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NBA Daily: Rockets’ Championship Hopes Rest With Revamped Defense

Houston is known for its offensive firepower, but its revamped defense may be the catalyst for a deep playoff run, writes Jesse Blancarte.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Houston Rockets are well known for their offensive prowess. James Harden is arguably the most impactful singular offensive force in the NBA, Chris Paul is still one of the best offensive orchestrators in the league and Mike D’Antoni is the coach who ushered in the pace-and-space era in the mid-2000s. However, when the games matter most in the postseason, it will be the Rockets’ defense that will likely determine whether Houston can win it all or fall short of their championship aspirations.

In year’s past, the Rockets had a few effective defensive players that were able to help Houston maintain a near league average defensive rating. But the Rockets never had an ace that anchored the team’s defense and made up for the shortcomings of his teammates consistently. Dwight Howard was supposed to be that player for Houston, but past injuries seemed to limit his impact on both ends of the court. After falling short in previous postseason runs and with the Golden State Warriors still featuring arguably the most talented team in league history, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey looked to bridge the gap with some significant roster moves last summer.

Trading for Chris Paul was of course the team’s signature move last offseason. In the deal for Paul, the Rockets sent point guard Patrick Beverley, among other players, to the Los Angeles Clippers. Beverley is a tenacious defensive player in his own right, but Paul can be just as effective as an individual defender and is arguably the superior team-defender. However, it was primarily the additions of Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker, as well as a new emphasis on team-defense that have turned the Rockets into a top-10 defense this season (18th last season), which has them positioned as a legitimate candidate to challenge the Warriors in Western Conference race to the Finals.

Basketball Insiders recently spoke with Tucker, Mbah a Moute and center Clint Capela about the team’s revamped defense, how it can still improve, the team’s explosive offense and more.

“We’re just going to take it one game at a time for now but for sure,” Tucker said when asked if the team now has the defensive personnel to win the championship this season. “We don’t want to look ahead of ourselves but we know we have a defensive core as good as any defense in the league and we think we’ve been underachieving so far so we just want to get better and be in the top-3 of overall defense.”

In discussing Houston’s defense with Rockets players, it is evident that there is a lot of confidence in the team’s defensive abilities but there is also a lot of internal scrutiny as well.

“We are one of the last teams in transition defense so we got to make sure to tighten up on that more,” said Mbah a Moute. “Obviously, half court we’ve been able to switch…that’s been good for us because we got a lot of guys of the same size who can guard different positions so we can still improve on our transition defense and rebounding.”

With the addition of players like Tucker, Mbah a Moute and Paul, along with holdovers like Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Capela, the Rockets have the ability to switch aggressively without leaving themselves overly vulnerable to mismatches. A common theme among Rockets players is the emphasis the team has placed on switching effectively on defense and utilizing the versatility of their key defensive players.

“It’s really helpful with switching a lot,” Capela said when asked about playing center with top-notch wing defenders around him. “All the perimeter players do a good job on the bigs, getting them out of the paint. It’s been really efficient for us and I hope we are going to keep doing a good job at it and stay focused.

“We switch a lot this year and I feel comfortable being on guards sometimes so it’s been really efficient for us so far. Just want to keep doing that. Like I said we just have to keep doing it…don’t just switch to be soft, switch because it helps the defense.”

When asked about the team’s ability to switch effectively, Tucker mentioned several players but noted that Capela’s ability to protect the rim and switch onto smaller players on the perimeter is a key component of Houston’s defense.

“Clint can guard the ball well too. He can get out there…he guards guards just as well as any big or any center in the league so just that dynamic advantage,” Tucker said. “Everyone having everybody’s back and Clint’s ability to do that helps make our defense good.”

From point guard to center, the Rockets feature a group of players that can push ball-handlers out beyond the three-point line, fight over screens, switch onto bigger players, rotate quickly and execute double teams when necessary. Houston doesn’t have a Draymond Green, healthy Kawhi Leonard, Andre Roberson or Rudy Gobert level defender but they have several versatile defenders that together formulate stout defensive units.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure. Golden State’s gotta a couple people like that…maybe Boston. I’m not sure,” Tucker said when asked whether any other team features a defensive duo like he and Mbah a Moute. “But I know we got guys. Trevor Ariza can switch on a lot of guys and honestly James [Harden] switches on guys 1-5 as well so we got quite a few guys that can do it at a high level. I think that’s what makes our defense so good.

“Chris is so good with his hands and Eric is a bull so he can hold his weight down there and don’t need to help as much. But like I said we got other guys to help cover it up and we got so many different lineups and that helps.”

Mbah a Moute echoes Tucker’s thoughts on the matter.

“I think we are definitely right up there with anyone,” said Mbah a Moute. “There’s a lot of teams that can switch in the NBA so we’re fortunate to have the personnel and the philosophy to where it works to our advantage so just have to get tight with it and continue to get better.”

There are times where Houston will struggle to adjust to a mismatch or will simply go through the paces on defense for an extended period of time. This was evident in Houston’s recent matchup against the Clippers in which Montrezl Harrell went off for 22 points in 29 minutes on 9-14 shooting from the field. The Rockets often got caught with smaller players guarding Harrell in the post and frequently got outworked by Harrell on transition breakaways. However, Houston stifled just about every other Clipper players and ended up with a convincing win at Staples Center.

A big part of Houston’s offense is generated through their defense, which isn’t something they could rely on in year’s past. Houston’s offense is designed to generate as many efficient scoring opportunities as possible and with an aggressive defense now consistently creating open looks, it’s no surprise that Houston is second in offensive efficiency (behind only the Warriors). Additionally, Harden and Paul have meshed their talents more effectively than many would have predicted before the start of the season.

With so much defensive versatility and a superstar backcourt to lead the team’s offense, Houston is primed to take on the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy. To their credit, Houston’s players are staying focused on the opponents in front of them and aren’t looking ahead to a potential matchup with Golden State.

“I don’t know,” Tucker said when asked about Houston’s previous matchups with the Warriors and what to expect in future matchups. “I honestly haven’t thought about Golden State because we don’t play them again this season so we’ve been thinking about all these other teams so I can’t answer.”

Tucker is correct that, at this point, Houston is not scheduled to play Golden State again this season. But it’s fair to imagine a scenario in which these two teams will eventually see each other in this year’s playoffs. Golden State should be considered the favorite at this point, but, without saying it explicitly, Houston is collectively confident they have a real shot at pushing the Warriors in a seven-game series.

“I think we have everything we need,” said Mbah a Moute when asked whether this team lacks anything from a personnel standpoint. “We just got to get better. We have to get better at what we do — switching matchups, transition defense is big for us. Our rotation…off the switch or off the drive. We just gotta get better, I think we have everything we need.”

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch: Southwest Division

Drew Maresca identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Southwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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As of Thursday, 60 percent of the Southwest division was at or above .500. The Western Conference’s brutal competition will likely fix that as the season grinds on, but the number of surprises in the division thus far is shocking – be they pleasant or otherwise.

Basketball Insiders continues its Trade Watch series with an eye on the Southwest Division, examining players that might be on the move and teams that should be looking to wheel and deal.

  1. Houston needs Ariza (and vice versa)

The Houston Rockets need help on the defensive end of the floor; they will almost certainly look to add some wing defenders before the trade deadline in February. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on their offer of four future first round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Jimmy Butler. But fortunately for the Rockets, there’s a player that should fit right in who may be available via trade – Trevor Ariza.

Yes, he would come at a price; but the Rockets see what life is like without Ariza patrolling the perimeter, and something or someone must stop the bleeding. The Rockers are 6-7 through 13 games. They need to recapture some of the magic they tapped into last season, and Ariza is part of what’s missing. They won’t be able to execute a deal until December 15 per NBA rules, which can’t come soon enough for the defenseless Rockets.

  1. New Orleans should be buyers at the deadline

This is the season in which the Pelicans must prove to Anthony Davis they’re serious about building a winner around him. They made nice additions this offseason in Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and they have a nice combo guard in Jrue Holiday.

But still, they’re only 7-7 despite Davis’ extraordinary play. They need a second star (and then some).mFortunately for New Orleans, such a player should be available – assuming he returns fully recovered from injury this season: Kevin Love. The Cavs are not interested in remaining competitive – in fact, they’re nearly openly welcoming losses at this point (Hello, Zion).  The Pelicans can include Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and others in a deal, which should be a net positive for the Pelicans depending on Love’s health.

  1. DeAndre Jordan

Early reports out of Dallas are that DeAndre Jordan isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the Mavericks’ locker room. And that’s fine because Jordan doesn’t align with the Mavericks’ young core of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas should shop Jordan to a team that’s in need of an athletic center.

The Wizards have looked better at times with Dwight Howard on the floor than they did prior to his return. So why not upgrade? After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to break-up the Wall-Beal core.

In return, the Wizards would probably be willing to build a deal around Otto Porter – who, at 25, arguably aligns much better with the Mavericks’ young core. While Porter’s deal extends as long as two years beyond Jordan’s one-year contract, the fact that the Mavericks traded the rights to their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Doncic makes nabbing a young, well-rounded player like Porter all the more appealing.

  1. Spurs need help at point guard

The Spurs’ 2018-point guard plan broke down before the season started with Dejounte Murray’s knee injury – and the team still needs help. While they don’t seem to have the assets to return high profile point guards like Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic, there are alternate options.

The Knicks have an abundance of point guards, none of whom stands out as a huge difference-maker for them this season, but any of whom could help as a short-term solution in San Antonio. And what’s more, the Knicks probably wouldn’t require much in return – with one caveat being that they prefer to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., as well. Fortunately for the Spurs, Lee can contribute nicely in Coach Gregg Popovich’s system, assuming he gets healthy sometime soon.

The Spurs should look to flip some of the players who aren’t currently in the rotation for a capable point guard. While New York isn’t sending out capable players for free, the price tag on some of these guards shouldn’t be too high.

  1. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol are still members of the Memphis Grizzlies, and there have been no rumors of either of them being shipped elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

The Grizzlies hold first place in the Southwest Division at 8-5 with wins against the Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Pacers and Sixers. They’ve dropped some easy ones, too. Basically, they’re good, but the cold, hard reality of the situation is that advancing beyond the second-round out west will require more than what they currently have on their roster.

Meanwhile, Conley and Gasol are still assets, but aging ones who will return exponentially less every year they’re not moved. Conley is still playing well in his twelfth year, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. And Gasol is averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in his eleventh season. It would behoove the Grizzlies to put feelers out there to any team that fancies themselves buyers in the lead up to the deadline. The time is now to embrace a rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. and get everything they can out of their star point guard and center.

In all likelihood, teams will only become more desperate as the season plays out. With the Philadelphia-Minnesota deal in the books, other teams are sure to follow suit. Considering the parity, every team in the Southwest Division should seriously consider making moves — after all, the division is still entirely up for grabs.

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NBA Daily: Role Players Vital to Pacers’ Success

In a star-heavy league, Jordan Hicks takes a look at why role players are so vital to the Pacers’ wins this season.

Jordan Hicks

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In today’s NBA, you have to have star players if you want to compete. Gone are the days of having one or two All-NBA caliber players take you deep into the playoffs. Nowadays, with as much talent as there is in the league, you need three or four. And for teams located in northern California, you might even need five.

But does this apply to everyone?

The Indiana Pacers have started the season off on a quiet note. They aren’t doing anything incredibly flashy, nor do they have any overt weaknesses. But they do have eight wins compared to only six losses. Three of those wins have come against teams with above .500 records, and all of their losses have come from the Bucks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Rockets – all good teams if you don’t want to look it up.

Most would consider Victor Oladipo a star. Sure, he’s only had one All-Star nod in his young career, but he’s proven on more than one occasion that he can be elite on both ends of the floor.
But apart from him, the Pacers are nothing but a mix of role players. But the role players on the roster aren’t just “good” – they seem to know their roles and execute them to a high degree.

To the casual fan, this would seem like it should be a given. But getting grown men with egos to consistently play their part isn’t as easy as it seems, and the Pacers organization might actually have something to work with. Sure, they are still a star (or two) away from actually competing for a title, but they were one game away from knocking off the former Eastern Conference Champions in last year’s playoffs, and, with any luck, could make it even further in the playoffs this year.

After the departure of Paul George, it was easy to read the writing on the wall. Most assumed that the Pacers would be headed to the lottery for a year or two while they worked their eventual rebuild. The franchise itself has consistently been considered one of the better small market organizations. With players like Reggie Miller, Danny Granger and George – it is easy to see why. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in the last 20 years. But losing a mega-star like George usually contributes to a negative campaign the following season.

To the shock of the entire NBA, Oladipo led the Pacers to the five seed last year after posting a 48-34 record. Oladipo obviously played a huge part in this, but it was the help of the many role players, most of whom remained on the roster for this season, that likely made the biggest contribution to their positive season.

Through the beginning of the the 2018-19 campaign, the team statistic that sticks out the most for the Pacers is their opponent points per game. They are currently second in the league, allowing only 103 points a night behind only the Grizzlies. In comparison, both teams are also in the bottom two for pace. Controlling the flow of the game seems to be an important part of their game plan, and it is currently paying off as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The list of role players making a significant contribution for the Pacers is quite long. In fact, over nine players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Keep in mind that eight of the nine players have a positive plus-minus, with Tyreke Evans being the sole player to fall under zero at -0.8. Let’s take a look at a few individuals and see what they may be doing to make a significant splash.

Oladipo is leading the team in scoring at 23.8 points per night, but he also leads the team in assist percentage at 24.4 percent and steal percentage at 27.8 percent. His impact on both ends of the floor is tremendous, and he is one of the few players in the NBA that leads his team in usage percentage and still maintains All-NBA level defense on the other end.

Domantas Sabonis is currently leading the team in rebound percentage at 18.3 percent. He is also second on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game on a 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He’s doing all that coming off the bench.

Cory Joseph is currently posting the highest net rating on that team at 8.4. The Pacers also enjoy their lowest defensive rating, 98.7, when Joseph is on the court.

Myles Turner is starting to come into his own on the defensive end of the court. Currently posting 2.4 blocks a game, good for fourth in the league, his presence is being felt more and more at the rim. While his offensive game still needs to be polished, Turner has done a great job at amplifying his defensive position on the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is tied for second in scoring at 14.1 points a game. He’s doing so by shooting a blistering 51.7 percent from three on over four attempts a night. He’s second on the team in minutes and eighth in usage percentage, showing just how effective he can be off the ball. He boasts the third best plus-minus and fourth best net rating.

Plenty of other players could get nods here – guys like Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Darren Collison and Evans. This just shows the talent night-in and night-out that the Pacers deploy.

The point of this article is not to say that the Pacers have a legitimate chance to win the East. They’ll likely finish outside the top four behind the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics. But the Pacers definitely have one thing going for them – a roster full of talented role players that, in today’s NBA, can certainly be positive when deployed correctly.

We are still very early in the season. Another star could potentially emerge mid-season for the Pacers or they could make a bold move at the All-Star break. It is very unlikely that Indiana brings home a championship this year or even the next. However, they are still a team to watch throughout the season. They are a well-coached squad and play an incredibly selfless style of basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they can turn heads in the postseason. But in the meantime, they for sure prove one thing.

Role players are vitally important to a team’s success.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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