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Houston Rockets Poised for Lift Off

Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon have helped James Harden’s MVP campaign and the Rockets’ lift off, writes Michael Scotto.

Michael Scotto

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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.

Michael Scotto is a Senior NBA Writer for Basketball Insiders in his sixth season covering the league. He also works for The Associated Press focusing on Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks game coverage.

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NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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