The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.
But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.
All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.
The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.
While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.
Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.
“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.
When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”
Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.
“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”
Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.
In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.
The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.
NBA Daily: The Resurgence Of Derrick Rose
The glory days may be over for him, but Derrick Rose’s contributions for Minnesota up to this point show that he’s far from done, writes Matt John.
In the long run, it could really go either way in regards to who was the winner of the Jimmy Butler trade.
Philadelphia got an All-Star still in his prime who could potentially vault the franchise to the top of the east, but it could backfire if Butler takes his business elsewhere this summer.
Minnesota got solid young veterans in Dario Saric and Robert Covington who could complement Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins very well for the future, but they may never come close to leaving the same impact as Butler.
As odd as it sounds, the biggest winner from the Jimmy Butler trade could very well be Derrick Rose.
With Butler gone, and, with neither Saric and Covington being known for their scoring abilities, someone else has to take the scoring load. Towns and Wiggins will shoulder most of that responsibility, and Jeff Teague is a respectable scorer. However, with 17 games in the books this season, it goes without saying that Rose has indisputably been one of Minnesota’s most efficient scorers.
Just look at his stats. In fourteen games, Rose has averaged 19 points on 46 percent shooting in 30 minutes. He put up similar statistics in New York, but there are two really telling statistics that demonstrate that Rose is different this year.
The first is his effective field goal percentage. Coming into the season, the highest eFG% Rose has ever put up is 49.5 percent, which he put up his sophomore season. In the seasons following all the injuries he endured – which starts with 2014-15 – Rose never put up an eFG% higher than 45 percent. This season, it’s gone up to almost 52 percent, stemming from his second most telling statistic.
That would be his dramatically improved three-point shooting. Rose, who has never been a revered three-point shooter, is shooting a scorching 47 percent from distance, by far his best as a pro. Could that number stem from a limited sample size? Not at all. Rose is averaging 3.6 three-point attempts per game, which is the most he’s shot on average since 2015.
Now that the Jimmy Butler soap opera has ended, Rose has the opportunity to capitalize and prove that his impressive numbers are no fluke. However, this is about more than just this new version of Derrick Rose filling in for the departed Butler.
Because Rose hasn’t just been one of Minnesota’s best scorers. According to net rating, the former MVP has been one of their best players.
Going by basic advanced metrics, Rose has a very solid individual offensive rating – 113 – but his defensive rating – 118 – is pretty dreadful. That, however, may be attributed to the Timberwolves ranking no. 14 in offensive rating – 109.6 – while also ranking no. 27 in defensive rating – 113.5.
Besides, other metrics show that the Timberwolves actually play much better when Rose is on the floor.
When Rose is on the floor, he has a net rating of +18.2, which is by far the highest on the Timberwolves. This stems primarily from the offensive side of the ball, where Minnesota is +16.7 with Rose. Even the defense is better with Rose on the floor too, as the Timberwolves allow 1.5 points less per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.
Much like his eFG%, Rose’s net rating has not been much to brag about since getting past his rampant injuries. In the last four seasons, Rose’s net rating has ranged from barely positive to very negative. Starting with 2014-15, this has been Rose’s net rating with the teams he has been on.
2014-2015 with Chicago: +1.6
2015-2016 with Chicago: -5.0
2016-2017 with New York: -0.7
2017-2018 with Cleveland: -7.9
2018 with Minnesota: -5.1
Seeing that his net rating has skyrocketed compared to what it has been in previous years, it shows that Rose is not only playing better, but he’s also making his team better.
Other metrics prove this too. Going by net-rating, Minnesota’s four positive five-man lineups that have played a minimum of 20 minutes together this season all have Rose in them.
Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Josh Okogie: +24.2
Anthony Tolliver, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones: +14.4
Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns: +7.5
Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns: +2.6
It will be interesting to see how those lineups will look now that Butler is gone since he is in three of those four lineups as well, but look specifically at the one that doesn’t have Butler. That lineup basically has Minnesota’s starters with Rose in for Butler. What’s the net rating with those five when you substitute Butler for Rose? -13.3.
It goes even further with the T-Wolves’ two-man lineups. Every core player on that squad – with the exception of Covington and Jones who are neutral with Rose – has a positive net rating playing next to Rose.
Rose and Towns: +6.2
Rose and Wiggins: +7.9
Rose and Gibson: +3.2
Rose and Teague: +1.2
Rose and Dieng: +5.0
Rose and Saric: +4.3
Rose and Tolliver: +3.3
Rose and Okogie: +6.3
That may beg the question as to why head coach Tom Thibodeau starts Teague over Rose, but that’s not the point of all of this. The point is, Derrick Rose has found his stride again.
He’s not the ultra-athletic freight train of a ballplayer we saw from 2008-2012, but instead a player who, in the wake of his depleted athleticism, has refined his game to re-establish himself as a valuable player in the NBA. Saying all of that makes it even more unfathomable that the man is somehow only 30 years old.
The last time we saw a comeback like this was with Grant Hill, a Hall-of-Famer whose persistent injuries also cut his prime short much like Rose. Hill may have never regained his MVP candidate-form when he got past his foot issues, but he re-molded his game so that he could still be a valuable player on a good team. Even if it’s only been 17 games in, Rose appears to now be following in Hill’s footsteps.
Circa 2011, Derrick Rose was the new face of the NBA. Winning the MVP at 22 years old, signified that he was the future of professional basketball. In the eight years that have passed since then, tragedy struck again and again which ultimately led to him becoming a forgotten man.
Hoping that he’d return to that same player from eight years ago would be foolish now because those days are gone. Hoping that he’d be an All-Star with a league loaded with talented point guards isn’t wise either.
The hope for Derrick Rose at this point in time is that he’d find relevance again. If he keeps this up, then mission accomplished.
NBA Daily: Trade Watch: Atlantic Division
The season is still young but there are already trade possibilities brewing. Ben Nadeau takes a look at the Atlantic Division.
With each team in this division spiraling off in their own unique direction, the upcoming trade season should offer plenty of intrigue and mystery. For a contender like the league-leading Toronto Raptors, there likely won’t be much movement, certainly not in the case of moving somebody heavily entrenched in their presently-dominating rotation. But for the other four — two of them legitimate contenders as well — some interesting narratives have presented themselves already after a single month.
So whether these five franchises are looking to tank out, move an expiring contract or prepare for a deep postseason run, these are the players in the Atlantic Division worth keeping an eye on as the season unfolds.
Boston Celtics — Terry Rozier
Of course, Terry Rozier would end up here.
When Bill Simmons’ report about Rozier’s potential frustration went out to the masses about a week ago, it whipped up NBA Twitter into an immediate frenzy. For what it’s worth, general manager Danny Ainge quickly shot down those rumors on the radio, citing that Rozier would’ve come to him or head coach Brad Stevens with any playing time-related matters. Still, the overarching issue here remains that Rozier will be a restricted free agent this summer and there’s no clear road to the major minutes a young player like him deserves.
The Celtics committed a healthy sum to Marcus Smart last offseason following a semi-long standoff, while Kyrie Irving all but stated his intentions to stick around for the foreseeable future. Toss in Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum as the other frequent ball-handling cornerstones, and there may just be too many mouths to feed. The Celtics have Finals-or-bust expectations, however, so they’re not going to move Rozier without getting substantial pieces in return. Throughout this brilliantly navigated, rapid-moving rebuild, Ainge has always had things fall into place perfectly — right place, right time — but this Rozier situation is far from being resolved.
Brooklyn Nets — Kenneth Faried
When Kenneth Faried and his expiring contract ended up with the Nets this July, it looked like a win-win situation for everybody involved. Brooklyn — a team that frequently offered up offensive rebounds for the opposition at the worst possible times last season — had acquired a low-risk, high-energy athlete who was once renowned for his work on the boards. And yet, Faried has been out of head coach Kenny Atkinson’s rotation from the very get-go, sharply behind Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, Jarrett Allen and second-round rookie Rodions Kurucs.
The final year of Faried’s 2014 extension is worth around $13.7 million, so any interested team would have to send back another big contract to grab the infrequently-used forward. The Nets are very much looking toward their gobs and gobs of free cap space this summer, so they’d have to be persuaded to make such a move. On the other hand, general manager Sean Marks has never shied away from a deal and even managed to move Tyler Zeller for a second-round pick last year — so Faried’s situation is an unusual one. As the 10th-worst rebounding team in the NBA currently, it’s surprising that Faried, who sports a career average of 8.2 boards per game, can’t find meaningful minutes. If Faried stays in Brooklyn and simply expires, that’s a win for the Nets, but if Marks can spin him into a future asset without taking back any big commitments — that’s also something to keep an eye on.
Brooklyn Nets — DeMarre Carroll
Given that the Nets’ once bright-seeming season is on the fritz following the brutal injury to Caris LeVert, a name to keep an eye on here is DeMarre Carroll — Brooklyn’s junkyard, do-it-all veteran. Carroll was incredible last season, rejuvenating his career — and shedding the tag of a salary dump once and for all — to the tune of 13.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and two assists per game on 41.4 percent shooting from the floor. At 6-foot-8, Carroll can guard multiple positions and contribute as a stretch four as well. Should the Nets decide that the waters are too choppy without their breakout star, Carroll becomes an absolute prime candidate to trade.
Similarly to Faried, the Nets will gladly let Carroll’s contract worth $15.4 million expire this summer and continue to stack that free agent piggy bank — but, inversely, Brooklyn could receive something valuable in return for the 32-year-old. Matching salaries in a cash-strapped league is always difficult, but postseason contenders will always need hard-nosed defense, gritty hustle and consistent three-point shooting. As of now, Carroll brings all three to the table for a Nets team that may not need it depending on the franchise’s chosen path.
New York Knicks — Courtney Lee
Unfortunately, Courtney Lee hasn’t featured for the Knicks yet in 2018-19 as recurring neck spasms have kept the 11-year professional out since training camp. Still, even if Lee was well enough to play, it’s tough to see where he fits in longterm with this young, rebuilding Knicks squad. If Lee can return to health, New York would certainly prefer to move his cap hit, worth about $25 million over the next two years, to a contender that needs a shooter. As the Knicks gear up to chase marquee free agents this upcoming summer — ahem, Kevin Durant — they’d really benefit from clearing out Lee by the trade deadline.
Lee, 33, averaged 12 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 40.6 percent from three-point range last season for New York and the shooting guard has been a model of reliability over his solid career. At this point, Lee would be competing with Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay and undrafted sensation Allonzo Trier for minutes, but the Knicks are committed to developing their growing bunch of future pieces and they don’t seem opposed to losing as many games as possible. Given in the added bonus of joining the Durant Lottery this offseason — which became far more interesting this week — and Lee’s eventual movement seems set in stone.
Philadelphia 76ers — Furkan Korkmaz
And then there’s Furkan Korkmaz, who may or may not desire to still be traded following the Sixers’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler. Through the first few weeks of the campaign, Korkmaz was averaging well-south of seven minutes per game, even racking up seven DNPs for good measure. Now into his second stateside season — and with Philadelphia declining his team option at the end of October — Korkmaz has been searching for answers. Korkmaz’s contract situation is not dissimilar to that of his former teammate, Jahlil Okafor, who had his team option declined and then got traded to Brooklyn during the 2017-18 season. Thanks to Philadelphia’s decision, any team that adds Korkmaz this year can only offer a new contract at his declined rate of about $2 million, thus putting any potential suitors in a tough place to keep him.
But the departure of Dario Saric and Robert Covington has invariably opened up some playing time for the Turkish sharpshooter. Since the deal on Nov. 10, Korkmaz has played 15 or more minutes in three of his four contests, even posting 16 points and four rebounds in a mid-week 10-point win over Miami. There’s been no public recanting of his trade request, but if the minutes stay steady, that whole thing could be water under the bridge soon enough. The 76ers’ bench is a weak spot in particular, so both Kyle Korver and the aforementioned Lee make plenty of sense as potential options. But while Philadelphia will surely look to add some pieces, their outgoing trade bait is running thin at the moment.
If Korkmaz’s moment in the sun is ultimately fleeting — it shouldn’t be — and the Sixers feel the need to upgrade, then the second-year player may finally get his wish.
With a little less than three months until the trade deadline, the trade market will only get spicier from here on out. Between the rotation crunch, salary dumps and expiring contracts, the Atlantic Division has a slew of players that could be on the move before all is said and done. While everybody is chasing the Raptors as of now, the Celtics and 76ers are in prime position to improve their respective rosters as well. The New York-based teams will have their gaze set firmly on those humid summer months once more, but can they bolster their future plans between now and February?
Only time can tell, but this is shaping up to be another excellent race to the trade deadline for every team in the Atlantic Division.
NBA Daily: Lamb’s Opportunity In Charlotte Is Here
Spencer Davies chats with Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lamb and first-year head coach James Borrego about the 26-year-old’s starting role.
A short few games into the Charlotte Hornets’ season, James Borrego pulled Jeremy Lamb aside to talk.
Why haven’t you been a starter in this league?
Together, the first-year head coach and former UConn standout discussed the topic at length, identifying specific areas and reasons as to why that was.
I believe you can be if you want to be.
The question Borrego posed was a fair one. Lamb is in his seventh year in the league. As the 12th overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft, there were high hopes for the Huskies sophomore to transition seamlessly into the professional ranks.
It wasn’t quite as cut and dry as some may have thought it would be.
The Houston Rockets picked him in that draft, but it wasn’t long before they sent Lamb to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the infamous James Harden trade, mere days before the season began.
During his three-year stint with the Thunder, Lamb showed plenty of flashes of what he could become at this level. However, with the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in front of him, among others, his chances to do so were sporadic.
“Everybody’s road is different,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “Me, when I first got in the league, I was playing behind All-Stars. I wasn’t in a position to play at that time. I wasn’t big enough to play.”
Knowing the situation he was in, Lamb made it a priority to soak up all the advice and information he could. Oklahoma City’s roster was loaded with “the greatest players in the game” when it came to veteran leadership.
Guys like Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison—along with Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha—guided Lamb every day he was there. The Thunder coaching staff kept him motivated to stay ready.
In the summer of 2015, Oklahoma City traded Lamb to the Hornets. He quickly signed a contract extension after the deal was made and has been with the franchise since.
When the move happened, Lamb knew his time was coming. All of those lessons he learned from the vets were going to pay off, and he took them with him in the next step of his career.
“All the stuff they told me, I lived by that and it stuck with me,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “Just trying to get better every year, just trying to never be satisfied, trying to work on my weaknesses, trying to keep working on the things I was good at. I don’t know, just trying to stay focused and be the best player that I can be.”
One month into year seven as a pro, Lamb has secured a role with the starting five in Charlotte. And while he has started games in the past, things are different this time.
He’s looked more confident when he’s been out on the court. He’s getting into the paint at a high rate. He’s shooting a career-high three-point percentage.
And the most encouraging part of his game that’s improved? The defensive focus.
“Being a starting two-guard in the league is not easy,” Borrego said. “You gotta guard every single night, can’t take a night off. So I give him a lot of credit. He’s grown up a lot this season. I’m proud of him and I think he’s growing every single game.”
When asked why it’s taken Lamb longer than others to adapt to the NBA, the answer wasn’t an easy one to give for Borrego. It could be as simple as opportunity or a different type of learning curve, but there is no singular reason.
“It takes time,” Borrego said. “It just takes time to grow and mature and learn the game and figure out who you are and where you fit in this league. Sometimes it takes one year, two years and obviously here he is, seven years in, and he has his opportunity now.
Asking Lamb the same thing directly, he believes it comes down to applying the knowledge he’s gained and taking it year by year. While acknowledging that some in his draft class may have grown up at a fast rate, the 26-year-old also pointed out the chunk of players who are no longer a part of the association.
“Am I just getting comfortable in the league? I’m not just getting comfortable, but with every year you get more comfortable, more experience,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. More years, you know how the league is, you know how things go. So I’m not just now getting comfortable, but I get more and more comfortable every year for sure. It’s a blessing to be able to be in my seventh year.
“Nobody, including myself, thought that I would be in the league this long. And it’s just been a huge blessing and I’m trying to take advantage of it.”
Looking at Lamb’s success, it’s gone hand-in-hand with the new system Borrego has implemented. The Hornets are playing smart and defending well, and the players are buying in.
“Just trying to be aggressive, just trying to keep working,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders of his success. “Take what the defense gives me. I play off of Kemba [Walker]. They converge on him, I just try to knock down the shot.
“I think he really put [an] emphasis on threes and getting to the rim, and I feel like getting to the rim, good things happen. That’s one thing about his system. He really caters it to getting to the rim. So that’s why we’re getting more threes, we’re getting to the free throw line, we’re getting a lot of points in the paint, getting out in transition. It’s good.”
As per usual, Walker is on a tear, averaging over 26 points and getting up a team-high 10 threes per game for the first time in his career. He’s leading the Hornets on the floor and in the box scores. It’s almost as if the locker room should be endorsing the KeM-VP campaign.
“I think he is,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “He been playing at that level right now and the sky’s the limit for him. That’s funny you say KeM-VP. That’s hilarious. But all his hard work is paying off. He’s been playing great and it’s been fun to watch.”
As one of the brighter young minds in the NBA, Borrego, a longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant and one-time Orlando Magic interim head coach, has brought a palpable liveliness and enthusiasm to the Hornets this year.
“It’s definitely been different,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a new energy. Everything is different. I think we’ve adjusted well to the new system and [are] playing well.”
Borrego doesn’t necessarily think that there was a chemistry issue before he arrived. He and his staff only had one goal, and that was to make sure the guys on the roster played a selfless brand of basketball.
“When you have a healthy culture, when you have guys that believe in each other, like being around each other, they trust each other, they’re unselfish—I’ve seen what that does for a team,” Borrego said. “And it’s not always easy to change that.”
Attending Charlotte’s shoot-arounds in the past, at least from this writer’s perspective, you’d rarely hear the team as engaged as it was Tuesday morning in Cleveland.
Before media availability, curtains are closed and practices are private for the road team. But these guys were counting in unison as they battled each other in a team vs. team three-point contest.
It was the first to five or ten in each matchup. In the process, you could hear how much of a blast it was for everybody involved.
“These players are like, they’re kids,” Borrego said. “They get into it. They love it. They’re competitive. And that’s kind of the way to get them going in the morning. They don’t want to hear me talk about Cleveland or shoot-around or this or that.
“This group is really having fun this year. They’re excited. They like playing with each other. They like playing for one another. They like competing against each other in these games. So we believe we have a healthy locker room right now and a healthy group out there.”
A mixture of age groups on the roster could be a big reason why. Lamb thinks that the older guys who have been there and done that can help the youth develop. By the same token, those younger players provide the energy to practices and in the games, which can give the veterans a boost.
Lamb was approached with the term, “loose” to describe the mood of the team. He disagrees with that, but he senses the togetherness.
“We try to have fun,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t know it’d be that much smiling at shoot-around because people be wanting to be in their bed. But no, we definitely try to make the most out of it. Every time we get, we try to get better.”
During Borrego’s time in San Antonio, he got to coach a man in a similar predicament. His name was Patty Mills, and, as we know, he’s turned into one of the most reliable players in this league for Gregg Popovich.
“He earned it,” Borrego said. “He grew over time and figured out his role in this league and he’s established himself.”
Now at the head of the ship in Charlotte, Borrego sees a similar path for Lamb.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Borrego said. “This is a guy that believes he belongs. He believes he can be a starter now, and I expect him to only grow from here.
“Once you get a taste of being a starter, you want to stay a starter, you want to keep that mentality—stay hungry, stay focused. So he has that ability to do that.”