Two seasons removed from a positive record and postseason berth, the Detroit Pistons are looking to take advantage of a weakened Eastern Conference to help propel themselves back into the playoffs.
With Avery Bradley and lottery pick Luke Kennard aboard, some of the offensive woes from last season have the potential to be addressed. But, more importantly, the team’s starting point guard, Reggie Jackson, looks healthy and primed to return to his form that helped lead the Pistons to their last postseason appearance.
Stan Van Gundy and Detroit have their work cut out for them this season in terms of making it a successful one, but the necessary pieces look to be in place for an improvement from last year.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Just five games separated the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers last season. That was all the difference between third place and last place in their division, and making and missing the playoffs.
Well, with Paul George out of Indiana, and Jimmy Butler moving on from Chicago, the Pistons look poised to jump a few spots not only in their division, but in the conference as well. After adding Avery Bradley this offseason, the Pistons have a perfect two-way guard complement to Reggie Jackson. Along with Bradley, rookie Luke Kennard impressed during Summer League and looks to be in the position to provide a decent punch off the bench.
The newcomers at guard, plus the likes of Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond, appear to make Detroit a threat for a bottom half seed come next postseason. Now it’s just a matter of if Stan Van Gundy can put it all together.
3rd place — Central Division
— Dennis Chambers
Stan Van Gundy shopped literally everybody on his roster this past offseason, so it’s okay if fans aren’t all that excited about this team. The head coach and front office isn’t all that excited about it either, apparently. The Reggie Jackson/Andre Drummond trade rumors aren’t going away, and with those guys gone there wouldn’t be a whole lot left to love about this roster outside of Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris. The Pistons should finish third in the Central, but only because the Pacers and Bulls traded away their clout. More likely than not, this is a team on the playoff bubble, which should speak volumes as to how weird the Eastern Conference is going to be this year.
3rd Place – Central Division
— Joel Brigham
I’m not really sure what to expect from the Pistons this season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris were each a big part of what the team did the past two years, but after winning 44 games during the 2015-16 season, the progression that was expected of the bunch last season was a bit of a dud. After 37 wins and missing the playoffs, Caldwell-Pope found a new home and Reggie Jackson, who was openly shopped, will now be pushed by Avery Bradley. Bradley is one of the better combo guards in the league and I’ve also got a lot of love for Langston Galloway. Acquiring those players, though, means that Luke Kennard may not get the minutes he warrants to figure out just how good he is, but I do have confidence in Stan Van Gundy’s ability to figure it all out.
In the end, I suppose it all hinges on Andre Drummond and, to a lesser extent, Stanley Johnson. In the playing time he got last season, Johnson proved himself to be capable of making a difference on both ends of the floor. I like their rotation in Detroit and suppose that they will be battling for a lower playoff seed considering two of the teams in their division should be taking considerable steps back.
3rd Place — Central Division
— Moke Hamilton
The Pistons have been a team in search of a true identity the last couple years, and that looks to continue moving forward. Most of the pieces are the same, with the exception of Avery Bradley, who was acquired in exchange for Marcus Morris. Bradley will bring some nice defensive chops against quicker guards while allowing Tobias Harris and Stanley Johnson to likely man the forward positions – in this sense, the Pistons are a bit more versatile. But to succeed more than they have the last couple years, the improvements need to be internal. They need more from both Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, the latter of whom has totally failed to prove his worth on a max deal signed in 2016. They need Johnson to be more consistent on both sides of the ball. There’s a lot of skepticism that all these things can happen, but a couple of them could see the Pistons crawl back into the playoffs. Expect them to finish squarely third in the Central division this year.
3rd place — Central Division
— Ben Dowsett
The Detroit Pistons were one of last season’s most disappointing team. Reggie jackson struggled with injuries early in the season and never rounded into form. Andre Drummond seemed stagnant and even regressed in some ways. The chemistry issues were real, evidence in the disappointing results in the court. This year, the team is largely the same, with a few significant changes, including the acquisition of Avery Bradley and the departure of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. While Bradley will certainly bring high-level perimeter defense and shooting, the Pistons’ biggest source of improvement will have to come from incumber players who fell short of expectations last season. Stanley Johnson needs to figure out how to stay out of Stan Van Gundy’s dog house. Drummond needs to focus on impacting the game in a multitude of ways, rather than focusing on being a primary scoring option. Jackson needs to earn the trust of his teammates, who seemed to wall him out at various points of last season. The Pistons have talent, but they have some internal hurdles they need to overcome as well.
3rd Place — Central Division
— Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Tobias Harris
When it comes down to which player will be shouldering the offensive load for the Detroit Pistons this season, the answer is the same as last season: Tobias Harris.
The New York native was Detroit’s leading scorer last season, and with Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope both gone from the Pistons roster, Harris returns as the leader in minutes per game from a year ago.
Granted, Reggie Jackson should be available from the jump this season, which wasn’t the case last year as Jackson battled left knee tendinitis. However, having Jackson in the fold completely, and from the beginning of the season, should provide Harris even more opportunity to find open looks and knock them down.
Harris led the Pistons in both Offensive Box Plus/Minus and Value Over Replacement Player last season. With Jackson back up to full speed and a few new weapons on the roster, Harris looks poised to build off of his strong season from a year ago.
Top Defensive Player:Avery Bradley
The newest Detroit Piston also happens to be the best defending Detroit Piston. After letting Caldwell-Pope walk to the Los Angeles Lakers, Detroit essentially replaced him with a more offensively capable version in Avery Bradley.
Spending last season sharing a backcourt with Isaiah Thomas, Bradley was usually responsible for checking the opposing team’s best offensive wing player. The 6-foot-2 shooting guard posted a 108 defensive rating, which was tied for second on the Boston Celtics last season.
Known for his defensive capabilities around the league, Bradley sometimes goes under the radar as a scorer. Last season, Bradley averaged 16.3 points per game and shot 39 percent from three-point land. Filling in for KCP alongside Jackson, Bradley will become Stan Van Gundy’s defensive wizard who is more than able to hit his open shots.
Top Playmaker: Reggie Jackson
After dealing with knee issues last season and managing to play in just 52 games, Reggie Jackson returns this season to the Pistons not a moment too soon.
Last year, the Pistons were one of the worst offensive teams in the entire league — 26th in points per game and 24th in offensive rating — in large part because their starting point guard couldn’t find the floor. Now that Jackson looks on track to play a full season, or to at least start the season healthy, Detroit gets back the guy that averaged 6.2 assists per game just two years ago.
Make no mistake about it: Jackson likes to score the basketball. During his last healthy season, 2015-16, Jackson led the Pistons in field goal attempts per game with 15.7. But his ability to keep defenders honest while checking him allows Jackson to draw attention and then kick it to the nearest open teammate.
Hopefully, with a full season ahead of him, Jackson can return to form and his playmaking abilities can help drag Detroit out of the league’s basement offensively.
Top Clutch Player: Avery Bradley
Yes, Bradley appears to be the team’s best defender, as well as their most clutch player. Of course, a little parity would be nice when it comes to a team preview, but when Bradley has hit the biggest shot out of any player’s respective career on the roster, it’s kind of hard to give the nod to anybody else.
With Game 3 in the Eastern Conference Finals tied at 108, Isaiah Thomas on the sidelines with a hip injury, and pride hanging in the balance for the Celtics, Bradley clanged home a deep three-pointer to take away Cleveland’s perfect postseason record.
After that, there’s no other player on Detroit’s roster better suited for a big time shot than Bradley.
The Unheralded Player: Ish Smith
While Jackson was nursing himself back to health, Ish Smith assumed the role as the team’s point guard, and he did a fantastic job in that role. But now that the big money point guard is back for his job, Smith will be relegated to a reserve role.
During his 32 games as a starter, Smith averaged 12.3 points and 6.3 assists per game. A career journeyman — 10 teams in seven seasons — Smith could easily get lost in the shuffle now that the focus is back on Jackson leading the Pistons’ charge on offense. But, should Jackson go back down with another injury, the unsung hero Smith is more than capable of propelling Detroit’s attack. If a spot doesn’t open up for Smith, however, he’ll just bide his time on the bench while providing a great asset for the second unit.
Best New Addition: Luke Kennard
Avery Bradley lays a strong claim to this title, but since he’s already occupying the position of “best defender,” this spot is reserved for Detroit’s brand new lottery pick.
Luke Kennard makes his way to the Motor City from Duke, and he brings along with him the remedy for Detroit’s most obvious ailment, scoring.
In his sophomore season as a Blue Devil, Kennard emerged as the best scoring threat on a team that was littered with McDonald’s All-Americans. Scoring 19.5 points per game, Kennard really set the tone for Duke as a long ball marksman, where we shot 43.8 percent from range.
Just to show that he is more than capable of hitting his shots from an extended three-point line, Kennard went on to hit 47.8 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc in the Orlando Summer League.
Detroit badly needs an improved offense this season, and with Kennard, they’re taking a step in that direction.
— Dennis Chambers
WHO WE LIKE
1. Henry Ellenson
Entering his second season, Henry Ellenson can provide Detroit with much-needed spacing down on the block.
After a rookie campaign that saw Ellenson dominate for the Pistons’ G-League affiliate, and then a Summer League performance that followed with similar results, the former Marquette big man looks poised to serve as a full-time contributor in the big leagues this season.
What the Pistons know they have for certain in their front court is the behemoth in the middle, Andre Drummond. For the array of things that Drummond is, offensively gifted is not one of them. Ellenson provides a running-mate that can stretch the floor against opponents and provide extra space on the block for Drummond to operate.
Detroit drafted Ellenson No. 18 overall just a year ago. With how devoid they are of offensive talent, plugging Ellenson in for some extended run this season seems to be an obvious idea.
2. Stanley Johnson
Stanley Johnson hasn’t gotten off to the hottest start in his career after being drafted eighth overall by Detroit in 2015, but next season looks to be a pivotal time for his turnaround.
Last season saw Johnson’s stats drop across the board. He shot at a lower percentage, scored fewer points and played fewer minutes. All in all, Johnson was the epitome of a “sophomore slump.” But in year three, Johnson will be able to provide at the very least a more than capable wing defender for Van Gundy and the Pistons. When Johnson was on the court for Detroit last season, the opposing team’s offensive rating was a full two points lower.
With the third year of a rookie’s career being most pivotal from a contract renegotiating standpoint, Johnson will need to make a statement. It would be a wise bet that the former top-10 draft pick can ramp up his impact this season.
3. Avery Bradley
As noted above, Bradley steps into Detroit as their best — and most important — defender next season. But that’s not all he can do.
Over the course of the last few seasons, Bradley has transformed himself into one of the premier two-way players in the NBA. While playing in Boston, Bradley was responsible for picking up Isaiah Thomas’ defensive slack — of which there was plenty.
By knowing what that responsibility feels like, Bradley should have no problem assuming the same role for Detroit.
However, what the Pistons lack heavily on their roster is scoring and winning experience. Bradley can provide both. A near 40 percent three-point shooter, Bradley knows what it takes to win big games against the league’s best. If you remember, he’s the only reason the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t meet the Golden State Warriors in the Finals with a perfect record
Bradley has the juice of a big time player, on both ends of the court. His presence and leadership are huge scores for Detroit heading into this season as they try to make it back to the playoffs.
Stan Van Gundy
Heading into his fourth season at the helm of the Detroit Pistons, Stan Van Gundy could very well take his team to the postseason for the second time despite having an average offense at best.
It’s clear that the weight of Detroit’s problems come from scoring the ball, but their ability to lock down opponents puts them in a position to win games should they just hit the shots they need to when they need to hit them. Having a guy like Van Gundy — who has led teams the playoffs eight times in his 11 season head coaching career — gives the Pistons an advantage in that on most nights they won’t be outmatched completely when it comes to game planning or preparation.
With his starting point guard healthy, an upgrade at shooting guard in Bradley and capable shooters like Harris and Kennard, Van Gundy should have more firepower this season to couple with his patented stifling defense. Mix those two things together, and with a few things breaking the right way for him, Van Gundy could be making his ninth appearance in the postseason as a head coach.
— Dennis Chambers
SALARY CAP 101
The Pistons entered the summer over the salary cap, using their Mid-Level Exception on Langston Galloway and Eric Moreland. Detroit also spent their Bi-Annual Exception on Anthony Tolliver, using up their spending tools locking in a hard cap at $125.3 million. Outside of a $874,636 trade exception, the Pistons have almost nothing left to offer outside of minimum contracts (or trades).
Next summer, the Pistons are not likely to have any cap space with a $102 million salary cap projection. Before November, the team needs to decide on the 2018-19 options for Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson. The team currently has 13 guaranteed players, a $500,000 investment in Moreland as their 14th and a couple of camp invites in Landry Nnoko and Derek Willis.
— Eric Pincus
When opposing teams step on the court with the Detroit Pistons, they understand two things. One, scoring won’t come easy; Detroit ranked as a top-10 defense last season. And two, they won’t get very many loose balls off the glass. The Pistons were the fourth-best rebounding team in the whole league last year.
While the NBA game as a whole seems to be shifting towards who can outscore the other guy the quickest, basketball in the Motor City is still very much of the smashmouth variety. It always has been.
With Stan Van Gundy captaining this tough guy squad, the Pistons will enter this season as one of the tougher matchups for opponents. Nothing will come easy against the team up in Detroit.
— Dennis Chambers
For everything awesome that Detroit does on the defensive end of the court, their offensive ineptitude tries its best to negate that.
Across the board, the Pistons ranked as one of the worst teams offensively in the entire league last season. Their scoring was poor, their shot selection was poor, their ball movement was poor and their foul shooting was poor. Watching the Pistons operate a half court offense was at times nauseating. With a few more capable bodies on the team this season, this should improve slightly at the very least. But if not, the Pistons are on the fast track for another sub par season.
— Dennis Chambers
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Detroit Pistons hit the necessary shots to put themselves back in postseason play?
We’ve been over this: The Detroit Pistons are bad on offense. But there’s reason to believe they can hit the shots they need to, to eek out a playoff berth.
With Avery Bradley and Luke Kennard aboard, a full season from Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris coming back, the Pistons have four guys at the very least that can hit a jump shot. Stan Van Gundy will put his team in the position defensively to compete, so when it comes down to crunch time Detroit should be in most games. Having a guy like Bradley who’s been in that position will serve as a big time band aid for the rest of the offensive woes.
Come April, Detroit will be right there in the thick of things, and if they want to play on until May instead of hitting the golf course, they just need to hit their jump shots.
— Dennis Chambers
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.