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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: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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