Many writers and fans predicted the Houston Rockets would make a deep playoff run this year after advancing to the Western Conference Finals last season. Instead, they took a step back, losing in five games as the eighth seed to those same Golden State Warriors – and mostly without Steph Curry.
Everything started going downhill when the Rockets fired Kevin McHale after the team wasn’t responding to him following a 4-7 start to the season. General manager Daryl Morey explained the move by saying that “there isn’t time in the tough Western Conference to wait for a turnaround.” They promoted J.B. Bickerstaff as the interim head coach.
While the Rockets battled throughout the season and ultimately squeaked into the playoffs at 41-41 (just edging out the injury-plagued Utah Jazz), it was still a big step down from the previous year’s 56-26 record and battling the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Mostly, their defense just seemed to fall off a cliff. In 2014-15, their defensive rating was eighth in the league (allowing 103.4 points per 100 possessions). This year, they allowed 108.1 points per 100 possessions, ranking for 21st in the league. That’s a pretty significant slide, especially for a team with minimal roster turnover (their top nine players from the previous year were still on the roster and played major minutes). Their offense wasn’t the problem, as their offensive rating actually got better from 107 points per 100 possessions to 108.3 (12th to seventh), but their defensive regression really did them in this last season. Their effective field goal percentage was seventh in the league both years, but their defensive deterioration is highlighted by their slide from giving up the seventh-best effective field goal percentage of 48.6 percent to 23rd in the league at 51.6 percent.
Combine that with the chemistry issues and occasional apathy (Harden looked like he was sleeping as they were losing to the Warriors, no one seemed to care when Harden made a game-winning shot, etc.), and this Rockets team has some issues it needs to fix this offseason.
What needs to happen?
Hire the Right Coach
The number one priority is to hire the right coach.
In order to move to the next phase for the franchise, the Rockets need to hire the best coach for this roster. Many names have been linked to the opening, with former Rockets coach and current broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy topping that list. The “incumbent” J.B. Bickerstaff withdrew from consideration after meeting with management, according to The Vertical. Other names that have been linked to the vacancy are David Blatt, Mike D’Antoni, Sam Cassell, Chris Finch and maybe even Frank Vogel.
One of the most important jobs for this coach is to motivate Harden to be a better leader. The best basketball players make their teammates better and while he is one of the top 10 best players in the league, Harden doesn’t make his teammates much better as he can be selfish on offense and unreliable (to say the least) on defense. Whoever the head coach ends up being, he will need to bring cohesion and chemistry back to the locker room and hold Harden accountable as a leader and star of the team.
It certainly seems like we’ve seen the last of Dwight Howard in a Rockets uniform (especially if they bring in D’Antoni as the head coach). While Howard is still a productive player (he averaged 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 62 percent shooting last season), he turned 30 years old in December and is on the downside of his career and has an injury history. Howard has a player option in excess of $23 million, but seeing as he can probably get a comparable long-term deal from another team with an increased salary cap, he’ll probably walk elsewhere. The Rockets would probably be happy to sign him to a smaller deal, but Howard seems to have his eyes elsewhere. Center Clint Capela seems to be developing nicely and, if Howard is gone, can slide into the starting spot easily despite his relative lack of experience.
Morey has some important decisions to make at the power forward spot. Both Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas are restricted free agents. Motiejunas was traded to Detroit at the deadline, but it was voided due to a failed physical (back problems). Because of this, Houston may decide to just sign Jones. However, he has also had his injury problems as well as a disappointing follow-up season to a promising 2014-15 year.
Both players have been in the league for four years (all with Houston). Jones has played 178 games, while Motiejunas has played 214. Both are reasonably productive with seemingly untapped potential, due to role and injuries. Motiejunas has the more serious injury, but also could garner a bigger deal in free agency. The best approach may be for Houston to wait and see what is offered and then match the lower deal, but probably keeping Jones is the way to go.
The Rockets have several other locked in contracts led by Trevor Ariza, whose contract is $8.2 million this upcoming year and decreases each subsequent season. That’s pretty good for a 6’8 veteran wing who can still defend at a high level, is consistent year to year and can knock down three-pointers. The decreasing deal for Patrick Beverley that is at nearly $6.5 million this season also looks good for an excellent perimeter defender.
It will be interesting to see if Houston brings back Jason Terry at under a million dollars per year as a veteran presence, since he is 38 years old. They will probably attempt to bring back Josh Smith on another bargain contract. It will be most intriguing to see what kind of deal Michael Beasley gets after resurrecting his career in China and then Houston. He racked up impressive numbers overseas and got his chance again in the NBA and made the most of it. In 20 regular season games for Houston, he averaged 12.8 points in only 18.2 minutes per game as a reserve. In the five playoffs games against the Warriors, it was 10.4 points in 16 minutes. Signing Beasley to a two-year contract at a nominal salary would be a good way to bolster that second unit without breaking the bank.
Unfortunately, Houston can’t help rebuild the team very well through the draft this year as they don’t have a first-rounder and only two second-rounders (37th and 43rd overall).
The Rockets were dead last in defensive rebounding percentage in 2015-16 so it would benefit them to invest in someone, even a cheap big, who could focus on crashing the boards. That could be Terrence Jones if he could stay healthy and continue his development, or someone like Festus Ezeli (who may be very expensive) or Zaza Pachulia if they don’t want to play Capela a bunch yet. Also, since Houston was 27th in the league in turnover percentage (14.2 percent), going forward they need to hone in on players that excel in efficiency and valuing possessions.
The Rockets were 16th in assists during the regular season. While that is middle of the road, if they have aspirations of a deep playoff run anytime soon, they will need to focus on moving the ball and not relying so much on Harden’s elite isolation ability.
They were also bottom third in opponent’s three-point field goal percentage (36.1 percent), which needs to improve next season. With teams like the Warriors in their way, you can’t compete giving up good looks from behind the arc.
Get Harden Back on Track
The success of the Rockets starts with James Harden.
Harden is the Rockets’ franchise cornerstone. Howard was supposed to be the second fiddle, but with that experiment seemingly over, where do they go from here? They’ll need to find someone to pair with him, but Harden also needs to evolve a bit.
On the court, Harden is great offensively. He was third in three-pointers made only behind Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He was also (by far) first in free throws with 720 (second was DeMar DeRozan with 555 made free throws). That lines up well with what is known as “Morey-ball,” which emphasizes free throws and three-pointers in the offense. Unfortunately, Harden also leads the league in turnovers (by 32 over Russell Westbrook). While he is the third-best player in the NBA when it comes to offensive win shares and extremely effective on that end, he is frequently a turnstile on the defensive end and a liability. At times, he is the epitome of a one-way player. But his offense is so prolific and difficult to replicate that he is worth it.
What Harden seemingly needs to work on is his leadership. Veterans like Jason Terry can only do so much. The onus is on the team’s superstar to lead the way by example. If Harden occasionally conveys apathy on defense, that can rub off on the team. Accountability is key. The next coach might even consider benching Harden during a game if his lack of effort on the defensive end continues.
Also, reports came out during the Rockets’ series with the Warriors that Harden had opted not to take the team bus to games multiple times during the season. At the very least, it’s not a good look from a team’s leader. He needs to create a culture of teamwork, brotherhood and togetherness. It starts at the top with him. Communication is essential and it just doesn’t seem like it was there for the Rockets this season.
Daryl Morey has a lot of work to do and some tough decisions to make, but he’s proven he’s up for the challenge.
NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise
The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.
He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.
He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.
Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.
The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.
“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.
“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.
So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.
As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.
In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.
But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.
So is Porzingis.
Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.
In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.
Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.
And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.
“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.
“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”
Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.
Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.
The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.
So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.
Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.
If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.
So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.
Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.
To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.
When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.
He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.
And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.
With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word.
It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.
For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.
In this town, that’s more than half the battle.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”