Dillon Brooks is not a headline maker — he’s not the reigning Rookie of the Month or averaging anywhere close to a triple-double. But for the Memphis Grizzlies, the front office will feel like they’ve uncovered a hidden gem nonetheless.
Although he had an accomplished three-year career at the University of Oregon, Brooks, 22, dropped into the second round of last year’s draft, falling serendipitously into the lap of the Grizzlies. Two weeks into the season, Brooks cemented his place in the starting lineup and has refused to surrender it since. He’s started in 51 of the Grizzlies’ 59 games — all consecutively, to boot — a feat that is almost unheard of for the No. 45 overall selection.
For Brooks, it’s all about development during this difficult rookie season.
“[Being a starter has] given me a lot of strengths, but I just took the opportunity and ran with it,” Brooks told Basketball Insiders. “It’s given me a lot of experience, time for trial and error and a chance to learn from the older guys.”
Brooks is one of 11 rookies averaging more than 25 minutes per game, accompanied by many his class’ top lottery picks. But for what Brooks lacks in gaudy box score numbers, he has quickly become one of the Grizzlies’ most versatile contributors already. Despite the current basement-dwelling status in Memphis — a path that led to the dismissal of former head coach David Fizdale after starting 7-12 — Brooks has established himself as somebody worth watching.
“You know, I thought I would have to work my way in — by now, maybe I’d be starting,” Brooks said. “But it started with coach Fizdale, he had trust in me. Then J.B. [Bickerstaff] has that same trust, so I just keep playing the way I’m playing and keep starting.”
For his early development and successes, Brooks was chosen for the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge during February’s All-Star Weekend. Not only did Brooks prove that he belonged alongside some of the league’s biggest and brightest young talents, but he tallied 11 points and five rebounds in Team World’s blowout 155-124 victory. On top of that, Brooks was the only second-rounder selected to participate in this season’s competition and the next-lowest draftee was Kyle Kuzma at No. 27 — something Brooks takes as a great source of pride.
“There were so many great talents there, first-year and second-year guys. I was just glad to be a part of it.” Brooks said. “It meant a lot, especially in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, so it meant a lot. I just want to keep going with that success.”
Not many prospects make the transition from collegiate stud to second-rounder contributor so seamlessly, but Brooks has chalked up his early success to hard work and a do-it-all attitude. But with Brooks, there’s also a chip on his shoulder, pushing him forward game after game.
At Oregon, Brooks was selected to the All-Pac-12 team in back-to-back seasons, where coaches choose a 10-man first-team. In that second appearance, Brooks was flanked by Markelle Fultz (No. 1), Lonzo Ball (No. 2), Lauri Markkanen (No. 7), T.J. Leaf (No. 18) and the aforementioned Kuzma. The 6-foot-6 small forward has nothing but love for the other conference-best draftees, but admitted in Los Angeles that he believes he was taken far too late.
“Forty-five is too low for me and it’s only made me hungrier,” Brooks said over the break. “I just want to play and I knew whoever picked me, after the first round, really loved my game and really wanted me to contribute for their team.
“And that was Memphis and we’re doing some great things right now.”
Of course, that’s not to say that everything has come easily for Brooks in his rookie season either — it’s a process, but he’s still focused on improving with each successive opportunity. When Brooks scores more than 15 points, the Grizzlies are 4-1; but when he tallies less than five, Memphis is just 3-7. For a rookie carrying such a heavy load — he played a career-high 39:55 in a four-point loss to the Indiana Pacers back in January — Brooks knows he has to take the good with the bad (and sometimes ugly) and grow from those experiences.
“Because this season is so long and so grueling, if you just veer off, you might lose focus for a little bit within games, within week-long stretches,” Brooks said. “Another thing I’ve learned is how quickly games come on. You can have a bad game and have zero points, but then have a back-to-back and play another game.
“You need to brush things off and get to the next one.”
Only Marc Gasol and Tyreke Evans have averaged more minutes per game for the Grizzlies than Brooks (28.2) this year and the rookie has made a habit of drawing the some of toughest opposing matchups. In back-to-back games this month, Brooks was asked to guard Paul George, a three-time All-NBA third team superstar. And although it’s akin to being thrown to the wolves — George ended up with 61 points over those two games — Brooks is always hungry for more knowledge and eventual wisdom.
“I feel like I’m just a chameleon, I just adapt to whatever my situation is, whatever my role is,” Brooks said. “I just learn from each player that I guard — what kind of moves they did, how they get fouls and then try to stay away from that. Paul George is one of the best in the league and he’s so shifty. You’ve got to force him to where you want to go, that’s pretty hard.”
A recent 10-game losing streak has left Memphis dead-even with four other teams for the NBA’s worst record. The dismal record is an unfortunate byproduct of losing franchise point guard Mike Conley in November and Chandler Parsons’ absence in all but one game since the new year. The Grizzlies are no strangers to decimating injuries, but Brooks has certainly benefited from the extra minutes in the team’s first forgettable season in nearly a decade.
After seven straight postseason-bound campaigns, Memphis will likely earn their highest first-round selection since they picked Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2 overall back in 2009. With Memphis bottoming out for a chance at the likes of Marvin Bagley III or Luka Doncic, the keys have been, more or less, handed over to the Grizzlies’ youngest players. But even with all the streak-ending lows that this season has brought to Memphis, Brooks has been an undeniable bright spot.
By this point, it’s safe to say that the former collegiate star should’ve likely gone in the first round last June — perhaps even higher if he wasn’t already 21 years old on draft night. Constantly engulfed by the hype surrounding Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum and the other phenomenal prospects in this class, it’s been almost too easy to forget about Brooks at times — but he’s proved those doubters wrong time and time again.
Still, Brooks is proud to be part of this class, regardless of where he was chosen.
“I feel like this class is one of the best that ever got put out there. You’ve got stars from the top to the bottom,” Brooks told Basketball Insiders. “There are a lot of guys that are gonna last 12, 15 years in the league. You’re gonna look back — like those little memes of Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki — you’re gonna see like five or six, seven people by their 15th year.
“So, this class is special — we got a lot of hard workers.”
But does Brooks believe he’ll be one of those decade-plus starters?
“I do, for sure.”
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.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”