The Houston Rockets had a disappointing 2015-16 season. Coming off of a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the team entered last year with very high expectations. When they failed to meet these high expectations early last season, former head coach Kevin McHale was fired. This was just the beginning of a somewhat tumultuous campaign.
Fair or not, a lot of criticism and negative attention was directed at James Harden since he’s the team’s go-to player. However, there was plenty of blame to go around for the Rockets’ struggles as injuries and egos played a big part in last season’s underwhelming results. Dwight Howard later admitted he was unhappy, Ty Lawson struggled to return to form and was waived 53 games into the season and key contributors like Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas missed a combined 88 games due to injuries.
All things considered, it was pretty impressive that Houston was even able to make the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. After losing 4-1 in the first round against the Golden State Warriors, Houston decided to make some big changes. This offseason, they went out and hired head coach Mike D’Antoni, signed free agents Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and gave Harden a four-year maximum contract extension.
Though it’s early, the additions and coaching change have produced mostly positive results through seven games. At 4-3 on the season, D’Antoni is proving many of his doubters wrong. What was once skeptical optimism is becoming reality with this Rockets team. Led by Harden, the only player in the league averaging 20 or more points, 10 or more assists and four or more rebounds while shooting above 50 percent from the field, the Rockets seem to have an identity and a trust that wasn’t there last year. However, even with Harden playing at an MVP caliber-level, Daryl Morey knows there is more work to be done.
“We pretty much think James can do anything in Houston,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “We’re happy he is showing it but we aren’t focused on it – we’re trying to improve the defense and get more wins.”
With six of the Rockets’ first seven games coming on the road and the team integrating new systems and players, a 4-3 start isn’t bad. They’ve played teams with a combined 20-21 record, which indicates the road ahead could get tougher, but the team should continue improving as they acclimate to the philosophies and players. Accordingly, there should be optimism moving forward, especially considering Harden’s level of play and the team’s improved chemistry.
Last season, the Rockets struggled for many reasons but one of the biggest was their three-point shooting. In fact, Rockets’ guard Patrick Beverley was the only player on the team who shot over 40 percent from distance. Poor three-point shooting isn’t always an insurmountable deficiency, but for the Rockets, who averaged 30.9 three-point attempts per game (2nd in the league in 2015-16), it was a major issue.
This season, they added notable three-point shooters in Anderson and Gordon, while moving Harden to the point guard position. This all played into D’Antoni’s system as our Steve Kyler stated earlier this week. And so far, the Rockets are showing they can hit from outside, which is making a huge difference in their offensive output. Three players (Trevor Ariza, Anderson and Harden) are all shooting over 40 percent from three-point range. The team as a whole ranks seventh in the league in three-point percentage at 37.8 percent, which is much improved from last year. Additionally, the team again is ranked second in three-point attempts per game.
Perhaps the biggest positive factor early this season for the Rockets is that Harden, as predicted by Patrick Beverley and company, has become a great leader for this team.
“James is playing great,” Morey told us. “He’s the leader we need to go deep into the playoffs.”
He’s certainly hitting historical numbers and facilitating an offense under D’Antoni that many had doubts about, but they still have a ways to reach Morey’s goal for this season.
“Our goal is to get home court in the first round and make a deep playoff run,” Morey said.
Morey is right in stating that the Rockets need to play better defense, regardless of whether the offense is in the upper-echelon of the league. Houston currently ranks 22nd in points allowed and is allowing teams to shoot over 52 percent from the field. While the team should get a defensive boost when Beverley returns from injury, each player needs to do a better job of working with one another, communicating and fulfilling their assignments on defense.
If the Rockets can continue to acclimate to D’Antoni’s system while progressively getting better on defense, they have a legitimate shot to become a dangerous playoff contender in the Western Conference.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN