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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 DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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