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NBA Daily: Uncovering The Next Rodions Kurucs

The Brooklyn Nets struck gold with second-rounder Rodions Kurucs last year. Which under-the-radar prospect could be the next steal of the draft?

Ben Nadeau

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Zion, Zion, Zion.

With a splash of Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett mixed in for good measure, this college basketball season has been all about Duke’s Zion Williamson. The flash card-worthy facts are astonishing — 18 years-old, 6-foot-7, 285 pounds — but his highlight reel moves, both offensively and defensively, have everybody drooling. And although collegiate and professional onlookers alike wait to hear news of a potential Williamson return — or lack thereof — most franchises won’t have a shot at adding the prodigal teenager during draft season. For others, even picking in the lottery isn’t possible and, for a rare few, selecting at all in the first round is entirely off the table — looking at you, for now, Toronto, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver and Dallas.

In those cases, they’ll look for uncut gems and low-profile lottery tickets to take a swing on in picks past No. 30 overall. Recent years have brought renewed plaudits to the second round steal, most notably in regards to Isaiah Thomas’ rise to prominence (No. 60), Malcolm Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year campaign (No. 36) and Nikola Jokić’s MVP-worthy efforts in Denver (No. 41). Still, Thomas was a standout at Washington for three seasons, Brogdon the same over four at Virginia, while Jokić — albeit passed upon by every team in the 2014 NBA Draft at least once — averaged 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and earned Adriatic League MVP before he even joined the Nuggets.

Nowadays, there’s Rodions Kurucs. Everybody wants their own Rodions Kurucs.

For those somehow still under a rock, Kurucs has been a welcomed revelation for the Brooklyn Nets in their surprisingly win-laden campaign thus far. The Latvian-born baller was once-hyped as high as a potential lottery selection back in early 2017 before withdrawing from that season’s draft. But as his on-court time waned with Barcelona, his stock dropped so harshly that he would’ve likely gone undrafted just one year later if not for previous scouting by the Nets. Thankfully, the Nets snagged Kurucs at No. 40 overall and expected him to play an entire season with Brooklyn’s G League affiliate on Long Island.

Kurucs, of course, had other plans.

Through an aggressive, fast-paced style of play, Kurucs has been a massive bright spot for the Nets through their first 60 games. After an injury bug hit Brooklyn hard, Kurucs joined the starting lineup and the Nets instantly rattled off 13 wins in their next 18 contests. All in all, he’s averaged 8.8 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.9 minutes per game, including a breakout 24-point performance on 5-for-8 from three-point range against the rival Celtics in January. Those unexpected contributions led Kurucs to a well-deserved spot in All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars competition, where the 21-year-old finished with 10 points, five assists and four rebounds — and, most importantly, looked the part.

As of today, Kurucs has outside odds on reaching the 2018-19 All-Rookie Second Team and the playoff-hopeful Nets look infinitely more athletic and modern game-ready with the forward on the floor. Perhaps in the know about Kurucs from the get-go, the Brooklyn gave him a fully guaranteed four-year contract, with a team option on that final season, shortly after he was drafted. In no uncertain terms, Kurucs is one of the biggest victories of the 2018 class so far. Kurucs was cheap, young and ready to chip in from opening night, a rarity from second-rounders with very little overseas achievements.

Which is all to pose one simple question: Who is the next Rodions Kurucs?

In order to answer that, there are three important pieces of criteria to hit upon before creating such a list of candidates. First and foremost, the player must be a projected second-rounder — if he’s locked into a guaranteed contract, that’s not a draft day steal, that’s a commitment. Building on that, the player must be a relative unknown to some extent. For instance, everybody knew Thomas’ name after he averaged 16.8 points and 6.1 assists, led the Huskies to the Pac-10 tournament championship and then the NCAA’s bracket-busting second-round back in 2010-11.

Ultimately, Thomas slipped to No. 60 because of concerns over his height — not because he was under-scouted or off radars altogether.

Finally, the next Kurucs must be a natural fit in today’s NBA landscape. Jokić was a unicorn-in-waiting, whereas Kurucs is a 6-foot-9 uber-athletic floor-runner that can provide on both sides of the ball. If Kurucs adds a consistent three-point shot to his repertoire, something he’s focused on all season long, he’ll be a lock in Brooklyn’s young rotation for the foreseeable future.

With that in mind, here’s a short-list of contenders that could have a Kurucs-level breakout in 2019-20: Abdoulaye N’Doye, Cholet; Brian Bowen, Sydney Kings; and Darius Bazley, USA.

More popular names like Sekou Doumbouya, Luka Šamanić and Goga Bitadze will continue to garner buzz — particularly following the instant adjustments made by Luka Dončić this season — but all three international prospects have been ranked as a potential first-rounder in the early editions of draft boards, so they don’t qualify for now. Which leaves us with three options — one genuine overseas prospect and two Americans with a couple of unique circumstances.

N’Doye is a 6-foot-6 guard from Dunkirk, France, a 21-year-old that sports a strong physical stature already. Coincidently, he’s garnered comparisons to Frank Ntilikina, another French-born defensive-minded and similarly-sized point guard. Although he’s struggled to find his footing under two different head coaches in two years, Ntilikina still went No. 8 overall not too long ago and N’Doye could project on the same wavelength.

For Cholet of the LNB Pro A, N’Doye has averaged 6.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 43.8 percent from three-point range. And for an athlete that puts up a little less than five shots every contest, N’Doye’s jumper looks sturdy, all things considered. Physically, N’Doye frequently appears as if he’s in an entirely different stratosphere against his competition, often using his quick hands and ridiculously adapt wingspan to spring one-man fastbreaks.

Even if it takes a few seasons for the offense to catch up with the rest of his body, envisioning N’Doye as a day one asset on defense doesn’t feel like a major stretch. The French circuit isn’t as competitive as Spain or Turkey, for example, but it’s still the league where Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier and Clint Capela all earned their stripes before heading stateside — in fact, Cholet was the team that birthed the early beginnings of Rudy Gobert from 2010-13.

So N’Doye, capable of moments like this and this, might be somebody worth keeping an eye on through the springtime.

For Brian Bowen, however, his long-winding journey is far from over, it appears.

Bowen, best known for his involvement in Louisville‘s recent scandal, is trying to claw his way back into draft contention. The quick-fire SparkNotes for the uninitiated: After Bowen was deemed ineligible to play for the Cardinals in 2017-18, the talented scorer tried to transfer to the University of South Caroline, where, following a two-semester NCAA transfer sit-out policy, he could begin rebuilding his NBA resume in early 2019. Instead, Bowen declared for the 2018 NBA Draft despite not participating in any collegiate games, went to the combine, didn’t sign an agent and eventually withdrew before the international deadline.

While this move effectively killed any lingering NCAA dreams, it left the G League and overseas route open as well as his NBA Draft eligibility. So, long story short, Bowen then signed with the Sydney Kings of the Australian NBL and has been working there since August in hopes of jumping back on front office radars with a full season of experience under his belt. Bowen may not have become the breakout star the Kings expected, but the 20-year-old has held his own in a decently competitive league.

The 6-foot-7 forward has tallied just 6.5 points and 3.1 rebounds over 28 games for Sydney — still, it’s far too early to give up on Bowen. Remember, it’s only a few years removed from Bowen being ranked as ESPN’s 14th-best high schooler in an absolutely stacked class that once included Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and more.

Or, in other words, if Bowen declares for the 2019 NBA Draft and sticks with it this time, he’s got the makings of a perfect second-round homerun swing.

Lastly, there’s Darius Bazley, perhaps one of the most interesting cases in recent draft memory. Bazley, 18, was a former five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American that originally committed to play for Syracuse in 2018-19. At the last moment, Bazley decided to skip college altogether with plans to head to the G League for a season before jumping to the NBA. Before long, the 6-foot-9 southpaw forewent that intermediary league too, announcing that he’d spend the entire year training for the draft instead. And… that’s pretty much where things stand in early January.

Bazley has some impressive high school-level highlights that exhibit his above-average court-running abilities and slender frame — but, as always, those clips can be incredibly deceiving. For now, Bazley has taken up a million-dollar internship at New Balance but he’ll certainly land somewhere in second round come draft season. Of course, this path is close to that of the New York Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson, a ceilingless rookie that withdrew from Western Kentucky to train in private for the draft just last year. In order to keep the air of mysteriousness surrounding his on-court talents, Robinson dropped out of the NBA Draft Combine as well.

Ultimately, Robinson fell to No. 36th overall, where the Knicks were more than happy to grab the potential-laden center. If Robinson hadn’t missed a 14-game chunk already — and stayed out of foul trouble a bit better — he’d be spoken of as highly as Kurucs has been so far. Of note, over Robinson’s 43 appearances, he’s already brought in 26 multi-block efforts — for a second-rounder, that’s playing with house money. Naturally, Bazley has a tremendous distance to go before he even reaches Robinson territory, but even this path to the NBA has found recent triumphs — he’ll just need to land in the right spot.

Zion Williamson is an otherworldly, once-in-a-generation prospect, just like Luka Dončić was before him. But while fans and general managers deservedly salivate over those teenagers, most franchises must dig far deeper to unearth under-the-radar contributors. Kurucs’ immediate accomplishments will bode well for front offices that continue to do their due diligence on late-round rookies. The Nets’ savviness has landed them a talented youngster at a multi-year cost-controlled price — but now it’s an outcome that the other 29 other teams will all look to replicate come June.

Between now and the NBA Draft, it’s all about uncovering the next Rodions Kurucs or Mitchell Robinson — but who will it be?

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Pacific Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ The Stretch Run by taking a look at the Pacific Division franchises on the playoff bubble.

Matt John

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Well, well, well . . . we’re now entering the home stretch here, people. With the All-Star break nearing its end, the regular season stakes will intensify exponentially. The losses count for far more now than they did a month ago. The playoff seedings are starting to settle a bit and we’re starting to see a playoff bubble in our midst.

With that in mind, Basketball Insiders would like to introduce a new series titled The Stretch Run. In these pieces, we’ll be looking at the teams from each division to evaluate their ever-growing bubble and the chances of reaching the postseason. Keep in mind, of course, that this analysis is based on the standings as of now. Needless to say, a whole bunch can change in the 25-and-change games that are left.

Today we’re diving into the Pacific Division — or, otherwise known as the top-heavy division.

There are other top-heavy divisions in the NBA at the moment — just look at the Central — but the Pacific Division is the much polarizing of them all. The best teams in the division currently sport two of the top three records in the Western Conference. The other three? Unfortunately, they hold three of the four worst records in the Western Conference.

So let’s just get this out of the way: Neither Los Angeles-based team is on the bubble. Barring a major meltdown — which is not likely when you have the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George on your squad — both the Lakers and the Clippers are most definitely making the playoffs.

There’s not much cause for concern since both are expected to make deep postseason runs — although you never know with injuries. At this point, however, the franchises may too deep to worry about breaking down, but it’s still worth mentioning. According to Tankathon as of Feb. 18, the Lakers and Clippers have two of the league’s 10 easiest schedules from here on out, so all that has gone well should end well.

As for their other Pacific Division compatriots, well, those three are obviously in different places.

Just to tie up any loose ends before diving in, the Golden State Warriors are out, too. And they’ve probably been out since the day Stephen Curry broke his hand. To recap: The Warriors have the worst record in the league; currently trail behind Memphis by 16.5 games for the No. 8 seed with 27 contests left; Curry’s not expected back until March at the earliest. Hell, when Klay Thompson will make his season debut? Or, better yet, who knows if Klay Thompson will make his season debut at all?

The postseason boat has sailed for the boys in the Bay Area. After back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back runs to the NBA Finals, the gang needed a chance to catch their breath. If Curry and Thompson both make it back before season’s end, we’ll get a brief glimpse of Golden State’s new big three plus Andrew Wiggins. That doesn’t breed excitement as much as it breeds intrigue.

Thanks to the updated lottery rules, Golden State can compete at full strength without endangering their odds. Even better, don’t forget that high pick in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft. The perennial contenders may have had a downer season but, in the long run, this may have been the best route for them.

Therein lies the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings. Any postseason hopes are dim but all hope is not lost. First off, although both combine for two of the four aforementioned worst records in the conference, take it with a major grain of salt. They are currently No. 12 and No. 13 in the conference but the Suns are behind the Portland Trail Blazers by only three games for ninth, while the Kings lag the Blazers by only half a game more.

The hard part, however, is that Phoenix and Sacramento are both well behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed — 6.5 and 7 games, respectively.

Again, though, all hope is not lost for them. At least, not entirely as the Grizzlies will have the toughest schedule for the rest of the season. Out of their final 28 games, Memphis faces 16 teams over .500, while 18 of them are against tougher Western Conference foes. Getting past them is doable, but they would have to leapfrog Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans in the process.

But who is more likely to complete that feat?

If we’re comparing their strength of schedule, it’s Sacramento. The Kings have the 10th-easiest schedule from here on out. Even though they’re facing 18 Western Conference teams of their own over the last 28 games, only 13 are against those over .500.

Phoenix, by contrast, has the eighth-hardest remaining. They may have fewer games in which they face Western Conference opponents — which could work against them seeing how head-to-head record impacts conference standing — but they also play more teams over .500 than Sacramento (15).

The Suns have a half-game lead over the Kings, but the Kings have an easier path ahead opponent-wise.

Unfortunately for both, the franchise with the easiest schedule for the remainder of the season appears to be the young and frightening New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans are starting to look like the dangerous sleeper we all thought they’d be now that Zion Williamson has arrived.

Sadly, that could spell doom for the Suns’ and Kings’ playoff hopes,

Both teams have been decimated by player absences — and pretty much from the beginning too. Phoenix lost Deandre Ayton literally one game into the year due to a suspension. Sacramento ended up missing De’Aaron Fox for a long stretch because of an early ankle sprain.

And even though those were the most prominent injuries, they’ve dealt with several others as well. Aron Baynes hasn’t played in a month, while it may be a while longer before Richaun Holmes takes the court again. Even Marvin Bagley III has struggled to stay on the court for most of the season.

As for how they compare for how they’ve done, there’s more evidence supporting Phoenix as the better team between the two, but only slightly. Phoenix has both a better point differential — minus-1.2 to minus-2.9 — and net rating — minus-0.9 to minus-2.6 — than Sacramento does. The Suns are not in a league above the Kings in either area, but the statistical differences would show that the former has played marginally better.

In the end, Sacramento entered this season with much higher expectations following the franchise’s most productive effort since 2006. On the other hand, Phoenix came into this season with the same small-level outlook they’ve held for quite some time.

So even though the Suns have exceeded expectations and the Kings have fallen well short, the two sides find themselves virtually tied.

Given the deep holes they’ve dug themselves heading toward March, however, it seems more than likely that the Suns and Kings will be spending the playoffs from their couches.

At this point, both franchises are in a newly-found position of promise but that still does not guarantee a postseason berth. Despite the valiant efforts, Phoenix and Sacramento will have the same closing remark when the season closes out: Better luck next year.

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NBA Daily: In Context: The Elam Ending & The 2019 NBA Finals

The “Elam Ending” brought more excitement to the NBA All-Star Game, but how would it affect games that matter most? Douglas Farmer takes a look at the 2019 NBA Finals through the Elam lens.

Douglas Farmer

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For all those bothered that Sunday’s All-Star Game ended on a free throw, let’s not remind them of the 2019 NBA Finals. Let’s not remember that — with less than a second remaining on the clock — Kawhi Leonard hit three free throws to turn a one-point lead into a four-point victory and a Toronto Raptors-winning championship.

Of course, if the “Elam Ending” had been in place for that Game 6, some different choices would have been made. That disclaimer aside, Leonard’s final free throw gave the Raptors what would likely have been the target score in that hypothetical. In fact, four of the six NBA Finals games ended on the likely target scores, anyway, while the other two never reached it.

Before walking through those scenarios, a quick description of the Elam Ending for those who did not follow Sunday’s exhibition: With a predetermined amount of time remaining, the clock is turned off; the game ends when a team reaches a “target score” established by adding a set number of points to the leading team’s score when the clock turns off. In the All-Star Game, the clock turned off for the entire fourth quarter, adding 24 points — a Kobe Bryant tribute — to the leading team’s score. For a more practical setting, it would be far less time and far fewer points.

Developed by a University of Dayton professor, Nick Elam, the well-named Elam Ending — which has been featured in the enormously-popular The Basketball Tournament over the last few years — adds eight points to the leading score at the first dead ball after the four-minute mark. If used in the NBA, Elam has suggested adding seven points at the last media timeout, coming at the first dead ball after the three-minute mark.

His rationale for seven stems from dividing typical full-game scoring rates by 16, but that fails to factor in late-game urgency and the inherent skewing to such a sample size. In short, the first three minutes will have less average scoring than the last three minutes simply because a bucket at the 2:59 mark is more likely than one a second into the game, not to mention a shot at 0:01 is more likely than one at 9:01.

Thus, many have settled on eight — potentially another Kobe Bryant tribute — as the likely additional number if ever considered in the NBA. While the ending intends to remove any logic to intentionally fouling in late-game situations and thus preserving a truer state of the game we love, its effects go much further into strategy, lineup rotations and redefining the idea of “clutch.”

What it does not do, however, is shorten the game, at least in terms of points, as many incorrectly assume it does. Consider last year’s NBA Finals …

GAME 1: Raptors win, 118-109
First off, if we are to use the All-Star Game version of this drama-inducing ending, only two of the six Finals games would have reached the third quarter-dependent target score. Playoff games grind through the fourth quarter — but again, that was a gimmick for the exhibition contest. Any practical usage would have included a shorter ending.

The first dead ball after the three-minute mark in Game 1 came at the 2:35 mark with the Raptors leading 110-101, just after a Stephen Curry three-point play. Adding eight points to that 110 gives the final winning total, a number reached when Toronto guard Kyle Lowry hit a 28-foot three-pointer with 30 seconds left. At that point, it was essentially considered icing on the cake, turning a 115-106 lead into a 12-point margin — but in this theoretical, it would have been the game-winning shot.

Any 28-footer is dramatic, but that would have been quite the scene to start the Finals.

GAME 2: Warriors win, 109-104 
The final minutes of this became a slog, so a more inspired conclusion would have been appreciated by all. A total of 3:18 passed between buckets from the 4:26 mark to the 1:08, keeping the score at 106-98 at the needed dead ball. Golden State added only an Andre Iguodala three-pointer with seven seconds remaining to stymie a Toronto charge that would’ve brought them within two. If the Warriors had needed to get to 114, it seems borderline-likely the Raptors would have pulled off the win and swept the series, considering that those were the only points Golden State scored in the final 5:39.

GAME 3: Raptors win, 123-109
Toronto led 115-103 at the last media timeout, while a Marc Gasol three made it 121-107 with 1:07 left before a Pascal Siakam layup reached the possible target score with a 14-point lead. Golden State was not coming back, so an Elam Ending would have at least expedited the ending. Jacob Evans may have been most appreciative of that as he missed two field-goal attempts after Siakam’s decisive points. Regardless, not much in the way of drama here.

GAME 4: Raptors win, 105-92
Again, it is hard to envision the Elam Ending changing much about this game — even with the inherent strategic shifts to it. Toronto led 99-89 with 2:48 left, but neither team exactly stressed in the final minutes. Curry turned a three-point play and the Raptors hit a trio of mid-range jumpers. Toronto did not reach the presumed 107 target score, but another mid-range shot from Siakam — who hit two of the aforementioned three — would not have taken long, and Golden State would not have rattled off 15 points before he hit it.

Both in real life and in this exercise, this blowout was the point in the series everyone began to realize what the Raptors really were about to do.

GAME 5: Raptors win, 106-105 
As much as the Elam Ending was designed to eliminate an influx of free throws, it also puts an impetus on making shots. That might not sound revolutionary but, as often as not, games are determined by misses. Toronto led Game 5 by a score of 103-97 at the 2:59 mark when Draymond Green fouled Leonard. From that point on, the Raptors went 1-of-6 from the field.

Sure, Golden State hit a trio of three-pointers to take the lead and the game, while the Raptors struggled to get the ball anywhere near the hoop. But as impressive as the Warriors’ barrage was, wouldn’t everyone have preferred Curry or Klay Thompson to hit two more and break 111?

GAME 6: Raptors win, 114-110, and clinch the series
Here is where the Elam Ending would have provided a championship-worthy moment. In literal terms, Leonard’s three free throws with hardly any time remaining gave Toronto the 114 target score necessitated by a 106-101 lead at the 2:49 mark. For practicality, Golden State probably would not have melted down with back-to-back technical and personal fouls when they collectively realized a full-court, miracle three-pointer would be needed to win the game.

Instead, Iguodala would not have fouled Leonard at all — let alone earned the technical. The Raptors would have clung to a one-point lead, needing just three more to win the title.

The Elam Ending does not bring about the end of the game any faster in basketball terms — in real-time, though, the dearth of fouls unquestionably speeds things up — but it largely brings the dramatic moments we remember.

Of course, Anthony Davis’ clinching free throw was not all that abnormal. 

Still, in the context of a recently-thrilling NBA Finals, it’s easy to see why the Elam Ending has people hyped to talk about basketball nuances again — naturally, however, it does not guarantee drama.

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NBA Daily: Russell Westbrook — Full Throttle

When Houston traded for Russell Westbrook last summer, they had to embrace him, warts and all. Matt John goes into what the Rockets have done to achieve just that and how their most recent deals could net them the most efficient Westbrook they could’ve hoped for.

Matt John

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Russell Westbrook doesn’t care what you call him, whether a high-usage, low-efficiency chucker, an anti-spacer that clogs the lane, or an empty stat-chaser. To Westbrook, it’s all the same: noise, especially if you are focused on Basketball Betting.

And, no matter what you may think of him, nothing is stopping Westbrook from playing at his own pace: fast (to say the least).

Westbrook’s style is so lively, so twitchy, that it’s hard not to it in just about everything he does on the court. While it’s certainly contributed to many of his flaws, the aggression he’s played with, the bounce in his step, has helped him rack up the accolades and eye-popping stats that he has throughout his career.

As a basketball player, Westbrook is the quintessential perfect storm; a tornado of fire, accolades and counting stats.

But because his warts — his sans-Kevin Durant postseason success, his paltry shooting numbers (particularly this season) — are as obvious as his talent, nobody seemed enthralled when it was announced that Westbrook was set to rejoin James Harden, this time with the Houston Rockets. Dating back to Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal in 2010, there has arguably never been as little fanfare concerning two former MVPs joining forces.

There was one silver lining, however: in his new home, Westbrook would be surrounded by shooters. Better yet, shooters that would prove consistently reliable on the defensive end. In Houston, Westbrook wouldn’t have to be Mr. Do It All. But would it be enough?

No was the early, and loud, return. Through the season’s first two months, the Rockets were 23-11, a strong record, no doubt. But fans couldn’t help but wonder if Westbrook had helped, or hurt, their cause. By New Year’s Eve, Houston was plus-3.9 with Westbrook on the floor, but were somehow better — plus9.5 — with him off.

The Rockets may have managed with Westbrook, but he wasn’t making them better. Of course, in that time, Westbrook had carried his weight as Houston’s no. 2 — 24.2 points and 7.1 assists — but his efficiency was as bad as it had ever been, if not worse. His 43/23/80 splits, while also coughing the ball up 4.4 times a game, had Rockets fans in shambles, the 23 percent from three-point range especially glaring as Westbrook was taking nearly five a game.

Making matters worse, Chris Paul, whom Daryl Morey traded for Westbrook, was not-so-quietly having his healthiest, most productive season since 2016 with the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. On top of Westbrook’s struggles, Paul’s resurgence made it seem as if Morey had made a terrible mistake.

But, Westbrook seemed to turn a corner in the new year. In January, he averaged 32.5 points on 52/25/76 splits, while the Rockets were plus-2.5 with him on the court and minus-0.9 with him off. While that was an improvement, Houston went 7-7, though Westbrook missed four of those games. Even if he was technically better, he still served as the scapegoat.

Something was holding both the Rockets and Westbrook back.

That something, in Westbook’s case, was the Rockets. Morey and Co. had asked Westbrook to play their style, which meant spot-up threes — not exactly Westbrook’s forte — and a slower pace. In essence, it was the complete antithesis of Westbrook. In time, it became clear that, if Morey’s experiment was ever going to work, Houston would have to adapt to Westbrook, not the other way around.

And, because Morey would do anything and everything in his power to win, the Rockets did just that. By trading Clint Capela, who, while a young, proven and still promising big, was a poor fit with Westbrook, for Robert Covington, Houston embraced small-ball and, in turn, embraced Westbrook’s ability and game to the fullest extent.

Relying on Covington, Danuel House Jr and PJ Tucker to hold their own against much bigger frontcourts will be an interesting sight come playoff time. And trading Capela — a young, high-upside and cost-controlled big — is certainly a gamble. But this version of the Rockets may arguably be the closest thing we ever see to the “perfect team” around Westbrook, and it may just be Houston’s best bet to win a title.

Now, the lane is completely free. Westbrook will be playing with shooters virtually non-stop. That means fewer threes on his part, driving to the basket with no one to get in his way, opening up more room for those shooters. And, while Westbrook’s perfect team does not equate to the perfect team period, it could equate to a deeper playoff run.

Since Houston’s shift, the returns have been promising. Post-Capela (his last appearance was Jan. 29), Houston has played six games and gone 4-2. And, minus their stinker against Phoenix, another game in which Westbrook did not play, each of those games has provided ample proof that an entire small-ball squad can be viable. Houston came out the victor against two of the best teams in the NBA this season, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, and another team with plenty of size, the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Rockets have also averaged 115.9 points per game, while Westbrook has led the team with 34 points per game and shot 51.5 percent from the field. So, in other words, he’s being efficient. Just don’t ask about his three-point shooting.

A “sample size” disclaimer will probably haunt the Rockets between now and the postseason, but the headline here is that thus far, it’s working. It’s not all because of Westbrook — through this stretch, Houston has been a plus-0.9 when Westbrook’s hit the bench — but he’s not hurting them as he did before.

In due time, we’ll see if Morey’s latest experimental maneuvering will pay off. But it’s clear that, if they go down, they’ll go down with Westbrook, rather than against him. They’ll be confident for sure, because, come the postseason, Westbrook will hit the court as he always has: full throttle.

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