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NBA Daily: Fixing The Houston Rockets

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking a look at the newly-minted Houston Rockets, a team that now has given itself plenty of options.

Matt John

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In the most well-timed edition of Fixing ever, we’re taking a look at the very recently-revamped Houston Rockets. We all knew that one trade was coming one way or the other and now the time has arrived. For how well-designed this beautiful era of basketball was for the Rockets, it surely didn’t deserve the anti-climactic ending it got. Yet here we are. For the first time since Yao Ming’s retirement, Houston is starting from scratch.

Is all hope lost in H-Town? Well, losing Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey and Harden is basically like the Justice League losing Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in one swift motion. It would be a major setback for anyone. In situations like this, it’s not about what you lost. It’s about how you respond to what you lost. To their credit, Houston had time to prepare for the disintegration of the Harden-D’Antoni-Morey era, and they haven’t taken their departures lying down.

They’ve wiped the slate mostly clean and, even if there’s definitely room for improvement, the new-look Rockets are a little more exciting than what meets the eye.

What’s Working?

It is a shame that Harden never gave this group a chance. Houston had a better offseason than they were given credit for because the high-profile personnel that they lost (or were about to lose) overshadowed what they brought in. Compared to past teams that faced similar circumstances, Houston could have done a lot worse. Let’s start with the best-kept secret that gets more and more exposed by the hour: Christian Wood.

NBA nerds hyped up Wood throughout the offseason for how great he looked during the brief time he was the full-time center in Detroit – averaging nearly 23/10 on 56/40/76 splits. When you take the sample size (13 games) and how Detroit fared in that stretch (they lost all but one game) into account, it’s understandable why it was hard to buy stock in Wood’s potential during the mini off-season.

That’s why Houston got him at the value they did and he’s already one of the league’s better bargains. Those numbers he put up as a Piston have carried on with the Rockets; while his 53/34/66 splits with almost two blocks per game have put him on the map. Wood’s ascension hasn’t led to much team success yet, but he’s the last player to blame for that.

Then there’s Houston’s more well-repped new addition, John Wall. Wall’s probably never going to live up to the $40+ million deal that Houston is paying him, but they didn’t acquire him for that reason. They acquired him in the hopes of him giving them more bang for their buck than Russell Westbrook did. The results have been a mixed bag, but that’s to be expected after what he’s been through. It’s been encouraging to see that on a good day, he still has most of his form.

There are plenty of games left for him to find consistency. We also have to keep in mind that Wall’s just getting his feet wet following two awful injuries. Even if he’s not the same Wall from his prime, this has worked out a lot better for Houston than Westbrook has in Washington. Having the better player as well as an additional first-round pick should be counted as an absolute win for the Rockets.

There are other stand-out players: It looks like the Rockets found another keeper in rookie Jae’Sean Tate who, along with David Nwaba, have infused the Rockets with badly needed energy.

Things were obviously better last year when Harden and co. were content, but the Rockets are far from a disaster.

What’s Not Working?

Well, James Harden. Plain and simple. When a superstar wants out, it wears the team down internally. That elephant is too big for the room to ignore, clear that both sides were done with each other by the end. Houston deserves props for willing to get “uncomfortable” just as they promised, but a superstar wanting out brings down the team’s morale no matter what.

It’s why Houston started 3-6 with the league’s ninth-lowest net rating at minus-1.8. There were other factors at play here with all the shuffling parts, but there’s no need for fluff. Harden’s trade demand loomed too large for it not to affect the Rockets. It’s hard for everyone when the best player on the team isn’t buying in. His teammates were complaining about him publicly.

The upshot is that it’s over now. Losing James Harden the player certainly isn’t addition by subtraction – in Houston’s case, that’s Westbrook – but losing James Harden the distraction could certainly be for this season.

What’s Next?

Now that the dust has settled, the Rockets can finally take a deep breath and sort out both their present and their future. Presently, there’s going to be even more shuffling now than there was before. At the very least, the roster is going to have players who should be on the same page.

Houston may still have some loose ends from its previous era. From the looks of things, PJ Tucker could be the next one to go. Houston’s prospects are on the come up, but a player with Tucker’s abilities should be on a contender. That’s something that the Rockets, as of now, are not. The same goes for Eric Gordon, but it’s tough to see any of the elite teams willing to put up enough salaries to trade for his contract.

Then there’s the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo.

Oladipo has been a good soldier in spite of the trade rumors that have buzzed around him over the last several months. Indiana trading him to Houston signified that he wasn’t re-signing with them. Houston provides a unique opportunity for Oladipo to further re-establish his value as a star. It’s hard to foresee if he’s in their long-term plans or if he’s another asset to move in their rebuild.

With all that said, new head coach Stephen Silas seems to have won over the players. After beating the San Antonio Spurs last night without Harden or Wall, the Rockets, despite not being in the tier of elite teams anymore, should be excited for what the season holds.

As for what the future will bring, their outlook is a lot brighter than it was back in September. Even if they’ll face the repercussions of giving up most of their own first-round picks for Westbrook and Robert Covington last year, they just hauled in a massive load of first-round picks and four pick swaps combined for Westbrook, Covington and Harden since then.

The development of players should put Houston in a good light, which could pay huge dividends for their chances in free agency. We’ve seen teams establish a great team culture while building up a promising future – ahem, the very same Brooklyn Nets that just cashed in for Harden proved that.

The Rockets might be next in line.

The days of Houston being a contender are gone for now. But, thankfully, the days of the Rockets becoming one of the NBA’s premier League Pass favorites may have only begun.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Where Does Blake Griffin Fit?

With the news that Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons will part ways, Tristan Tucker breaks down which teams do and don’t make sense for Griffin’s services.

Tristan Tucker

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Blake Griffin is unlikely to ever suit up for the Detroit Pistons again, with the two sides agreeing to part ways by means of a trade or buyout, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. As laid out excellently by Duncan Smith of Hoops Habit, Griffin is probably unlikely to be traded by the Pistons. Detroit shouldn’t want to part with any asset just to unload Griffin’s gargantuan contract, which leaves a buyout as the only other option.

With that being said, Griffin is one of the more prolific names that could reach the buyout market in recent years, even in spite of the decline of his health and play. The 6-foot-9 forward would be an attractive buyout asset due to his work ethic, veteran status, a crafty passing game and occasionally-streaky jump shot. Let’s take a closer look at which teams do and don’t make sense for the six-time All-Star.

Miami HEAT

Miami is at an interesting crossroads after a Finals run during the 2020 bubble as the team currently sits at just 13-17. Because of the slow start, whatever the case may be, it’s heavily rumored that the team will scour the market for something to mix the team up in a similar way that brought Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala in last season.

Several teams will be major factors in the buyout market, but Miami has more than what some teams can offer, having a disabled player exception valued at $4.7 million after the injury to Meyers Leonard, as well as the bi-annual exception valued at about $3.6 million, though it might better to preserve that exception for next year (if any team uses its bi-annual exception, it loses it for the following season).

The HEAT will call around the league for a blockbuster trade, but if nothing comes to fruition, stretch forwards like Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Nemanja Bjelica make sense. Miami desperately needs more big man talent to surround Bam Adebayo as Precious Achiuwa isn’t developed enough to play next to the cornerstone and Kelly Olynyk is in the midst of a regression. Griffin’s offensive upside likely makes him appealing to the defending Eastern Conference champions.

Likelihood: Frontrunner

Boston Celtics

Boston is middling too, experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks within the team early, all while Kemba Walker continues his struggles to return from injury and losing other pieces along the way. Griffin’s former teammate Andre Drummond is often discussed when it comes to the Celtics and buyout options, but the current Piston himself is another great fit.

The Celtics aren’t trading for Griffin with their historically large $28.5 million traded player exception; plus the forward is under contract for $36.6 million in 2020-21, making such a move impossible. Boston can offer the bi-annual exception to Griffin, and add some stability to a team that should be contending this season.

Likelihood: Frontrunner

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are going to be one of the most aggressive buyout market players, much like any other year, but especially given that Anthony Davis is hurt, big man depth is an issue for the Lakers and that the team has an open roster spot to use.

While Griffin is only averaging 12.3 points on 36.5 percent shooting, one doesn’t have to look far to see a former All-Star. Just two seasons ago, Griffin averaged 24.5 points and shot 36.2 percent from deep to go along with 5.4 assists per game. If the forward can get anywhere close to any one of those aspects of his game, it makes the Lakers even scarier.

Likelihood: Frontrunner

Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers are an interesting option for Griffin, seasonally ravaged once again with injuries to big men Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Griffin’s fit is easy to see, and he would join a scorching-hot Damian Lillard who is currently carrying Portland to a playoff spot.

Portland used its entire mid-level exception on Derrick Jones Jr., so it only has its bi-annual exception to use, an offer that gets easily beaten by other teams. The only way this happens is if Griffin actively seeks Portland, which is probable, especially if he saw how the franchise rebuilt Carmelo Anthony’s value.

Likelihood: Relatively likely

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors are somewhat of a sleeper team for Griffin, the team is in the hunt for a playoff position but injuries to its big man rotation are hampering expectations. Rookie James Wiseman is out, Kevon Looney is missing time, Marquese Chriss is out for the season and Draymond Green is occasionally in and out of the lineup.

Griffin’s passing technique and former sharpshooting form make him a potentially attractive addition to the group. The Warriors will likely eye the former superstar, but it remains to be seen if Griffin would have any interest in signing with a team that’s projected to finish as a lower playoff seed in the Western Conference.

It’s important to note that the Warriors have about $3.5 million remaining in their MLE, meaning that the team could preserve its equally-valued bi-annual exception for next year.

Likelihood: Relatively likely

Others:

Here’s a quick speed round. The Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers could all add Griffin but each with caveats. The Jazz has a solid foundation and the NBA’s best record — adding a big personality like Griffin, especially without a defined role, could jeopardize that. Milwaukee is interesting, but Bobby Portis is playing extremely well in his role, so the team should look for backup wing or guard depth first.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s rotation is pretty full, it would need to decide that it wants to go a different direction with some of its players. If it does, Griffin makes sense.

The 76ers are interesting given its contending status and the fact that it has nearly its full MLE, valued at around $4.8 million. The San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and Indiana Pacers could theoretically be options, with their full $9.3 non-taxpayer MLE’s available.

The Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns make some level of sense, but it is unclear whether Griffin has any interest in reuniting with the front office that traded him or his former co-star in Chris Paul.

On the other hand, sleepers include the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets. Dallas and Brooklyn are exciting options and more likely than one might think, while the Hornets are in the midst of a playoff push and Griffin is notably a Jordan-brand athlete. Meanwhile, the Nets have a $5.7 million disabled player exception from Spencer Dinwiddie and the full non-taxpayer MLE to offer Griffin, making them enticing.

As is made clear, Griffin would be a hot commodity on the buyout market, with several teams that could benefit from the added services of an aging former All-Star. Be sure to tune into Basketball Insiders as we approach the NBA trade deadline on Mar. 25.

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LaMelo Ball vs. Tyrese Haliburton: Two Different But Equally Impactful Rookies

LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton have turned heads during their rookie campaigns. Quinn Davis takes a look at their very different yet equally impactful play thus far.

Quinn Davis

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With apologies to Immanuel Quickley, Anthony Edwards, Saddiq Bey and a few others, the league’s best rookie is a two-man race. Tyrese Haliburton and LaMelo Ball have staked their claim at the top of the rookie ladder and both show no signs of relinquishing.

The two young guards are helping to elevate a mediocre draft class, both showing a precocious ability for their respective teams. While they play similar positions, their games are nearly polar opposites.

Ball thrives in chaos, sometimes even creating that chaos himself to gain advantages for his team. His size and vision make him a weapon in transition and he has a knack for turning a loose ball scramble into a positive play.

He will often make decisions on the fly rather than planning things out, relying on his incredible instincts. Below, he slips a screen, draws two defenders as he goes to the rim and makes the last-second call to drop it off to PJ Washington just before he travels.

Haliburton creates structure, filling in gaps and connecting dots for a team that has desperately needed that kind of consistent presence. Watching Haliburton play, you’ll see a surprising amount of orchestration for a rookie. Where Ball sniffs out opportunities seemingly out of nowhere, Haliburton sees multiple steps ahead. Take this play against the Miami HEAT, where Haliburton comes up with a steal, directs the fast break and gets an open three for Kyle Guy.

Notice Haliburton immediately points to the player he wants Hassan Whiteside to pass it to. Whiteside obliges, Haliburton gets it back on the wing as planned and waits for his teammate to cut to the rim, drawing defenders and freeing Guy for the three, which he missed.

Haliburton’s fastidiousness has made him averse to turnovers as he is averaging only 2.6 per 100 possessions. Conversely, Ball’s moxie leads to few more giveaways, with the Charlotte Hornets rookie posting 4.6 turnovers per 100.

Both have shot better than expected from deep. Haliburton has shot 46 percent from three while Ball, considered a non-shooter coming into the league, has shot 37.

The tracking data helps tell the story of the differences in their shooting. Haliburton, who has a slow and slightly funky release, mostly attempts wide-open threes and has made nearly 50 percent of them. Ball’s quicker release has allowed him to shoot 41 percent on triples where defenders are within 4-to-6 feet.

When attacking the rim, Haliburton relies almost exclusively on a floater. While he hits it at a decent clip – 51 percent from the short mid-range area per Cleaning the Glass – it’d be nice to see him get to the rim and try to draw contact. Only 15 percent of his total shots come at the rim, and he draws a shooting foul on a measly three percent of his attempts.

Due to his lack of downhill explosion, Haliburton can often be too eager to pass when the right play is to go up for the layup. Here, Ivica Zubac is clearly playing the pass while Marcus Morris stays home on the shooter in the corner. With a more aggressive mindset, Haliburton could have had a decent look at the rim, but instead, it’s a turnover.

Ball attacks more frequently but isn’t yet a great finisher. He often attempts wild layups, looking to avoid defenders rather than go through them. In the next clip, he tries to switch to his left hand to go around the shot blocker, rather than go into the body, and the attempt is promptly swatted.

Still, he draws fouls on 7.8 percent of his attempts and has improved steadily at finishing throughout the season. It is common for rookies to take time adjusting to NBA athleticism around the rim, so the fact that Ball is at least willing to attack is a good sign.

Defensively, a similar pattern emerges. Ball is an occasional gambler whose risks can lead to big rewards but also causes his fair share of breakdowns. Haliburton, meanwhile, is wise beyond his years as an off-ball defender – his advanced understanding of positioning pairs well with those great instincts.

Ball leads all rookies in steals per game at 1.6 and is 12th overall in the league – already adept at lingering around in the backcourt and swiping the rock from unsuspecting rebounders.

But Ball’s biggest weakness as a defender right now is his closeouts. He tends to hang around the paint a bit too long when guarding the weak side, forcing him to close out hard, thus leaving him very susceptible to pump fakes and fouls. Often, his ball-watching leaves him caught on a screen, then recovering too hard to a non-shooter in Tyrese Maxey, allowing for the drive.

Even with his flaws, Ball’s energy and feel make him a decent defender for a rookie. Of course, he should only improve as he becomes accustomed to the speed of the game.

Haliburton’s defense, like his offense, is more carefully approached. Haliburton can be caught on screens and fooled by good fakes as many rookies can, but it is rare. Watch as the Kings double Ben Simmons in the post, leaving Haliburton to guard two shooters. He plays a brief game of cat and mouse with Simmons, forcing the pass to the wing. The talented youngster then feigns the closeout to Danny Green before pouncing on the swing pass to the corner – all in all, this is a veteran play.

Overall, Haliburton and Ball are yin and yang. The introvert and the extrovert. Each could probably use a dash of the other’s game to take themselves to the next level.

While their styles are opposite, their impacts and intangibles are similar. Both players rely on their brains first and foremost. More importantly, both have gained the trust of their coaches.

Haliburton earned it almost immediately and has been a mainstay in the Kings’ crunch-time lineup. That five-man group, featuring the rookie along with DeAaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes, has been incendiary, outscoring opponents by just over 20 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

Ball took a little more time to get there but has since shown flashes of brilliance. Just watch the second half of the Hornets’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season to see how Ball can take over a game on both ends when everything is clicking.

Ball will likely win Rookie of the Year, his counting stats and occasional standout showings give him the edge in that race. Haliburton’s efficiency and mistake-free play might give him the edge as the better player right now, though.

Ball’s ceiling is demonstrably higher as he does things on a basketball court that not many in the league even attempt, let alone other rookies. Haliburton will be a consistent contributor and likely have a long career, but it is hard to see a path to superstardom.

There will be many years ahead to dissect their games as they improve and begin competing at a higher level. For now, we can appreciate two bright spots in a previously dismissed draft class.

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Has the NBA Passed Andre Drummond By?

Andre Drummond is being held out by the Clevland Cavaliers while they look for a trade, but does anyone want Drummond? And can he help a good team compete for an NBA Championship?

Zach Dupont

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The NBA has seen a revival of the center position over the past few seasons. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have become front-runners for MVP, Rudy Gobert is anchoring the defense of the Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz and Anthony Davis co-led the Los Angeles Lakers to last year’s NBA title.

Not among those centers is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Andre Drummond, who is currently being held out of games while the Cavs look for a trade to move him out of town.

On a surface level, Drummond’s numbers are quite impressive. This year, Drummond is averaging 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, his rebounds per game mark is even good enough for second in the NBA, trailing just Clint Capela’s 13.9 rebounds per game. It’s not as if these numbers are an outlier for Drummond either; Drummond has averaged at least 15 points and 13 rebounds per game since his 2017-18 season. Drummond has been dominant on the boards his entire career averaging at least 13 rebounds per game every year of his career after his rookie season. Drummond also manages to secure a lot of blocks and steals, averaging more than 1.1 of each per game every season since 2015-16.  

But on deeper inspection, Drummond’s gaudy numbers begin to falter. Despite Drummond putting up more than 17 points per game, he isn’t doing it efficiently enough to justify taking as many shots per game as he currently does. Drummond’s field goal percentage of 47.4 percent isn’t an alarming number, but Drummond has taken 288 of his 380 field goal attempts from within five feet of the rim. Drummond has only taken 21 field goal attempts from more than 10 feet away from the rim all season, per NBA.com.

With this information, it’s no surprise that Drummond has a less than stellar true shooting of 50 percent, well below league average. To make matters worse, Drummond is a player who needs the ball in his hand to put up big scoring numbers. Drummond currently has a usage rate of 30 percent, the 16th highest number in the NBA, higher than players like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic. Drummond is also one of just two centers in the top 20 in usage percentage in the NBA, the only other center in the top 20 is Joel Embiid. Drummond also provides very little as a playmaker, holding an assist to turnover ratio of .79, averaging 2.6 assists and 3.1 turnovers per game. 

Drummond has been in the NBA for nine seasons now and has only made the playoffs twice, and both were first-round sweeps with the Detroit Pistons. Drummond has never played for a real contender, and a significant reason why is because of his style of play. There isn’t room for a high-usage, low-efficiency center with questionable defensive effort on teams trying to compete for an NBA title. It’s not because of Drummond’s position, it’s because his style of basketball isn’t conducive to productive scoring in the modern NBA.

But all hope is not lost for Drummond; it’s just going to take a rebuild of who he is as a player. Every good NBA team still needs productive big men, but the role these teams are looking for differs from what Drummond has been doing his entire career. These teams need big men to provide sufficient defense and rebounding, specifically in matchups against the NBA’s best bigs come playoff time. That’s what Drummond will have to do to be able to have a shot at a ring. The good news for him is that he possesses the skills to make that happen for himself.

Drummond is still among the NBA’s best in grabbing rebounds, and while that provides limited value on the defensive end, it does have a lot of value on the offensive boards. Drummond is fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage at 15 percent and fourth in offensive rebounds per game at 4.0. Drummond is also capable of providing a team with rim protection and solid defense from the center position. At 6-foot-11 and 280 lbs. Drummond has the frame that not many have to compete physically against star bigs like Jokic, Embiid and Davis. Drummond has also made the Cavaliers’ defense slightly better when on the court, holding a defensive rating of 113.2 compared to Cleveland’s team rating of 114.4, per NBA.com. Drummond also has no issue collecting blocks and steals, maintaining a steal percentage of 2.7 and a block percentage of 3.7, both respectable marks.   

There aren’t any good NBA teams looking for the player Drummond currently is, but there are plenty looking for the player Drummond is capable of being. The Brooklyn Nets have needed depth at center since trading away Jarrett Allen, and the Clippers could use depth at center behind Ivica Zubac, to name a few. Drummond doesn’t need to be traded to another non-contender and continue to put up empty scoring numbers because if he does that, Drummond’s shot at a ring will continue to fade.  

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