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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



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: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future

Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.

James Blancarte



On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.

Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.

Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with athe season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.

Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.

“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”

Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.

“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”

Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.

“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.

While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.

“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.

Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.

There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.

“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”

Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.

“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”

Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.

“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.

Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.

“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.

When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.

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Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers

Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.

Spencer Davies



The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.

The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.

With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.

Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:

“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.

“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.

“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”

There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.

Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.

Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.

Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.

Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.

LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.

“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”

The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.

The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.

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NBA Daily: Calderón’s Late NBA Start

Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.

Joel Brigham



There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.

“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”

Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.

“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”

That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.

“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”

As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.

“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”

Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.

“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”

He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.

“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”

The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.

“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”

That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.

“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”

Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.

“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”

He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.

Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.

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