It’s pre-game at Quicken Loans Arena on a Saturday night. The Houston Rockets are in town to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in a late primetime slot on national television.
Mike D’Antoni walks into the visitor’s media room and gets pelted with all kinds of questions.
Did you see Steve Kerr’s tweet?
What are your thoughts on James Harden approaching 15,000 points tonight?
Chris Paul has been great this season. How has he made it work with James?
His answers are honest and to the point. He genuinely enjoys talking about his two megastars and how they’ve made it work with each other as they continue to lead the Rockets into the elite tier of basketball teams in the NBA.
After a lengthy answer about the All-Star duo’s conversations in the summertime, Basketball Insiders goes ahead and changes the subject a little, bringing up P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to talk about their first year with the organization.
As soon as Houston’s head coach hears those names, his expression instantly changes.
“They are so important to this, it’s not even funny,” D’Antoni sternly says of Tucker and Mbah a Moute. “It’s what they can give us defensively and that’s what we were missing last year.”
“Just a tough, defensive presence. They give us that, they knock down shots, they’re great veterans and I can’t say enough about ‘em. And that’s why I don’t like accolades because we don’t do anything without those two guys.”
The Missing Piece(s)
D’Antoni is exactly right. That was the final void the Rockets needed to fill. They had the shooting. They had the scoring. They had the versatility.
But they lacked the ability to stop the opposition, so Mbah a Moute, Tucker, and Paul came aboard with a goal to change that.
“Going into the season, we were all excited about it because we looked at our roster and we looked at what this team did last year,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders. “And that’s one of the reasons we wanted to come here because offensively, even in general, they looked like they were playing good basketball and everybody was having fun.
“Then you put that with some defensive guys and defensive attitude, you got a good recipe to get you a chance to win a championship. This is a team that—deeply we didn’t have that defensive mindset and that defensive skills, so I think we bring that to the table and then (for) that reason it’ll help us down the line.”
So far, so good. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Rockets are in the top 10 in defense, allowing 106.6 points per 100 possessions. With the aforementioned trio on the floor together, opponents are a net minus-26.7 points per-100-possessions in 189 minutes, as specified by NBA.com.
Furthermore, Mbah a Moute individually has been stellar. Had it not been for a shoulder injury that caused him to miss a few weeks in mid-December, he might be a real candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. When he’s playing, Houston’s defensive rating is 101.6. If he’s sitting on the bench, they give up eight points more per 100 possessions. Those figures rank him in at least the 94th percentile in both categories.
“I think, gotta be gifted naturally with my size and length,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders when asked why he’s so talented on that end. “I’m able to cover different positions ‘cause I’m tall enough to cover guys that are big and quick enough to cover smaller guys.
“Watching film, being able to do it over the years and knowing guys, knowing tendencies. (I’ve) played for coaches who’ve always appreciated defense. Just kinda all of the above of that stuff.”
Expanding His Game
Being a lockdown defender isn’t the only thing Mbah a Moute is capable of. Over the last couple of years, he’s added to his game by becoming a true threat on the perimeter and an aggressor with the ball when he sees an opportunity.
They are elements of his skill set that the nine-year veteran knows he’s always had in him since he entered the league.
“I think it’s just the persona and assumption,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders of being considered as one-dimensional. “I think the perception of what people have always seen. But I’ve always considered myself as a playmaker. I’ve always been able to make plays, even at UCLA.
“When you come into the NBA, you have to, like, find your niche and something that you’re really good at, and for me, it was playing defense and be a great defender. But I’ve always thought I was a good player. Obviously, I improve on my shot, shooting my threes, and making plays off the dribble. But I think I’ve always looked at myself as a basketball player and a complete player and a playmaker—not just one-sided.”
The jumper has really come along nicely, and—for a Rockets team that fires up nearly 43 threes a night and takes half of their attempts from beyond the arc—it was essential for that to happen. He started to find it with the Los Angeles Clippers and it’s continued to get better under D’Antoni.
Though his percentage from long distance was higher last season (so far), what’s been different between the two situations is the frequency he takes those shots.
“Just going out there and doing it and being in position,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders of his success. “The setting’s where it’s allowed to do it consistently and you don’t have to think about it—if you have an open shot, you shoot it—that makes things easier. It gives you a lot more confidence. It’s just kinda just letting you play your game. You don’t have to think about it. Just play basketball and have fun.”
Playing With Two All-Stars
Of course, what we’re not talking about is how much simpler it is to make shots when two MVP-caliber teammates are setting you up possession after possession.
There was a lot of hype coming into the season, but quite a few detractors as well when it came to predicting how Paul and Harden would play with one another in the same backcourt.
“I think in any situation, it’s about a will right?” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders of their chemistry. “If you wanna make things work, you’re gonna make things work. You’re gonna find a way. Those guys know they have to compromise somehow in ways, and they understood what’s at stake here for the team to get better and us to have a chance to win a championship.
“I think anytime you get a chance to do that, you gotta put a lot of stuff on the side and make some sacrifices, and I think they’ve done a good job so far of doing that. Each one of ‘em.”
Mbah a Moute speaks highly of both of his teammates, one of which is new and the other of which he’s played with for the last three years.
He describes Paul as a smart player who is demanding on the court with years of knowledge about the game, which is exactly why he’s so attentive to details, and his guys love it.
“Gosh, which one?” Mbah a Moute pondered to Basketball Insiders when asked to provide a case where that was demonstrated. “It’s a lot of examples. Some of the ways he plays. Sometimes he pushes the ball. People think he’s just slowing it down and pushing it up just to push it, but he’s looking at something. He’s seeing something that he’s trying to exploit.
“I don’t have a particular example in mind, but it’s a lot of stuff like that, that you might look at it like it’s regular basketball, but it’s an intent and a purpose to it. Pretty much everything he does has an intent and purpose to it, which is pretty unbelievable. With him and James out there, you’ve always got two great playmakers who can make guys better and make plays.”
Calling Harden a guy that can make plays is true, but that still doesn’t nearly do him enough justice. The man is the clear-cut frontrunner for Most Valuable Player as it stands right now a week before the All-Star break. According to NBAMath.com, the 28-year-old has added 329 offensive points to Houston this season. That is far and away the highest amount compared to the next set of great names on the list after his.
He does it with isolation drives and stepback threes. He does it with distributing the ball. He does it by picking his matchups’ pockets and finishing in transition.
Recently with Paul sidelined by a groin injury, Harden led the Rockets to a close victory over the Orlando Magic on the road, recording the first 60-point triple-double in NBA history.
“He made some crazy shots in that game,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders of the performance. “I didn’t know he had 60 until the end. The shots that he made and, you know, it was a tough game. Orlando came in and they’ve been playing hard. It was a close game and his will to make us win, get us a win really, pushed to it. And at the end of the game, he’s got a triple-double and he’s got 60.
“But he’s incredibly talented man. I played against him in college and I could always see his talent, but the way he’s playing this year, it’s unbelievable. Making the right plays, getting everybody around (him) better and doing all that man. It’s incredible.”
Works In Progress
Reading all of this probably makes you believe Houston has a real shot at contending for a championship. That’s because it’s true.
They’ve taken two out of three from the defending champion Golden State Warriors. They’ve had multiple winning streaks, including a stretch where they put together 14 straight between November and December. Everything has clicked and we’re only at the halfway mark of the season.
However, every team can improve no matter how good things may seem. For Mbah a Moute, he believes the defense needs to keep developing better habits.
“We still mess up some switches, when guys come off and we’re not talking right and we’re not proper on our switches,” he told Basketball Insiders. “The rotations defensively, sometimes we’re late. We got a lot of guys who can defend and guys who can switch off of, so we gotta get tighter on what we do.”
And like the team, it’s understood that, as a player, he too is an unfinished product.
“You can never be happy or satisfied,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders. “But I think I’ve made a lot of progress and I’m continuing to strive to be the best player I can possibly be. I’m excited about the opportunity this year on this team. I think it’s been great just as far as my growth and developing.
“Coach Mike is unbelievable at putting guys in the right position to succeed and he’s done that for me this year, so I’m excited about continuing to grow and grow with the team and hopefully get better and the team gets better and it helps us.”
NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division
David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.
We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.
Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.
1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves
There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.
However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.
Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.
2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves
A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.
The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.
Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting
The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.
Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.
The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.
4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.
Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.
He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.
5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets
The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.
He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.
As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.
Tip-ins and Treys from Around the NBA
The Butler Has Arrived in Philly
If you’re a Sixers fan you have to be thrilled that their perennial number one picks, borne of spectacular franchise failure, are finally bearing fruit. Joel Embiid has more than lived up to his lofty billing and is averaging over 28 points per game this season while Ben Simmons is emerging as a young superstar in his own right. Although the jury is still out on Markelle Fultz, it appears that he is beginning to assimilate and trying to contribute to his team’s fortunes. But this group of young guns needed a bona fide All-Star veteran to add a maturity component that the team has been missing and they found the perfect complement in Jimmy Butler.
As we all know, Butler was a disgruntled member of the Minnesota Timberwolves and, at age 29, saw his window to compete for a championship in his prime dwindling by the day. Minnesota understood they had two chances of signing Butler after this season, slim and none, and Slim just left town. Although he has been called everything from feisty to irascible, Butler brings a passion that either turns teammates off or makes them better. It’s a fair assumption that his brand of swagger will have a positive effect on younger players which is why the Philly brass believes he will bring a championship conclusion to The Process.
Of course, it was regrettable that the 76ers had to deal young talent in Robert Covington and Dario Saric but if Philadelphia can lock up Butler to a long-term deal then it will be worth trade. However, if the four-time All-Star decides that the City of Brotherly Love is not his favorite place then it will be a costly one-year rental. Nevertheless, Butler brings the Sixers closer to the NBA Finals if the young blood buys into who he is and what he brings to the table. That question will begin to be answered when he dons a 76ers jersey for the first time on Wednesday night in Orlando.
Sun Setting on Melo in Houston
Carmelo Anthony was brought to Houston as an experienced veteran with enough gas left in the tank to serve in a capacity that is foreign to the 10-time NBA All-Star – role player. But the Houston Rockets have underperformed and underachieved this season as they sit in mid-November as a sub .500 club, a monumental fall from grace after a 65-win campaign last year. After a dismal 1-of-11 shooting night from the field that garnered all of two points in Houston’s 98-80 loss to Oklahoma City, Melo has been a DNP the last two games and it appears that this marriage is headed for an early divorce.
Anthony’s reps are reportedly reaching out to other clubs to see if there will be a taker for the 34-year-old’s services but as of this point, no one is answering the phone. The wheels have come off the wagon and the dynamic in the Western Conference is changing as the best online sportsbooks are dealing the surging Denver Nuggets as 4 ½ point home favorites over the Rockets on Tuesday night. To highlight how far the mighty have fallen, last February these teams met in Mile High and it was Houston that was favored by four and they did not disappoint their backers as they covered the number in a 119-114 victory.
Perhaps it’s just early season jitters for the Rockets and no one would be surprised if James Harden and the boys went on a prolonged winning streak. But right now they are just another struggling group looking to get on the right side of the standings. Whether Carmelo Anthony will be part of that resurgence, if it does indeed occur, is anyone’s guess.
NBA Daily: A Little Bit Of Trouble In Paradise
Even with all their success, the Warriors’ most recent incident may suggest that there’s something ugly going on internally, writes Matt John.
It’s tragic to see an all-time team crumble from within.
When an empire falls because of its own hubris, it’s dead forever. Teams like the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers are a prime example of a fallen empire because of such. As the Lakers won titles year after year, the tension between the two of them became so palpable that their egos surpassed their talent, infecting their play on the court.
It was a shame that the dysfunction came to a head in 2004 because the Lakers had arguably their most talented team in the Shaq/Kobe era that year. Even with all the drama behind the scenes, they still made the NBA finals. We’ll never know for sure what could have been with the 2003-04 Lakers. What we do know was that everything blew up after that season because their superstars couldn’t stand each other anymore.
Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, we must now ask ourselves: Are we seeing the same thing happen to the Golden State Warriors?
If we’re basing this entirely off the incident that happened both during and after the Warriors and the Clippers squared off on Monday night, then absolutely not.
For those of you who don’t know, multiple Warriors – including Kevin Durant – got heated at Draymond Green after his attempt to be the hero at the end of regulation led to him losing the basketball as time expired. This forced the game into overtime, where the Warriors eventually lost. It was a rather questionable decision on Green’s part because, with all due respect to the three-time NBA All-Star, he had more reliable closers in both Durant and Klay Thompson to pass the ball to and he neglected them.
One thing should be made clear: Occurrences like these are pretty common. Teammates get in fights all the time, and not necessarily because they hate the others’ guts. They get into these little confrontations usually for the love of the game. Emotions understandably ran high after Green tried and failed to be the man as time expired. Certain things were brought up that are definitely worth going over, but this could easily be swept under the rug in a matter of weeks.
However, rumors of a potential Warriors’ self-combustion go all the way back to last June. After Golden State won its second consecutive title and third in the last four years, David West had this to say that caught our attention.
Warriors forward David West says there was a lot going on behind the scenes that people will be shocked about when it comes out.
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) June 9, 2018
“Y’all got no clue. No clue. That tells you about this team that nothing came out,” David West said https://t.co/VkrrVYX86o
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) June 9, 2018
Perhaps not everything was peachy in the Bay Area. West was calling it quits, so there was no need for him to hold anything back. Still, since he wouldn’t elaborate, all he said at that time could be dismissed as mere gossip.
What we had then was smoke. Now we have fire.
Something that’s also got people’s ears burning has been Durant’s caginess surrounding his upcoming free agency this summer. We can’t take that as proof of discord because it doesn’t prove a thing. Everything surrounding Durant’s silence in regards to his future is purely speculative.
Or, it was.
As Durant and Green had their confrontation in the locker room, Green reportedly brought up Durant’s impending free agency this summer. That is very telling of what might be on the Warriors’ minds, or at the very least, Green’s. It’s bothering him that he does not know what Durant plans are this summer. While Green may not be the most likable player in the league, his concerns are understandable. The uncertainty of a team’s long-term future can easily rattle any players’ mind. Just ask Cleveland.
Green could have made a better case for himself had he not reportedly called Durant an expletive name repeatedly. No matter what conclusions you may draw from this, the fact also remains that -after they got all the dirty laundry out – Green was suspended for one game.
Before all of this happened, all of the talks about the Warriors’ possible breakup was a bunch of hot air. Now, we have confirmation that things have gotten a little uneasy.
It’s also a possibility that this one little quarrel is as bad as it gets. Perhaps Green just had to get his concerns about Durant out in the open, and the two of them will cleanly resolve their issues. If this winds up being the height of the tension in Golden State, then this entire matter will be irrelevant as the Warriors pursue their third consecutive championship.
It also sounds impossible that a team that talented that has experienced that much success in the last several years would get sick of playing together. Some may think that what happened with O’Neal and Bryant was just an anomaly, but in recent years, we’ve seen a few elite players opt to leave their original teams in spite of their success.
Just a few months ago, Kawhi Leonard decided he didn’t want to be the face of arguably the league’s most well-run franchise anymore. The year before that, Kyrie Irving was fed up with being the Robin to LeBron James’ Batman despite a championship and two other finals appearances. Should it be mentioned that King James himself left his two previous teams after making the NBA Finals four consecutive times with both of them? Maybe what we’re seeing from this is that success does not always breed happiness and/or loyalty.
Getting back to the Warriors, say this is the first in a long line of public incidents that will compel Durant to leave. That doesn’t mean the end for Golden State. They still have the Splash Brothers, as well as Green. Managing the team without Durant wouldn’t be easy, but they won over 70 games without him three years ago. They’d probably still be a good enough team that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he left.
That is, of course, going off the notion that Durant is leaving this summer, which is by no means set in stone. As cliche as it sounds, we can only wait to see if things get worse from here for the Warriors.
But if things are actually as rocky as they appear, imagine what they could be like when DeMarcus Cousins comes back.