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NBA AM: Fixing the Houston Rockets

A look at the tumultuous season for the Houston Rockets and what needs to happen going forward.

Eric Saar

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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.

Free Agency

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.

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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NBA

Rookie Of The Year Watch – 01/17/18

Shane Rhodes checks in on a tightening Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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As the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And this NBA season sure has flown.

Not only has there been some great storylines this regular season, there has been even better basketball and, in recent days, plenty of petty fights or squabbles to satisfy the rowdiest of fans.

Still, nothing is more satisfying than winning. And while most rookies aren’t in a position to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they are in a position to take home another award; Rookie of The Year. The 2017 rookie class has been one of the more fun and exciting classes in a long time. But, at the season’s midpoint, who is leading the pack?

6. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers

While the shot still isn’t there, Lonzo Ball pretty much does everything else well for the Los Angeles Lakers. Averaging a solid 10.2 points to go along with 7.1 rebounds and assists per game, Ball has been an all-around contributor for this young Laker squad and has done it all while playing under the crushing pressure of his father LaVar and the city of Los Angeles. He often tries to get everyone involved in the offense and is constantly pushing the tempo. While it hasn’t resulted in many Laker wins yet, it surely will in time.

However, when I say his shot isn’t there yet, it really isn’t there. Ball’s current shooting splits of 35.6/30.3/40.8 from the floor, three and the line, while improved on his early season numbers, are pretty much a disaster; certainly not what the Lakers expected when they took him second overall. While there have been flashes of the player that shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc at UCLA, Ball’s shooting has been streaky at best but those numbers, alongside his form, should continue to improve over time. The Lakers will need it to if they want to have any chance of climbing the Western Conference ladder in the near future.

5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

Lauri Markkanen has played a major role in the recent surge by the Chicago Bulls. While it may seem strange to say that a 17-27 team is surging, not many people thought the Bulls would win this many games over the course of the whole season after trading star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason.

Markkanen has averaged 15.5 points to go along with 7.6 rebounds per game this season while shooting 43 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three. While those numbers have dipped since the beginning of the season, Markkanen still ranks fifth among rookies in three-point percentage. The return of guard Zach LaVine alongside the emergence of Kris Dunn — both acquired in the trade with Minnesota — should go along way in alleviating the offensive burden on the Finnish forward as well.

Markkanen’s defense is really the only thing holding back his game; 0.6 blocks per game seems a little too low for someone who stands at seven-feet tall, while his 108.4 defensive rating leaves a little something to be desired.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

At this point in the season, Kyle Kuzma is still, by far, the steal of the draft for the Lakers.

Averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, Kuzma ranks third among rookies in scoring while he sits fifth and sixth in rebounding and three-point percentage, respectively. He has certainly forced his way into the Lakers’ future as a building block, but Kuzma needs to do more on the offensive end outside of scoring the ball. His assist percentage of 9.6 is among the lowest of the team’s regular rotation and could certainly stand to improve as the Lakers continue to push to become a more ball movement oriented team.

Kuzma’s defense, while not terrible, could use some improvement as well. Kuzma isn’t overly athletic, so he has trouble keeping up with smaller forwards and guards when switched onto them. Improving his agility and or quickness could go a long way here.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Most rookies in Jayson Tatum’s position — playing on a Conference contender — don’t have much of a shot at taking home Rookie of the Year. That fact alone makes what Tatum has done this season for the Boston Celtics that much more impressive.

Averaging 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, Tatum has played an integral role for the Celtics, who currently sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference. He remains one of the most efficient rookies on offense, shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three while maintaining in the poise of a veteran in late game situations. Tatum plays a large part in Boston’s elite, league-leading defense as well, and his defensive rating of 99.1 paces all rookies.

There hasn’t been much to complain about when it comes to Tatum outside his aggressiveness on the offensive end. As the Celtics’ fourth option, Tatum doesn’t really need to shoulder much of a load on offense, but it would still be nice to see him to at least attempt create his own shot on a consistent basis when he is running with the second unit.

2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

There is no doubt about it, Donovan Mitchell has been the most explosive, if not most exciting, rookie in this class. His 18.9 points per game leads all rookies while his scoring and high-flying athletic ability have created more than a few highlights for the Utah Jazz in recent weeks. Mitchell is also second among rookies in total steals, registering 61 pickpockets on the season.

In the absence of Rudy Gobert, Mitchell has managed to keep the Jazz somewhat afloat in the tough Western Conference. The two should certainly form an interesting pick-and-roll tandem when Gobert returns and, sitting at 10th in the West with a 17-26 record, they are capable of making a late-season push into the bottom of the playoff picture.

The only problem with Mitchell, as it has been all season, is his efficiency. Mitchell is shooting just 44 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three, but a lot of that has to do with his 28.4 percent usage rate. As the Jazz return Gobert and others, Mitchell’s usage rate should drop, which should coincide with a drop in field goal attempts and an uptick in his shooting percentages.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

For better or worse, this award is still Ben Simmons’ to lose. He hasn’t been the dominant player he was in the early season for the Philadelphia 76ers, but Simmons still has a leg up on most rookies thanks to his athletic ability, court vision and ball-handling skills. Simmons and his 16.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.1 assists per game are still a matchup nightmare against most teams due to his sheer size when compared to the average point guard as well.

Simmons is not without his faults, however. Whether it’s because he is shooting with the wrong hand or something else, Simmons’ jump shot needs plenty of work. While he’s shooting 51.3 percent from the field, most of his attempts are dunks or hooks close to the basket. He still has yet to make a three-point attempt, taking just 10 on the season. Simmons’ lack of shooting means defenses can almost completely ignore him outside the paint while the offense goes into a pit when fellow star Joel Embiid is on the bench; that will need to change if the 76ers want to be the powerhouse The Process has led them to believe they will become.

Again, Rookie of The Year is Simmons’ award to lose. However, if he is unable to adjust his offensive game — especially when Joel Embiid sits — he will begin to feel plenty of pressure from his fellow rookies who are on the rise.

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NBA Daily: Jayson Tatum: Boston’s X-Factor

Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum speaks to Michael Scotto about his early adjustments and success.

Michael Scotto

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When All-Star Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia five minutes into the season, the outlook changed drastically for the Boston Celtics this season.

“I think our group, going into the season, there were a lot of expectations with Gordon [Hayward] and then the injury happens, and a lot of our younger guys had to grow up a lot quicker,” Celtics center Al Horford told Basketball Insiders on January 6 before facing the Brooklyn Nets. “It has given our team an opportunity to develop, to embrace the challenge that we have in front of us, and it’s opened up a lot of playing time for guys.

“I feel like we’re taking advantage of it. We’re growing as a group and, really, I feel like there’s no ceiling for our group. As long as we keep defending and keep doing the things that we need to do on the defensive end, I think it’s going to put us in a position to be successful.”

Those expectations included challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially a championship.

In Hayward’s absence, the youngest player had to grow up the quickest: third overall pick Jayson Tatum.

“It just gave me more of an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders in a video interview. “It’s definitely unfortunate that it had to come the way it did with one of our best players getting hurt, but we’ve all just had to contribute more, step up more losing him on the first night. We had 81 more games left, so we couldn’t make excuses for that.”

The 19-year-old forward has made the most of his opportunity as a full-time starter in his rookie campaign. Tatum is averaging 13.9 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, a league-leading 46 percent from beyond the arc, and 82 percent from the foul line as of January 16.

The 6-foot-8 forward has shown a penchant for coming through in the clutch halfway through the season. According to Basketball-Reference, Tatum has shot 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.

The Eastern Conference December Rookie of the Month has taken some notes in the clutch from four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.

“I grew up in high school and college seeing him on TV and now seeing it live on your own team,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “He’s one of the best players in the world, and he puts on a show each and every night.”

Tatum and Irving, both Duke alumni, played for coach Mike Krzyzewski and are in their first season under Celtics coach Brad Stevens.

Tatum notices differences between the two coaches who have molded the talented teenager.

“They’re both great terrific coaches,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Coach K has been coaching for a long time, but they definitely both know a lot. Brad is a lot more chill, Coach (K) is a lot more fired up, slapping the floor and yelling at guys. I definitely respect them both, and it’s an honor to play for both of them.”

Stevens’ defensive system has helped Tatum realize the defensive potential that drew comparisons to Paul George from scouts and executives before the draft. According to Basketball-Reference, the rookie is tied for third in defensive win shares with George (2.5) and ranks eighth in defensive rating (101.5).

On offense, Tatum has put in time with trainer Drew Hanlen of Pure Sweat Basketball to work on his isolation moves and improve his 3-point shooting. Tatum shot a pedestrian 34 percent from 3-point range at Duke, but now leads the NBA shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.

Thus far, Tatum has shown encouraging flashes of becoming the player he ultimately wants to be on both sides of the court.

“Just being in the All-Star game as many times as possible, win MVP, win a championship,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Everyone wants to win a championship. Just play as long as possible. Hopefully, I can do that.”

If Tatum continues to be near the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation, rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter and remain a lockdown defender and 3-point shooter, maybe he and the Celtics can realize those heightened expectations after all.

Is that a lot to ask of a 19-year-old?

Absolutely.

However, as the NBA has learned, Tatum is no average teenager and the x-factor towards how far Boston can go this season.

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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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