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Houston Rockets 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Houston Rockets stayed true to their plan and remained aggressive in trying to construct a title winner, not just a quasi-contender. The question is will the combination of Russell Westbrook and James Harden get them to the promised land? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Houston Rockets in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

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Hope wasn’t necessarily lost for the Houston Rockets, although they didn’t come close to capitalizing on a serious Kevin Durant injury in the 2018-19 Western Conference Finals. Again, no one was writing them off for this season, but an aging Chris Paul coupled with that fact that they blew a HUGE opportunity certainly made for plenty of skeptics this upcoming season.

Then the stories broke. At first, people didn’t pay much attention to the “Paul and Harden don’t get along” rhetoric. But before you knew it, Paul was on his way to Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook was headed to H-Town.

Did that trade improve Houston’s chances of winning a title? It wholly depends on how you value Westbrook and view his ability to play alongside Harden. Regardless, the trade was obviously one of the marquee moments of the offseason, and like-it-or-not, firmly places Houston in the conversation of 2019-20 NBA Champions.

Let’s continue Basketball Insider’s team preview series with a look at the Houston Rockets.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Rockets made one of the biggest moves of the summer when they traded away Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook brings a completely different dynamic to the team than Paul, and at this point in their careers, Westbrook is more reliable scoring threat. He’s a walking triple-double and he shouldn’t have much of an issue fitting in with James Harden. The Rockets are a team that have had title aspirations for a few seasons now but have fallen short each time, including last season’s playoff loss to the Warriors despite Kevin Durant getting hurt. They’re hoping this shakeup will give them a better chance, and now with the Warriors having seemingly come back down to Earth, they too have as good a chance as any to get to the Finals. Having Westbrook and Harden is a great starting point, and it’ll be interesting to see how/if the Rockets change their offensive schemes to fit their personnel.

1st Place – Southwest Division

-David Yapkowitz

The Rockets shook things up this offseason, swapping Chris Paul and future draft picks for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook and James Harden are an equally odd pairing as were Harden and Paul, but at least they’re good friends – which is more than can be said with certainty of Harden and Paul. Only four teams in the history of the NBA have boasted two MVPs and each time it’s ended in a championship. Harden, Westbrook, Clint Capella and Eric Gordon will power the Rockets to the Southwest Division crown, but how much farther can we expect them to go? There’s enough depth beyond their core-four in PJ Tucker, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green to provide a boost. But Nene’s contract looked like more of a future asset for trade purposes prior to the NBA altering its value – and that may hurt the Rockets down the road as far as adding additional talent mid-season is concerned. And that could dictate how far they go in the postseason.

1st Place-Southwest Division

-Drew Maresca

There’s plenty of intrigue in H-Town with the surprising arrival of Russell Westbrook. We already know how incredible and effective James Harden is as the best scorer in the NBA, but giving him his former Thunder running mate in the backcourt will be a sight to behold. While questions surrounding fit are warranted with two polar opposite shooters, it’s the opportunities with explosiveness and in transition that should excite fans of basketball everywhere. The new Rockets duo should be able to throw different looks at different defensive schemes, keeping teams on their toes at all times. Westbrook with the ball in his hands will form an instant chemistry with a rim runner like Clint Capela as he did with Steven Adams. P.J. Tucker comes back as the squad’s most gritty defender and top glue guy. Eric Gordon’s officially returning, keeping Mike D’Antoni’s go-to perimeter guy in the mix. Yes, the bench leaves plenty to be desired, however there’s opportunities to stagger with two All-Stars with the ball in their hands. It should lead to plenty of rest for both to save energy throughout a rigorous season.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

As the saying goes, “Go Big Or Go Home,” and that’s exactly what Rockets General Manager Dayle Morey did in trading for the massive contract of Russell Westbrook. The Rockets were by all accounts one game away from the NBA Finals, and while the West seems to have dispersed talent in a more equitable fashion, the window for the Rockets is now and they pounced. Time will tell if the pairing of two extremely ball-dominant players will work — the idea of two unstoppable offensive players makes the gamble worth it. The Rockets still have plenty of shooting and rebounding around their offensive duo, so barring injury, the Rockets should win the division, if not the entire thing this season.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

When the Rockets acquired Chris Paul, a lot of people were concerned that he and James Harden would struggle to run an effective offense together since both players are so ball-dominant. I was of the belief that Paul and Harden are both intelligent, talented players who would find a way to make things work. While there were some bumps in the road, Paul and Harden found a balance and were able to orchestrate one of the most potent offenses in the league over the last few seasons. I am not sure I have the same confidence in Harden and Russell Westbrook finding a similar balance. These two have historically high usage numbers and I’m not sure Westbrook is ready to take a backseat to anyone, including Harden. This combination has more upside than the Paul-Harden pairing had, but there is cause for concern. Having said all of that, I will not be surprised if the Rockets are one of, if not the most explosive offensive team in the league this season. I cannot wait to see what this new duo can do together, especially since this will be the first time Westbrook will have a strong core of reliable shooters around him in some time.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Rockets salvaged the broken relationship between James Harden and Chris Paul, sending Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for All-Star Russell Westbrook. The deal cost Houston significant draft assets but the team got the younger, more explosive point guard. The team will likely be over the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold once Nene re-signs, but he’ll reportedly ink a partially-guaranteed contract that might be used as a trade chip, or can be cut before July 8 to clear salary.

Houston has multiple trade exceptions but the largest is $3.6 million for Brandon Knight. The team also only has nine fully-guaranteed players heading into training camp, though Isaiah Hartenstein and Gary Clark have half of their salaries locked in. Along with Eric Gordon and Clint Capela, the Rockets have over $105 million invested in just four players this coming season.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Best Offensive Player: James Harden

There might not be another team in the NBA with a choice that is this obvious. Despite other offensive talents on the Rockets, James Edward Harden is simply in a league of his own.

You’ve seen some of the statistics, but let me recap some of them for you. Last season Harden scored 50-plus points nine times. He scored 30+ points for 32 consecutive games, something that hasn’t been done since Wilt Chamberlain. He averaged 36.1 points per game on the season with a mind-boggling true shooting percentage of 61.6 percent. Harden averaged 43.6 points in the month of January.

The above paragraph could be quite a bit longer, but we’ll spare you the reader as the Rockets still have other players to touch on and you don’t have all day to read about The Beard.

Let us just mention this. Harden is arguably the best offensive player of all-time. His ability to get buckets and the efficiency with which he does so is out-of-this-world. He’s strong, fast, smart, and above all fearless. As long as he’s in the NBA, whatever team he plays for is an automatic threat.

Best Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Averaging 1.5 blocks and 8.2 defensive rebounds per game, Capela is the top rim protector on a team that doesn’t necessarily harp defense.

PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon certainly have the ability to be ball-stoppers in their own regard and Tucker especially has an exceptional motor, but neither player consistently impacts the game on defense as Capela does. Elite rim protectors are a dime-a-dozen in the NBA, and when a team doesn’t employ one on the court it shows. As much as the NBA loves three-pointers, they still aren’t as efficient as a good old fashioned, wide-open slam-dunk. So when you have a player that can stop them, it automatically makes them indispensable on the defense.

He’s still young and at times, it shows. His defense absolutely has room to grow. But he’s long, overly-athletic for his size, and gives opponents fits at the rim. Look for him to have an even bigger impact this upcoming season.

Best Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

He’s averaged over 10 assists a night for four straight seasons and in his 11-year career, he’s never dipped below 5 per game. Much can be said about his inefficient shooting spurts, but his ability to create looks for his teammates is unmatched. Age may be finally catching up to him, but his current state still probably places him in the top-15 most athletic players in the league and he definitely uses it to his advantage when running an offense.

What’s funny is prior to the trade, Chris Paul could have very well been considered for this recognition. In all reality, Westbrook is a better playmaker than Paul at this point in their respective careers, mainly because Russell still has more left in the tank than the elder Paul.

Last year for OKC, Westbrook led the team in assists, assist percentage at 44 percent and usage percentage at 30.1 percent. All those marks last season outside of usage percentage were better than Harden who would be considered the second-best playmaker on the roster. Harden can dish it, but not quite as well as Westbrook.

Top Clutch Player: James Harden

89.4 percent of made field goals for Harden in the clutch were unassisted. This means he was able to generate just about every single point he scored by himself without the help of teammates – apart from the occasional screen, at least.

He led the Houston Rockets averaging 4.9 points in clutch situations. Outside of Victor Oladipo who played significantly fewer clutch minutes, that 4.9 mark led the entire NBA.

He had a 49 percent usage percentage which not only led the team but the entire NBA and was a full 5 percentage points higher than the next most used player. It’s very clear that Harden is the go-to guy for this Rockets squad and with Westbrook’s all-over-the-place statistics with late-game heroics it shouldn’t change anytime soon.

The Unheralded Player: PJ Tucker

If James Harden is the motor that keeps this team going, Tucker is the glue that makes sure it doesn’t fall apart. There’s a reason his name wasn’t included last summer in trade talks when the Rockets were trying to get Jimmy Butler from the Timberwolves. This guy can flat out play.

He’s ferocious on defense and can easily guard multiple positions when asked. He is very reliable on the corner three and can heat up from distance better than just about anyone in the league. Not to mention teams send swarms of defenders towards Harden to Tucker is usually wide-open on his attempts.

He’s a bully on the ball, easily plays with the most effort on the team, and constantly seems to have a chip on his shoulder.

As far as players that played the entire season, he led the team in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent taking over 4.5 three per game. He was an even better 43.2 percent from the right corner.

Tucker never puts up astounding stats, but he puts out massive effort every night and always leaves it on the court. He’s incredibly valuable for this Houston team and will be a central part of any championship run they may have.

Best New Addition: Russell Westbrook

Anytime you can add a former MVP to your roster who is still in his prime, you should probably do it. Regardless of the baggage Westbrook carries with him in the form of efficiency and poor shot selection, the guy can still flat out ball. He isn’t tall by NBA standards and has still averaged a triple-double of points, assists, and rebounds for three straight seasons.

His fit next to Harden will be spectacular at best and horrendous at worst, and it’s hard to see any sort of a happy medium between those two. If it works out, Morey will be considered a genius and the trade will have been deemed a success. If it doesn’t? Well, only time will tell.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. James Harden

Despite his quirky offensive moves, his lethargic pace of play in the isolation, and his ability to draw fouls that upon review still don’t seem like fouls, Harden is stellar. Every time he suits up we have the pleasure of watching what could be the best offensive player to ever play the game.

He has transformed the stepback three into something that is both unguardable and efficient. He forces teams to scheme their entire defensive plan around what he’ll do night in and night out. His gravity opens up looks for his teammates that for some teams seems unfathomable.

He’s the heart-and-soul of the Rocket’s franchise. Their success is tied directly to him and what he does.

2. Eric Gordon

Gordon inked himself a nice little extension recently and it isn’t without reason. He’s played exceptionally well for Houston and was a huge reason they even made it past the first round last year. His defense on Donovan Mitchell, coupled with his outrageous true shooting percentage of 61.9 percent, was a major reason Harden’s less-than-ideal play was covered up as Houston trounced a solid Utah team in five games.

Having an offensive weapon as strong and diverse as Gordon as your third or possibly fourth-best option is a great place to be. He can get to the rim on almost anyone, play bully-ball where necessary, and shoot at a high mark from three. He’s as close to a big three as Houston is going to get. Gordon is a key cog to the starting unit.

3. Daryl Morey

The statistical wiz himself, Morey pulled off one last stunt that could help Houston hoise the Larry O’Brien for the first time in many years. It’s funny, you’d think that on a statistical level – at least as far as scoring is concerned – that Westbrook would be the last player Morey would want on his roster. But clinging to an aging Paul (and his scary contract) for another season might actually be worse than an inefficient-at-times Westbrook, and Morey knew that.

He made the trade, which was a blockbuster by all accounts that no one saw coming, and he’ll just have to live with the results. Russell could alter his game, it could work harmoniously, and the Rockets just might be champions. Despite what happens, Morey executed the right move and made a daunting situation – with Paul’s contract and all – actually turn out to be a bright spot moving forward. And if it doesn’t work out so well, at least the Harden-Westbrook duo will be a PR team’s dream for the first half of the season until it all implodes.

4. Mike D’Antoni

This is the man that turned Harden into the league’s best point guard – at least on a production standpoint. He’s led the charge on multiple franchises now to make offense the key ingredient to a championship run. He’s revolutionized the three-ball and how many you can shoot in a game. But has any of it paid off yet?

You can definitely argue that they were just a Chris Paul hamstring away from going to the finals two seasons ago, but would they have made it past LeBron? Regardless of your opinion on D’Antoni’s coaching style, he’s proven himself to be one of the better coaches in the league today. He schemes incredibly well for opponents and hides certain weaknesses as good as any coach out there. If anyone can make Westbrook and Harden click on the court it will be him.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

Offensively they are the best team in the NBA. James Harden is a flat-out monster and adding the hyper-athletic Westbrook to the mix will only make the cogs spin faster. They have solid shooting from three at every position outside of the five and have the means to get players open looks better than any team in the league.

Besides Westbrook, the core of the team now has a good three-plus years of playing together so their continuity will for sure help them get places. If they can ease Westbrook into the fold and get him comfortable quickly, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with early on. They don’t have many old veteran players and health shouldn’t be much of an issue, either. If Westbrook can stay healthy, their starting unit will be solid.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

Their biggest weakness could end up being their egos. Although nothing was officially said, there were plenty of reports about how Harden and Paul never got along. Westbrook has as big of a personality as the next guy, so there are skeptics out there that believe the Harden-Westbrook connection won’t work out. The last time they were teammates they were both young and figuring out their way in the league.

If their personalities don’t clash and their style of play gels on the court? Look out, because they will be very good. But if history has shown us anything, we absolutely should not assume they will get along until it plays out.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Was Westbrook’s acquisition, coupled with Paul’s departure, enough to get Houston a championship?

In a vacuum, adding a player with the accolades Westbrook contains is tremendous. But unfortunately for the Rockets, it doesn’t paint the entire picture. Westbrook’s game is everything the Rockets have tried to avoid. He consistently takes bad shots, he’s never been a good three-point shooter, and he often tried to take over games. Has he had success in small spurts? Yes. Is he incredibly talented at almost every aspect of the game of basketball? Absolutely. But his fit with Houston’s system is curious.

Ultimately, he’ll help Houston win games and they’ll remain in the top three out West going into the playoffs. But it’s unlikely he’ll morph his game into what Houston needs, and by failing to do so Houston won’t make it out of the second round. Let’s be real, Westbrook is a huge reason OKC struggled in the playoffs the last two seasons despite Paul George being on the roster. Why should we have any reason to believe he’ll change his game?

– Jordan Hicks

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What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4

What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.

But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.

The New Look Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.

But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?

You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.

Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.

Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.

Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT

In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.

The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.

But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.

Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.

If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.

The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes 

Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is  8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.

That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.

Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.

No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.

It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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