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: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.