbing to the Spurs in five games in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Polite and reserved, Oden had a slight limp when he walked toward me at Barclays Center on that October night. And as we parted ways, I remembered hoping that it all worked out for him.
Years later, after attending the NBA’s 2015 Las Vegas Summer League, I ran into Oden at McCarren International Airport. We exchanged pleasantries, but he wasn’t interested in conversing with me.
I had a feeling I knew why.
Visiting Kemba Walker In Charlotte
A city with a proud basketball tradition, Mo Bamba and Cole Anthony will now carry the cross for Gotham.
If they’re lucky, they’ll follow in the footsteps of Kemba Walker.
For as long as I’ve known Walker, he’s been quiet and humble, but when I paid him a visit in Charlotte back in January 2015, I was startled by the tremendous growth he’d experienced—both physically and mentally.
After Steve Clifford wrapped up practice, Walker found me in the corner of the team’s practice facility and we shared memories of the night he was drafted. That night, in New York City, Walker assured me that he would put everything he had into proving to Michael Jordan that his team had made a smart decision in drafting the undersized UConn product.
In the years that followed, Walker lived up to those expectations, and more. Despite relocating his family to Charlotte, he remained connected with his hometown of the Bronx and made it his personal duty to pave the way for New York City’s next torchbearer.
What stood out most about the encounter with Walker was the pride that he had when he told me all about what it took for him to secure the funds necessary to refurbish courts in the Sack-Wern housing development where he grew up in the Soundview section of the Bronx.
I told Walker that there were quite a few that expected him to be named an All-Star in the coming years, and he shrugged the thought off. Walker assured me that what was most important to him was simply being renowned as a kid who works hard and one who serves as an inspiration to his teammates, his family and, most importantly, those in New York City that were told that they were too small or not good enough.
Speak with Walker today and ask what motivates him, he’ll surely tell you it’s memories of his parents going to work under all circumstances. A first-generation American with Caribbean lineage, like my parents, Walker’s came to America many moons ago with nothing but summer clothes and dreams.
Growing up in the Bronx, Walker could relate, except that his dreams were draped in a bubble coat.
Walker’s eyes opened wide and he beamed at me before admitting that it wasn’t until sometime after he participated in the McDonald’s All-American game in 2008 that he thought he had a chance…
On draft night, he assured me that he’d make the most of it, and seven years later, in Charlotte, it was obvious that he had.
As fate would have it, in 2017, Walker and I found ourselves standing at center court at Madison Square Garden shortly after he’d received the phone call letting him know that he’d been named an All-Star for the first time in his career. It was fair to say he’d live up to his billing. Of all places, it was in Madison Square Garden—where he’d become a household name during the 2011 Big East tournament—that Walker reflected.
There’s still much further for Walker to go, but observing him lead his team on the practice floor and do all that he could to be exemplary on a regular afternoon back in January 2015—it was refreshing. And it sure was memorable.
Hanging Out With Jeff Hornacek
Perhaps it was Phil Jackson’s affinity for the triangle, or maybe it was the belief that he wasn’t ready to return to the professional coaching ranks, but Jeff Hornacek’s being hired as head coach of the New York Knicks back in 2016 caught everyone by surprise.
Especially those, including me, who hung out with Horancek during the NBA’s Draft Combine in 2016.
The Combine took place just three months after Derek Fisher had been surprisingly fired by the Knicks, and questions as to who his successor would be were rampant.
In this day and age, it’s difficult to move in stealth, but, to their credit, the Knicks and Hornacek managed to do exactly that.
Days after the combine, Hornacek was named head coach of the Knicks, and after doing a little digging, it was easy to connect the dots and get confirmation of the fact that he was interviewing with the club’s brass in Chicago. That and the fact that he maintained close relationships with other team personnel is probably what brought Hornacek to Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse at the Intercontinental Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
For a few hours, after the duties of the day had ended, writers had filed their stories, scouts had sent in their reports and agents had finished their socializing. For those few hours, dozens of men of different disciplines were united by their love of basketball, and all were equal.
I was a part of a group of a half-dozen who spent a few hours socializing with Hornacek. Soft spoken and friendly, he didn’t make the conversation about him, and interestingly enough, nobody bothered to ask what he was doing there.
He told a story about how his wife had given him a clever idea as to how to teach young players proper shooting mechanics. The tactic involved tape and, without giving away his secret, using it to tape certain fingers together in order to dissuade improper finger manipulation of the basketball.
He talked about his playing days in Utah, told some stories of Karl Malone and overall, admitted to missing coaching.
Hornacek probably knew that he had a big payday coming from the Knicks, because although he was only drinking tonic water, he paid a pretty hefty bill for many in attendance, including myself.
There aren’t many media guys who can boast that they’ve been bought drinks by the head coach of the New York Knicks.
Even though we didn’t find out about Hornacek’s hiring until a few days later, it still counts.
Just as NBA players lace up their sneakers, hard-working journalists put on their walking shoes. As fans of the game, we spend an incalculable amount of time watching and observing with the hope of seeing something incredible happen. That’s why we continue watching when our favorite teams are down by 20 points or continue watching a playoff series when a team finds itself in an 0-3 hole.
The thrill of the chase and the fortunate of witnessing the improbable—that’s why most of us are here.
For someone like me, it’s often the opportunity to cover the game from up close and the ability to find oneself in a moment or a situation where you hear or see something that stays with you forever.
Fortunately, I’ve found myself in those situations a few times over the past five seasons.
These are four of many. And if I’m lucky, in the future, there will be many, many more.
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.