The Houston Rockets have blasted off into a new stratosphere this season. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is a leading contender for the league’s Executive of the Year award. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are battling for the MVP award. Mike D’Antoni is a leading candidate for the Coach of the Year award and looks revitalized after his two previous stints with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. D’Antoni previously won the award in 2005 with the Phoenix Suns.
One major reason for these developments is the free agent signings of former New Orleans Pelicans teammates Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.
Anderson and Gordon wanted to remain teammates if the right fit came along in free agency after spending the previous four seasons together in New Orleans.
“We talked quite a bit,” Anderson told Basketball Insiders. “Right before we both made our decision we actually shared a phone conversation and talked about the option of coming here and how great it would be. We knew that our dynamic around James and the players they had here would be great and it’s really showing, translating. The floor spacing is amazing, it gives James and Eric room to work.”
Anderson signed a four-year, $80 million deal and Gordon signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Rockets.
“We always talked about being on the same team in free agency, and it worked out well here in Houston,” Gordon told Basketball Insiders. “We just wanted to bring a different attitude and mentality to try and be a championship team.”
Gordon has become a strong contender for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award, averaging a league-best 17.9 points per game off the bench. Gordon ranks second in 3-pointers made per game (3.8) behind only Stephen Curry and is shooting 41 percent from downtown. With that in mind, Gordon told Basketball Insiders he believes he’s a worthy candidate to participate in the 3-point contest during All-Star Weekend.
Anderson leads all power forwards in 3-pointers made per game (2.8) and ranks fourth in 3-point percentage (.403) among power forwards with 95 or more attempts thus far.
This is the type of production coach D’Antoni hoped for – and that he sold Anderson and Gordon on when recruiting both players in free agency.
“I told them that James was going to be the point guard, and we’re going to get a lot of threes up, and they’re going to be free to shoot them whenever, however, and from wherever and that was the pitch,” D’Antoni said. “But I knew I already had a relationship with Eric from USA Basketball, so that was easy. I knew how good he was. I didn’t know Ryan that well, but if you just watch the way he plays it’s perfect for us.”
Over the years, many other free agent signings appeared to make sense on paper but didn’t translate. Did anyone think the Rockets would be this good through the season’s halfway mark?
“Well I knew we were good, but I didn’t think we’d be this good,” Gordon told Basketball Insiders. “We’re on our way to having a 60-game winning season. We didn’t know we’d be this good, but I’m glad it worked out and played well this way.”
The blazing start at the halfway mark has far exceeded D’Antoni’s original expectations heading into the season.
“I don’t think we imagined we would be like this now,” D’Antoni said before facing the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. “We wanted to be good. We thought we could be good. We did say the first twenty games were tough and if we could be 11-9 we’d be happy. Well, we’re 31-9, so I’m pretty happy about it. The NBA turns at any moment, we’re good right now but that doesn’t mean tomorrow we’re good, and we’ve just got to stay on pace and keep our guard up and understand it’s a tough league and we got to get up as high as we can go.”
While Harden gets the most publicity, and rightfully so as a leading MVP candidate, coach D’Antoni believes Anderson and Gordon have made the game easier for Harden and are equally keys to Houston’s overall success.
“Well they’re vital in about ten areas in the sense of, first and foremost they put the ball in the basket,” D’Antoni said. “They not only space the three-point line, they space about four more feet out so now James has a lot of area to work with. They’re a perfect complement to James. They both are great guys, so team chemistry is even better. They’re coachable. I could just keep going on and on and on and they work out every night. What they do, even if they don’t score, just standing on the floor causes a problem for people, and they have to match up and then we can get James in the open floor. And people need to choose whether to take James out and clog up the middle or stay with the threes, and whatever they want to choose we’ll try and do the opposite.”
As the primary playmaker, Harden can easily find Anderson, Gordon and Trevor Ariza along the arc as defenses double-team or collapse onto him. The floor spacing Anderson, Gordon, and Ariza have added directly correlates with Harden leading the league with 11.7 assists per game.
“It’s been like that way all year,” Harden said. “Guys are ready to shoot, they know I’m unselfish and going to get them the basketball when they’re open, and we just play for each other. It’s pretty simple. We don’t overthink the game too much: if you’ve got an open shot shoot it, no matter if it’s one, two, or five times in a row. It’s pretty simple.”
Coming off his best statistical season, Harden has become even better as the floor general in D’Antoni’s offense.
“My numbers last year were a career high, so he’s definitely helped me in the sense of allowing me to be the point guard and control the game, which makes my job a lot easier. But I think with the addition of coaches and new personnel, new teammates, adding Eric, adding Ryan, developing some of the younger guys like Montrezl [Harrell] and Clint [Capela] has helped me as well,” Harden said.
Harden is averaging a career-high 8.3 rebounds per game and has 12 triple-doubles thus far. Westbrook has 20 triple-doubles and is on pace to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a 30-10-10 triple-double.
With that in mind, should Harden be the league’s MVP?
“No question,” Anderson told Basketball Insiders. “Yeah, he is. He’s doing so much for this team; he carries a weight on his back every night, and the team really revolves around James. The pieces fit around James to help him do what he does on a nightly basis but just the way that he’s playing, he’s so unselfish. He’s scoring the ball like crazy but he’s so unselfish at the same time, it’s a special thing.”
Gordon agrees with Anderson, but for a different reason.
“I think James will be the MVP because he does a lot for this team,” Gordon told Basketball Insiders. “Both of them have great stats, but winning, that’s what it boils down to, and I’m pretty sure James learned that a couple of years ago when [Stephen] Curry won it and he just didn’t get as many wins, but now he has it this year.”
Houston currently ranks third in the West while Oklahoma City ranks seventh.
With all this in mind, has Houston reached its ceiling? Can they get better going forward?
“No question we can get so much better,” Anderson told Basketball Insiders. “We’re still building as a group; we’re still learning new things, figuring out how to play around each other even better. Defensively, we can get better. We need to hold leads. Our record, in our opinion, could be a lot better. I think we could have eliminated some of those losses, but we’re happy where we are. We just need to keep building, keep working on what we’re doing.”
It’s scary to think Houston, a team that just scored 137 points against Brooklyn, can get better while Morey, D’Antoni, Harden and Gordon are the early favorites for their respective award categories.
For more on the Rockets, read Ben Dowsett’s recent piece on Houston’s defense.
Trae Young Believes He’s NBA Ready
Trae Young has exceeded expectations since his freshman year of college, and he believes he will continue to do so in the NBA
Before the collegiate season started, many believed that the best players in the upcoming NBA draft were going to be bigs. DeAndre Ayton, Mo Bamba, and Michael Porter Jr., all of whom were 6’10’’ or taller, were considered to be among the top prospects coming out of the NCAA, but Trae Young had something to say about that.
Coming out of high school, Young was regarded as one of the better incoming freshmen, but not among the best of the best. Young ranked no. 23 in ESPN’s top 100 in 2017 and was ranked third among point guards, behind Collin Sexton and Jaylen Hands, which led to low expectations for him. Young proved right out of the gate that he was much better than the scouts had rated him.
Young tore up college ball as an Oklahoma Sooner, as he averaged 27.2 points and 8.7 assists while shooting 42 percent from the field including 36 percent from three. While Young’s play made him stand out among his peers, it didn’t translate into much success on the court. The Sooners went 18-14 on the season and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Now that the season is over, Young is shifting his focus to his next stop: the NBA. With the draft coming up in just a little over a month, only one word comes to mind when describing Young’s current mindset: Confidence.
“I bring a lot of things to the next level. I think I would bring an immediate impact off the court as much as I do on the court,” Young said at the NBA combine. “I can space out the defense. I can attack defenders in multiple ways, get my teammates involved. I think I can pretty much do it all for a team and I’m looking forward to whichever team I go to and making a huge impact.”
While Young is not expected to be picked in the top five, he should be picked between the six to ten range. Any player who is selected in that range has to work his absolute hardest to live up to the lengthy expectations that he will certainly face once he enters the NBA. Young luckily sounds like he is up to the task.
“I prepared extremely hard coming into the college season and making a huge impact right away, and I’m working two times as hard this summer preparing to get into the NBA level,” Young said. “I want to make a huge impact right away.”
Young is expected to be a high lottery pick, but he doesn’t care much for where he is selected as much as he cares about going to the team that suits him best.
“My main focus is going to the right team. It’s not about going one, two, three or 30. You see a lot of guys going in the second round in certain years that make big impacts for teams,” Young said. “It’s all about the fit for me. Whether that’s one or whether that’s whatever it is, I’m going to be happy and I’m going to be ready to make an impact.”
Young’s expected high draft position stems from his electrifying play as a scorer in college. Young’s performance for Oklahoma his freshman year was impressive enough to draw comparisons to NBA megastar Stephen Curry. While Young is flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as Curry, he takes pride in being his own player.
“He’s a two-time MVP and a champion. I mean, I love the comparison but I feel like I bring a lot of different things from different players’ games to the table,” Young said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of Trae Young. That’s all that matters to me. I’m just getting started in this thing so hopefully I can achieve some of those things.”
Young’s skillset may remind fans of Curry, but Young prides himself on modeling his game after his favorite player of all time: Steve Nash.
“With his size and my size, we’re pretty similar,” Young said. “He is very cerebral. He can score on all three levels and he knows how to get his teammates involved. He’s a winner so I feel like a lot of his characteristics match with mine.”
Those who have watched Young know of his offensive repertoire, but skeptics have pointed to his defensive shortcomings as a red flag. Young, however, believes his play at the combine will show that he can be a positive on the other side of the ball.
“I’m excited about having the opportunity to show people that I can play defense, and I’m excited to show that from day one,”
When all is said and done, Young may very well wind up being the most prolific scorer to come out of what many believe is a loaded draft, but Young has much bigger ambitions in mind for his career.
“I think I’m the best overall player in this draft, but my main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft,” Young said. “My goal is to be the best player in the NBA. That’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.”
NBA Daily: Jaylen Hands Makes Good Showing at the NBA Combine
Jaylen Hands made a good showing at the NBA Combine by displaying his offensive skills and defensive intensity.
UCLA has produced a few of the NBA’s top point guards over the last decade or so, including Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday. Jrue’s younger brother, Aaron Holiday, has declared for this year’s draft and is projected by several NBA insiders to be selected with a first-round pick (likely in the 20-30 range). But Aaron Holiday isn’t the only UCLA point guard who may end up taking his talents to the NBA this offseason. Jaylen Hands, who is still just 19 years old and finished his freshman season, has also entered his name into this year’s draft.
While Hands has entered his name into the draft and participated in the NBA Combine, he has not hired an agent, which preserves his ability to return to college (Hands has until June 11 to make a final decision). Considering Hands’ young age and raw skill set, he isn’t projected by many insiders to hear his name called on draft night. But he certainly helped his cause in the Combine, showcasing his offensive talents, the muscle he has added to his slight frame since the end of his freshman season and aggressiveness on defense.
Basketball Insiders spoke with Hands at the Combine about his development, going through the pre-draft process, competing against familiar faces and more.
“It’s crazy, it’s crazy because when we were younger, they said the exact thing: ‘You guys are going to see each other forever.’” Hands said when asked about competing against many of the same players over the years and now at the Combine. “And you don’t really believe what they’re saying. But now you go through high school, you’re a senior, All-Star activities and you go to the Combine, you see the same people. It’s crazy.”
Hands has a notable skill set but is a raw prospect that many believe would be better served spending another year in college. While Hands needs to continue filling out his frame, he did register decent measurements at the Combine in relation to a top guard prospect – Trae Young of Oklahoma. Hands weighed in at 1.2 lbs heavier than Young, and outmatched Young in height (with and without shoes), standing reach and wingspan. Ironically, Hands has the smallest hands of all players that participated in the Combine. While these measurements don’t mean that he is currently a comparable prospect to Young, they could address some concerns about his current physical profile and how it may ultimately translate to the NBA.
Hands proved himself to be a confident and aggressive player in his freshman season at UCLA – something that he believes has led to misconceptions about his game.
“I’m not a point guard,” Hands said when asked about what misconceptions people have about his game.
I wouldn’t say it’s common, like it’s the main thing. But I’ve heard that I shoot first or something like that. I just feel like I attack a lot. I think I attack a lot and I’m of size to being a [two guard], so I think some people get it misconstrued. I just think I’m attack first, set my teammates up, get what I get.”
Hands is clearly aware of the common perceptions and current shortcomings in his game, which is why he is working hard to improve his overall skill set and is testing the NBA waters to get feedback from teams.
“Before I came here, just being more steady working on my shot, making good reads out of the pick and roll, finishing.” Hands said when asked about what parts of his game he was working on before coming to the Combine.
Hands was asked to clarify what he believes is his best strength at this point. Hands didn’t hesitate and pointed toward his ability to make plays off the dribble.
“My best strength is getting in the paint. So I get in the paint and make plays,” Hands said.
Hands is also clearly aware of UCLA’s history of producing quality point guards and has a chance to one day develop into a quality guard at the NBA level. However, with Holiday heading to the NBA and no major competition for the starting point guard position at UCLA next season, it may benefit Hands to hold off on turning pro for at least another year.
Whether he stays at UCLA or commits to this year’s draft, there’s no doubt that Hands is going to keep pushing to develop into a quality NBA player.
“I want to be the best player I can in the league,” Hands said. “That’s my goal.”
NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 5/22/18
The final 2018 NBA Draft order is set and Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler offers up his latest 60-pick NBA Mock Draft.
Lots of Draft Movement
With the draft order now set for the 2018 NBA Draft, there is some sense of how the draft might play out.
The buzz coming out of the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is that a number of picks could be had in trade include all three of the top selections. Word is the initial asking price is very high and more of an indication to the San Antonio Spurs that if they do want to part with disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard, they are open for business.
It’s also worth noting that there is a growing sense that both the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawk may be far higher on some of the domestic bigs in the draft more so than euro sensation Luka Dončić. Both teams are expected to take a long look at Dončić, so their views on him could change as we get closer to the draft, but for now, Dončić may go lower.
Here is the latest 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft, reflecting the final draft order and the latest buzz, rumors, and intel from in and around the NBA:Dates To Know:
The NCAA requires all players wishing to maintain their college eligibility, without penalty, to withdraw from the NBA Draft by 11:59 pm on May 30. That is an NCAA mandated date, not related to anything involving the NBA, and that notice must be delivered in writing.
The NBA’s draft withdrawal date is June 11 by 5:00 pm ET. The NBA’s date allows a prospect to remain NBA draft eligible for future NBA drafts and is not related to any NCAA rule or date. There are ways for college players that did not accept benefits to return to college. However, they may be subject to NCAA penalties.
The 2018 NBA Draft is June 21.
The Pick Swaps:
The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.
The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections. This pick will convey.
The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade.
The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the final NBA standings.
The Phoenix Suns were owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick would only convey if the Bucks pick landed between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the final NBA standings did not convey. The Suns will now receive the Bucks 2019 first-round pick assuming it falls between the fourth and 16th pick.
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey to Atlanta based on the final NBA standings.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey based on the final NBA standings.
The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick was top-five protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey
The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey
The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick was lottery protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey
Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects – http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/
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